Every few weeks, someone asks me "When did green technology begin?"
Technically, it started around 2000 B.C. when the Egyptians began todesign buildings with passive air conditioning. The Roman EmperorVarius Avitus followed by having snow brought from the mountains tocool his palace, thereby kicking off a craze for ice-powered air conditioners. He’s often ranked as the worst emperor but for other reasons. The 19th Century experienced a burst of alternative energy activity, particularly in France. In 1839, Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effectwhile experimenting with an electrolyte cell, paving the way for thefirst silicon solar cell, made at Bell Labs, in 1954. In 1860, AugustMouchet proposed the idea of solar-powered steam engines. In 1859, athird Frenchman, Gaston Plante, invented the lead acid battery anddemonstrated it at the French Academy of Sciences a year later.
In the 1970s, Japan, Denmark and others decided to invest in solar,biomass, wind and other technologies to wean themselves from fossilfuels. In some countries like the U.S. the effort sputtered a few yearslater.
But the current wave we’re living in can be traced back to 2001.Consider these historical tidbits in sometimes chronological order:
1. In January 2001, then California Governor Gray Davis declares a state of emergency because of rolling power blackouts. Enron, rightly, gets the blame and implodes. In February 2001 Enron’s Ken Laygives the hot set to Jeff Skillings. Inadvertently, all three menbecome green Hall of Famers for what happens next. Davis gets recalledand replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who subsequently helps installone of the most ambitious green programs in the world and renewedinterest in one-liners from "The Terminator."
2. Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers invests $750,000 of his own money into a struggling outfit called SunPowerafter nearly everyone else in Silicon Valley, including Cypress’ board,turned the company down. SunPower holds a successful IPO in 2005 andRodgers investment, which eventually got bought by SunPower, eventuallyturns into $2.5 billion.
3. Bloom Energy,which has created a futuristic fuel cell that can generate heat,electricity and even oxygen for submarine crews or people trapped inbuildings, is founded. An early investor and board member is T.J.Rodgers, who can also rightly claim to be Silicon Valley’s first andmost successful green tech investor. Side note: Rodgers is afundamental free marketer and opposes federal subsidies, includingsubsidies for scientific research. Both SunPower and Bloom, however,depend on federal and state tax credits and other subsidies to woocustomers. Consistency isn’t everything, kids, but at least he admitsit.
Bloom also puts the world on notice that green isn’t cheap: over$400 million has been invested in the company and sales have only justbegun.
4. Suntech Power Holdings is founded by a Chinese professor named Zhengrong Shi from the University of South Wales in Australiain September 2001. Again, traditional VCs don’t pay attention: theprimary early investor is China’s Communist Party. Suntech, based inWuxi, goes public in 2005 and now jostles with First Solar for the topspot in the solar market. Suntech marked China’s entry into solar andin the process the company becomes one of the first brand names to comeout of China.
5. Tim Healy and David Brewster from the Tuck School of Business atDartmouth found EnerNoc, which wants to sell demand response services.VCs initially balk: why do utilities need a third party like EnerNoc tocurb power demand at factories in the middle of the afternoon? A fewyears later, Foundation Capital puts money into the company and EnerNocgoes on to hold a successful IPO. Demand response services become anindustry.
6. GreenFuel Technologies is founded. The company, spun out ofresearch at Harvard and MIT, proposed making biofuel from algae andcapturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks. The company helps establishalgae as a potential biofuel source. GreenFuel raises $79 million butgoes under in 2008, setting what could be an ominous trend for nobleand expensive failures.
7. General Electric starts sniffing around green and announces in February 2002 that it will buy the wind division of bankrupt Enron (see above). From those ashes, GE goes onto become one of the biggest wind turbine manufacturers in the world.
8. Consulting firm Clean Edgepredicts that the market for clean energy-fuel cells, solar panels,turbines will grow from $7 billion in 2000 to over $82 billion in 2010while the clean vehicle market will go from $2 billion to $48 billion.Only a few pay attention. The prediction turns out to be somewhatclose. (In 2007, the firm says green tech came to $77.3 billion.) By2017, it says the market will be $254.5 billion.
9. Konarka, a company specializing in solar dyes and otherfuturistic solar technologies, gets founded. Despite hoovering in over$170 million from investors and government agencies, its technologiesare still moving toward full-scale production. It’s a trendsetter inthe having a really, really long runway department. But there are lengthier ones: wave power specialist Pelamis got started in 1998.
10. PatGelsinger then an Intel exec tells an audience at an engineeringconference that computer processors will put as much heat,proportionally, as nuclear reactors by 2015. Intel, among others,ramp up efforts to cool off chips so computers won’t melt. As powerprices climb, cooler chips start to get marketed as a way to saveenergy and money. It marks the beginning of the accidentally greenmovement, which has surprisingly become large.
And the fun continued in 2002. In that year, First Solar shipped itsfirst cadmium telluride solar cells, a technology others had tried butstopped pursuing. First Solar goes onto become one of the largestmanufacturers in the world. NanoSolar, which specializes in copperindium gallium selenide solar cells, is founded, and AC Propulsionfounder Tom Gage tells a then unemployed entrepreneur he’s notinterested in making electric sports cars. Gage, though, gives him thenumber of another guy who asked Gage the same thing. Martin Eberhardcontacts Elon Musk. The two go on to found Tesla Motors and author oneof Silicon Valley’s best love stories ever.