Nicholas Parker on seizing the clean tech revolution

Nicholas Parker, the Executive Chairman of the Cleantech Group, spoke at BCTIA’s Clean Tech luncheon, held at the Sutton Place in downtown Vancouver. His talk revolved around “clean tech in an Obama world,” which he characterized as toxic assets in a toxic world.

Parker said we’re facing a “triple whammy”, given the financial crisis, the ecological crisis and real concerns about security (in terms of jobs, food and political stability.) The biggest gap in history between the haves and have nots is a driver of instability, he said, and we’ll now have to deal with all these factors together. North America is sucking out the remaining liquidity in the global economic system in order to reboot it, he said, but the global consensus on economic operating principles is falling apart.

But the good news, Parker said, is that there’s massive job and wealth creation opportunities to be reaped from these crises. A more than two per cent rise in global temperatures is inevitable, with a four to five degree rise a serious possibility. Even if we can deal with this, we’re also in “ecological overshoot,” which translates essentially to similar behaviour as what we’ve seen in the financial markets. People are, ecologically speaking, living beyond their means. And we’re wasting a huge amount of energy, through output and consumption (light bulbs being a prime example of inefficiency).

But the good news, he said, is that we now have the technology (if not the business models, yet) to address these problems. Cleantech is the overall term for this technology, and it encompasses everything we produce and consume. IT is a huge part of cleantech, because embedded intelligence is going into every device, which will allow us to produce and use products much more efficiently. The Cleantech Group also tracks venture capital companies, because they think it’s a good indicator of where the new companies will be (given the VC track record in tech and other sectors.) Clean technology is the fastest growing technological sector since the dot.com bust, he said, and investment levels are still reasonably robust. The vast majority of the money is in the United States, but there is some venture flow in Canada as well, though recently innovation financing has plunged in this country. Asia is growing, particularly China, and because costs are so low Chinese innovation is essentially on par with what’s happening in North America.

The Obama administration’s stimulus package represents a $60 billion opportunity for clean tech, Parker said, and added to that is the Chinese, who are putting together a $600 billion stimulus package, some of which will address environmental concerns, Europe, Korea and Canada are also putting out additional funds towards the environment.

But Parker raised concerns as to the direction this money will push society towards. In order to truly take advantage of these new funds, we need a new vision, which allows for decentralization of the grid that allows for plug-in cars and other efficiencies in the power structure. It’s also important to not only have the private sector innovate but to give the government the ability to create the necessary infrastructure. And important aspects of ecological innovation, such as water, aren’t even covered in the US stimulus package, Parker said.

For businesses, Parker advised emerging opportunity areas included embedded intelligence, micro and macro energy storage, marine biology, design and related services, and efficiency and waste minimization. The winning strategy, Parker said, is “Clean + Smart + Decentralized”.

But what does this mean for BC? It’s important, he said, for British Columbia to brand itself, as well as generating jobs in the clean tech sector. BC also has to engage China, which as a province it is better placed than anyone else (excepting Toronto, which has the largest Chinese population in North America) to do so. In order to meet these challenges, BC also needs to seize innovation financing, and make sure it can take advantage of stimulus funds, he said.