Clean energy technologies regained momentum in 2014. Solar power made a comeback after essentially lying dormant for several years after the Solyndra scandal. The EPA finally made a move toward decreasing carbon emissions, and the US and China both committed to renewable energy efforts. Big data and IoT startups are tackling environmental issues, and the market is wide open for cleantech startups to make big impacts.
Here are 10 reasons cleantech made a comeback in 2014, and could continue the momentum next year.
1. Big data obsessions
Everyone loves to talk about big data. This year, startups have been trying to capitalize on big data's role in environmental efforts, and it's working. For instance, IBM's nonprofit, Corporate Services Corp, is integrating a cloud-based application developed by the Nature Conservancy to help with remote internet access and streamlining field data for environmental managers. Other examples include Mapdwell, a big data mapping tool that shows where in cities solar rooftops would be most efficient, and sensors and software analytics that monitor farming operations and the way climate change is affecting them.
2. Falling prices in solar market
Rooftop solar panels have really always been marketed to eco-friendly, wealthy communities. And that's mostly where they've stayed. But this year, the prices of solar panels have dropped as technologies improve and more financing solutions have become available. In some areas, solar has almost reached parity with grid power, and according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, solar rooftop prices have dropped about 70% in the last 15 years.
Crowdfunding projects put the power in the hands of the people, and it has been effective for renewable energy. There are quite a few startups focused on this exact idea, including Divvy, Mosaic, and others — most are based in California but are looking to expand to broader markets. Crowdfunding also allows people who don't have space to put their own solar panels on their roof to fund other projects and people who can host the technology. This new model has the potential to change the way the utility industry works.
4. Tech companies pledging
Big tech companies have committed to using renewable energy, and that has a big effect on the public that puts a lot of trust in them. For instance, Apple and Google both committed to 100% renewables to power their data centers, and other companies like Salesforce and Rackspace are following suit.
Several tech companies have stopped funding the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which also sent a message to climate deniers. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, said "they're just literally lying" about ALEC in an interview with NPR.
5. Next-gen batteries
Batteries for renewable energy storage have become much more advanced in recent years. Startups around the world have been working on new kinds of batteries, from lithium ion to vanadium flow to zinc-based, sodium-aqueous, and liquid-metal. This innovation is great news because storage and transmission has been one of the biggest setbacks for the industry. In 2013, renewable energy accounted for only 10% of total US energy usage and 13% of electricity generation, according to the US Energy and Information Administration. But by 2020, the smart grid energy storage sector is expected to grow to $50 billion by 2020, according to Lux Research — which could significantly propel the industry forward.
6. Elon Musk
Let's be honest — this guy has a lot to do with the excitement over clean energy in 2014. Tesla Motors plans to sell 500,000 electric vehicles a year by 2020. Elon Musk also announced an infinite mile warranty for the Model S, showcasing his commitment to long-term development of EV technology. He opened up the patents for Tesla to encourage innovation and standards in EV charging, and he is trying to manufacture solar panels on a larger scale. It was a big year for him, which means it was a big year for cleantech.
7. Smart thermostats
Early this year, Nest Labs was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion. The startup made its entrance into tech by developing "smart" home thermostats and smoke detectors that can program themselves and connect to smartphones. The acquisition sparked conversations about connected devices managing the energy usage in homes and businesses, and now the sector is saturated with startups tackling similar issues for water and energy usage.
8. China's work toward renewables
This year, China made news for being the world's largest producer of solar panels. Of course, there were some bad moments, like when China was accused of illegally dumping low-cost solar panels in the US market, but more broadly speaking, the country has really tried to clean up its act after receiving flack about its ridiculously excessive coal burning. China is the top producer of carbon emissions. But the US and China are now working together toward renewable energy; the two countries jointly announced a deal last month to cut carbon emissions. China's goal is to peak around 2030 — but it is trying to peak early — and boost its renewable energy generation to 20%.
Solar leasing has become a popular option for people wanting to invest in solar. A great example is SolarCity, which recently launched its solar leasing program. The company takes care of the installation and management, and you pay them about as much as you would pay for your traditional grid power.
Rebates and tax credits have played a big role in the growth of renewables, as well. Some examples are tax credits for building manufacturing facilities for renewable energy technologies; reimbursements for setting up projects, and tax credits and loan guarantees from the Department of Energy.
10. EPA regulations
The EPA's introduction of the Clean Power Plan in June started a lot of conversations about carbon regulations and renewable energy. The goal is to cut power sector emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to create state-level regulations as well. According to Greentech Media, the EPA has 1.6 million comments to read through about its standards. Though the regulations haven't changed anything in reality, they do — in conjunction with the recent US/China agreement — set the stage for the government to actually address greenhouse gas emissions.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.