A Focus on Energy Efficiency Will Help Keep The U.S. Competitive, and Other Cleantech Industry Predictions for 2011

Foreign competition is rising, and U.S. consumers haven’t departed from their penny-pinching mentality of The Great Recession, and behind this double whammy the cleantech industry is feeling the squeeze. That’s one of the big impressions I came away with after polling a crop of cleantech experts from Xconomy’s network of advisors and op-ed contributors for their predictions for 2011. But take heart; there’s plenty of room for optimism, especially in the fields of energy efficiency and monitoring, where the U.S. may be leading the way to a greener future that’s much more achievable—at least in the short term—than through any form of alternative energy.

One sub-theme was pretty overwhelming among the responses I received: the actual materials manufacturing side of cleantech (i.e. the production of components for generating solar and wind energy, efficient batteries, and LED chips) is struggling, but energy-focused software and services are rising to the occasion. A number of Xconomists and contributors have pointed out that the U.S. cleantech manufacturing base is weakening due to competition from countries like China, which offer cheaper production and strong government incentives (or mandates) for adopting the new technology.

“It’s a rapidly commoditizing good,” Ray Demeo, VP of worldwide sales at Marlborough, MA-based Coolcentric, says of solar equipment. “The price that China can produce the product at is lower than U.S. manufacturers.”

Additionally, consumers and investors are nervous about spending upfront on things like efficient appliances, electric vehicles, or solar power, to get cleaner sources of energy into their homes (or cars), and would rather find ways to save. Makes enough sense. That’s actually the silver lining for the cleantech space, though, several experts say.

“The fundamental business proposition is we will go in and evaluate some aspect of your energy utilization and we will cut your cost—-I won’t be surprised to see those kinds of business models continue to thrive,” says Tom Ranken, president and CEO of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance. “Ten to 15 years from now, people might be slapping themselves upside the head saying, ‘how did I miss that?'”

Here’s a roundup of some specific predictions we gathered from our network of cities:

—Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology and a professor in UC San Diego’s Department of Molecular Biology, said we can expect to see a slew of biofuels advances this year:

  • The first synthetic algal genome.
  • The first significant scale-up of

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