Is green energy our new plastics industry?

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By Elisa Wood

December 17, 2009

If The Graduate were written today, Mr. McGuire’s career tip to Benjamin probably would have been “green,” rather than “plastics.”  But it’s likely Benjamin would have responded in the same quizzical way: “Just how do you mean that, sir?”

It was difficult to envision the vast number of new products, businesses and careers that would emerge from the plastics industry following World War II. The same is true for the green energy industry today.  A report issued December 16 by PricewaterhouseCoopers sheds some light.

To know where the business opportunities will be, watch the unusual alliances forming among industries, according to “Cleantech Revolution: Building Smart Infrastructures.” We see hints already as automakers, utilities, battery makers and communications providers ally in preparation for an expected $165 billion smart grid build-out. The report cites several examples, among them:

  • Nissan’s partnership with San Diego Gas & Electric to build electric vehicle charging stations
  • Echelon and T-Mobile’s deal to create wireless networks connecting utilities to smart meters
  • Cisco assisting Duke Energy in building a smart grid

“As the build-out gains traction, it has the potential to support a proliferation of new businesses across sectors, much like the evolution of both the semiconductor industry and the Internet,” says Tim Carey, PWC U.S. clean technology leader.

Don’t be surprised, says the report, to see a national retail store chain partner with an electric battery maker to install charging stations nationwide for plug-in electric vehicles. A new wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions also could be in the cards.  The opportunities are vast, especially when you consider the size of the smart grid. The US has 160 million households awaiting installation of smart meters. These new devices will require changes in the way we operate our electrical infrastructure, which encompasses 3,100 utilities, 10,000 power plants, 5,600 distributed energy facilities and 157,000 miles of high voltage transmission wires, says the report. How many better mousetraps can a system of this size support? More than we can imagine.

The clean technology, boom, however, depends heavily on consumer acceptance. If consumers find smart meters too complicated or plug-in hybrids unreliable, the game is over.  To avoid this problem, organizations like the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy are focusing on understanding customer motivation.

Use of smart grid technologies must become “pervasive and ingrained,” says the PWC report.  Sunil Sharan, of the Center for American Progress, sees the smart meter becoming like the Blackberry, “with all sorts of applications.” Indeed, energy industry insiders often describe the next game changer – whatever it will be – as the cell phone of energy.  But given how integral electricity is to our everyday lives, clean technologies need to become everyman products. Out of the corporate alliances, the mergers, the breakthroughs and the investment deals, maybe it’s not energy’s cell phone that will make fortunes, but its plastic wrap.

Visit Elisa Wood at and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of and She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.