New York City -- The stock market's relatively easy acceptance of the GM bankruptcy -- vastly improved at the last minute by a deal with bondholders to permit a pre-packaged filing so that the bankruptcy is more likely to move quickly-- provides yet another indication that the economy may finally be on the mend. Green shoots have been increasingly evident in the technology world with the successful IPO of OpenTable.com in the last week which experienced a pop reminiscent of the dot com boom, a $200 million round of financing for Facebook from a Russian mogul and the decision of Daimler Benz to take a 10% stake in Tesla, maker of the sleek, all-electric Tesla sports car.
Within the technology world, clean technology is now the third largest category of investment after life sciences and software, and according to some of the most savvy investors in Silicon Valley, the hottest category. It is the newest large sector and therefore, presumptively, the one with the greatest promise. The Obama Administration heeded this wisdom in including about $40 billion of money to modernize the grid in the ARRA bill as I and others have advocated. Improving the grid is not only vital to the deployment of renewables but also promises to reinvent the electricity industry itself. Given all the money flooding into smart grid investments and the grid generally, an interesting question at this juncture, therefore, is with the economy looking better, just how are utilities and technology companies in the clean energy sector faring? The answer is mixed.
According to Marketwatch.com, which recently surveyed the sub-sector, utility shares are actually down 9.4% this year (in contrast to the broader market which is roughly even). Small and mid-cap firms have done better. But, it turns out that most of the government money slated for grid investments is still awaiting deployment. The reasons are varied but should not surprise anyone familiar with the pace of government and the regulated nature of the energy sector. Tesla, as one example, has been waiting for years to tap Department of Energy loan guarantees included in the 2007 Energy Act to build a cheaper, sedan version of its electric car. The DOE has yet to release any loans under the program due to back and forth between it and the Office of Management and Budget over rules. DOE Secretary Chu has made accelerating the availability of this money a key priority but even he has to wait for the wheels of government to turn.
The impact of the other key piece of the stimulus package, tax incentives, has yet to be felt on a large scale because rules and regs are still being developed and companies do not yet fully know how incentives relate to older rules on depreciation of assets. Smart grid projects, in particular a grant program at DOE for smart grid technology deployment, are at the center of the Administration's clean infrastructure policy. However, before most utilities are comfortable making large investments in the smart grid, they first need clarification on standards. The reason? Investing in the wrong standard can make an investment instantly obsolete.
Standards normally evolve gradually over a long time even in the computer world. To solve the standards issue, Secretaries Chu and Locke have begun a full court press to accelerate agreement among utilities, equipment makers and builders of software. At NDN, we have been making the case that smart grid standards should be as open as possible. Only by opening up the playing field to as many players as possible can we secure the maximum level of innovation. And innovation is what is needed to solve America and the world's energy and climate challenges.
Clean energy technologies clearly have the potential to be a huge engine of economic growth in coming years and decades. However, for clean technology to make good on that promise and justify the President's faith and commitments, we need to move at the speed of technology.
Two things can help America make good on the clean energy opportunity. First, standards that open up the grid to many players and allow people -- including producers of renewables and ancillary services -- to enter the market easily without having to wade through government red tape or regulation will go a long way to
accelerate innovation and the ensuing economic activity. In other words, set the standard and then let the parties innovate and compete. Open standards are particularly important in an industry as regulated and traditionally sleepy as that of electric power if we are to turn it into a field of innovation.
Second, it is time to re-examine the extraordinarily complex structure of electricity regulation itself. Regulation should be as streamlined and efficient as is consistent with safety and security. Markets should be employed where practical to place everyone on an equal footing. The work of electricity reform begun in the 1990s remains unfinished.
These may seem like immense challenges. But ultimately, if we are to capture this economic opportunity, we need to create rules and systems to allow innovation to flourish. I am confident that America will.