Silicon Valley: Clean Tech’s New Capital?

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Tech titans are leading Silicon Valley's clean tech revolution

California’s Silicon Valley is known for launching the Internet revolution, but the region has also become the epicenter of America’s clean tech industry. Billions of dollars in venture capital funding to energy-related companies has helped the region weather the economic downturn by growing green jobs 109 percent over the last decade.

energyNOW! correspondent Lee Patrick Sullivan visited Silicon Valley to find out how the region’s shift toward clean energy is empowering tech-savvy workers and entrepreneurs to take charge of America’s energy future. To watch the full segment, click the video below.

Technology companies like Google and Apple have long been the anchor of Silicon Valley’s economy, and the region a magnet for venture capital funding from investors hoping to find the next big tech breakthrough. But when the tech bubble burst in 2000, many software engineers and entrepreneurs were left looking for a new industry to apply their talents.

A look at the balance sheet reveals just how much the balance of funding has shifted in the past decade. In 2001, clean energy firms only attracted 0.9 percent of all Silicon Valley venture capital funding. But in 2010, that number jumped to 19.6 percent of the total $9.1 billion dollars flowing into the region, according to the Nation Venture Capital Association.

Increased funding and an influx of experienced tech workers have positioned the region to lead America into the clean energy revolution. “This is going to be a place where America’s energy future is invented,” said Russell Hancock, head of the nonprofit business group Joint Venture.

But the motivation for switching to renewables isn’t just about dollar signs for many of the new clean tech workers. “Here, actually, it is something that is tangible – it is green,” said Laks Sampath, a software programmer and solar entrepreneur who built one of the first-ever solar energy monitoring systems. “You’re putting together something that is worth your while. That’s what I love about the industry.”

Sampath’s solar monitoring system was installed on a 468-kilowatt solar array at a local water treatment plant, and is expected to save the plant more than $2 million dollars in energy costs over the next decade.

Lessons from the dot com boom may help the industry weather economic uncertainty, says Hancock. “Silicon Valley is really a maverick kind of place,” said Hancock. “Lots of libertarian thinkers here, cowboy entrepreneurs.” One such example is Solyndra, which pioneered solar arrays that use lightweight round tubes to harvest reflective sunlight from rooftops instead of panels that need automation to achieve high efficiency.

One key to long-term industry success is self-sustainability, especially in light of partisan disagreement over clean energy funding in Washington, D.C. Tech titans like Google have pledged hundreds of millions in funding to renewable start-ups — important when federal funding is under scrutiny, as in the case of the House Republican investigation into the half-billion dollar loan guarantee Solyndra received in 2010.

But sustaining the momentum also means creating long-lasting green jobs, and increased renewable manufacturing has brought with it job training programs. “This is how renewable energy is going to happen,” said Chuck Rames, Director of Boots on the Roof, a program that trains blue-collar workers to install and maintain solar panels, geothermal systems, and wind turbines. “Working men and women are going to need to install these things on millions of homes in America.”

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