Clean Tech and the Art of Long-Term Thinking

(by Ron Pernick) - Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, when I lived and worked in Japan, I spent time studying and practicing Zen meditation at a
Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Nara. One thing I learned in my
meditation practice, and in my work with such large Japanese
corporations as Sharp and Osaka Gas & Electric, was the art of
long-term thinking.

Some people call this “thinking like a mountain,” and I believe it
should be a key tenet for companies, governments, investors, and
others striving for clean-tech success. The general idea is that
significant monumental shifts rarely happen in days or weeks, but
take years or decades to materialize. In this world view, it takes
the perspective of a mountain – something that has been around for
millennia – to put human activity and aspirations, and natural
systems, into perspective.

In our just-released book, href=”” target=”new”>The
Clean Tech Revolution
coauthor Clint Wilder and I discuss why clean-tech markets are
finally – after years of pioneering efforts – hitting their stride,
building momentum, and, most importantly, going mainstream. We show
how clean tech is penetrating both Wall Street and Main Street. We
argue that clean technology will have decades-long staying power and
that it offers the greatest opportunity for wealth creation in a

The global energy industry provides a great example of the need for
long-term thinking. It took coal nearly 100 years to bypass
traditional energy sources (such as the burning of wood) as the
world’s primary energy source. It then took oil nearly 100 years to
surpass coal usage. Natural gas has been more than 100 years in
development and now represents about 20% of global primary energy
use. Similarly, it will take new renewables, such as wind, solar,
and biofuels, 10, 20, or 30 years to catch up with coal, oil, and
natural gas. That’s the reality of energy markets and one of the
reasons why long-term thinking is so critical in the realm of clean

But herein lies the opportunity. The clean tech revolution is
actually already 30 to 50 years in the making; the first conversion
of sunlight to electricity in a solar PV cell, for example, took
place at Bell Labs in 1954 and the first large-scale wind farms now
date back nearly 30 years.

Unlike the Internet, which went through a rapid boom-and-bust cycle –
a classic bubble – the transition to new energy, transportation,
advanced materials, and water technologies will look more like a
long boom. To be sure, there will be occasional irrational
exuberance and some highly-touted and promising companies will fail.
But with the right combination of policy, capital, and technology,
the exploding global market for clean tech will not abate anytime

Clean Edge recently conducted research on what it would take, from a
venture, project, and capital investment perspective, to wean the
U.S. off of Middle East Oil. Our analysis found that it would
require spending at least $15 billion/year on clean-energy and
efficiency technologies over a ten-year period. Such an investment
could result in replacing 25 billion gallons per year of gasoline by
2018 – the equivalent of today’s imports of Middle East oil.

Globally, over the next 25 years, the world will need to produce 10 
to 30 terawatts of new energy. Some people have pointed out that, to
meet these demands, it will be like adding the equivalent of 100 new
ExxonMobil-sized companies to the economy. Indeed, future Carnegies,
Rockefellers, and Mellons will likely come from such clean-tech
industries as wind power, solar photovoltaics, biofuels and
biopolymers, rather than the extractive, resource-depleting,
polluting industries of old.

Leading Japanese companies have understood and embraced the concept
of long-term thinking better than most of their global corporate
counterparts. As hard as it might be for most quarterly-driven
companies to fathom, Toyota and other Japanese firms have 10-, 50-
and even 100-year strategic business plans. That’s why a Toyota can
plan decades ahead to be the world’s hybrid leader and Sharp can
focus for decades on solar domination – and both can achieve such
lofty goals.

And others are following suit. In href=”” target=”new”>The
Clean Tech Revolution

we profile such multinationals as 3M, ADM, Applied Materials,
DuPont, FPL Energy, GE, Iberdrola, and Wal-Mart that are taking
leadership positions in this technological renaissance. We look at
startups such as GridPoint, Imperium Renewables, Sun Edison and
Suzlon, that are embracing new models and creating vibrant

A look at the business news headlines over the past couple of months
provides a further glimpse into this transition. Goldman Sachs
announced the sale of its Horizon Wind Energy development group to
Portugal-based EDP for more than U.S. $2 billion. Tyson Foods and
Conoco Philips say they are pairing up to take animal fats and turn
them into biodiesel. SolarWorld and Vestas, two global leaders in
solar and wind respectively, announced plans to develop multi-
million dollar production facilities in the U.S.

Governments and NGOs are playing a central role as well. With
cities, states, and nations around the globe planning to generate at
least 20% to 30% of their total energy from clean-energy sources
within the next decade or two, and with billions of people still in
need of potable water and reliable electricity in the developing
world, clean tech will be a dominant force well into the 21st

This is why clean tech represents the biggest win-win opportunity of
an era and why long-term thinking will be a critical tool for those
participating in this massive industrial transformation. We believe
that nothing less than the future health of our collective economies
and environment depends upon it.


Ron Pernick is cofounder and principal of Clean Edge, Inc. and
coauthor of target=”new”>The Clean Tech Revolution.

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