We’re almost at the midpoint of 2011 and here are the leading surprises and trends so far this year:
1. We Accept Euros. European conglomerates have been on an extended shopping spree in the States. Total, the French oil and gas giant, has made a bid to buy 60 percent of SunPower, the high-efficiency solar manufacturer from California. Meanwhile, Switzerland’s ABB has spent over $5.2 billion on four U.S. companies in the past year and plunked money into startups like Ecotality and Power Assure.
Other recent visitors from the old world include France’s Schneider Electric (which has purchased Lee Technologies and Summit Energy in recent months) and Saint-Gobain (an $80 million strategic investment in Sage Electrochromics). Last year, Areva, the nuclear power of France, bought solar thermal developer Ausra.
Europe specializes in sprawling conglomerates with deep pockets and decades of experience, but these stately behemoths sometimes can’t seize the day with cutting-edge technology. The U.S. has a surfeit of innovative startups, but most need money and connections. Call it a May-December bromance. The exchange rate doesn’t hurt either.
2. Natural Gas: Friend or Foe? President Obama included natural gas as a clean technology in his State of the Union address. Consultants like Black & Veatch believe gas could produce 40 percent of U.S. power by 2035. Renewable advocates also note that gas generators can help balance the power coming from wind and solar farms, making these assets more valuable.
But the price of methane -- now hovering around $4 per million BTUs -- is a little too low for comfort. Many fear that the price will make solar farms unattractive and that gas companies will soak up any available incentives. Execs at storage and battery companies fear that low gas prices could even imperil their futures. In Washington, some lobbyists have begun to describe natural gas as a battery.
3. The Biofuel Renaissance? After the crash of 2008, the biofuel industry went into a tailspin of epic proportions. Few investors wanted to back companies with experimental technologies that needed a few hundred million dollars just to build prototype plants.
Rising oil prices, Middle East turmoil and mileage mandates that could require car manufacturers to raise their average fuel efficiency to over 40 miles per gallon by 2020 (the current mandate requires them to hit 34.1 miles per gallon by 2016) have changed the picture. Amyris, a startup out of UC Berkeley with microbes that produce hydrocarbons, and Gevo, which makes fuel and chemicals with microbes and corn starch, have both held successful IPOs.
Solazyme, the algae king, and Kior are next. In addition to the previously noted factors, these companies have also been helped by emphasizing green chemicals over fuels, which provide (many claim) an easier way to establish and maintain an early revenue stream.
4. Licensing, Anyone? Back in the '90s, chip startups embarked on a relatively new business model where they would license intellectual property and collect royalties. Except for a few examples (ARM), the so-called IP business model flopped or resulted in acrimonious lawsuits.
The IP model, however, may work in green. Argonne National Labs has licensed battery tech to LG Chem and General Motors. This year, startups Amprius and Envia Systems raised $25 million and $17 million, respectively, to do the same. Mission Motors has switched from building electric motorcycles to providing know-how to Chinese electric car makers, while EcoMotors and Achates Power say their engine designs could drastically -- and rapidly -- cut diesel consumption. And watch for deals later this year from stealthy ElectronVault.
5. Concentrated PV Nostalgia. CPV is the ultimate hipster technology: it's so out it's in. Concentrator companies struggled for years to get funding and contracts with power providers: it was the second biggest zero billion dollar industry right behind fuel cells.
In recent months, Soitec, Amonix, SolFocus and others have finally announced big deployments with utilities. GTM Research expects annual CPV installments to hit a gigawatt by 2015.
Over the longer term, the big trend for solar could be wafers. Alta Devices, Twin Creeks Technologies, 1366 Technologies, Astrowatt, Bandgap Technologies and others have devised techniques to produce incredibly thin, incredibly expensive wafers that could help bring the price of solar down to the mythical $1 per watt stage by 2015.
K.V. Ravi at Crystal Solar says his company can produce wafers measuring 50 microns thick, which is one-third the size of cutting-edge wafers today. That would lead to solar cells that could produce a watt of power from a gram of silicon. Some of these vapor-to-wafer techniques require detailed experience in epitaxial, or crystal, growth that is still concentrated in the U.S., Europe and Japan.
6. Does DOE Stand for Department of Exasperation? In California, a few entrepreneurs have privately begun to describe themselves as Progressive Libertarians. They believe in green technologies, but are getting fed up with the sometimes lengthy delays and bureaucratic inertia in Washington. Suniva, a solar module maker with a state-of-the-art solar wafer, passed on a $141 million DOE loan guarantee in favor of private capital in April.
7. Political Stagnation. House Republicans have begun to fight many green initiatives. Representatives Michele Bachmann and Fred Upton signed onto an initiative to repeal a law to phase out incandescent bulbs that was passed by…President Bush.
Democrats in the Senate were stymied by Republicans to take away subsidies from oil companies, now enjoying record profits. But the antagonists don’t just come from the right anymore. BrightSource Energy, which wants to build solar plants, is mired in lawsuits from conservation groups. Stirling Energy, now largely defunct, got hit with a series of objections late last year. The enemy of my enemy is now my enemy too.
What will break the deadlock? You often hear we need a Manhattan Project or Sputnik moment for green. The A-bomb effort and moon shot, however, took place after World War II and the Cold War started. So we will need a surprising, relentless disaster--a climate refugee crisis, massive crop failures, China getting control over Mideast oil supplies--to get us moving. Your cheery thought for the day.
8. The Rise of Utili-Telcos? For the past few years, communications giants like Comcast and AT&T have begun to build internal units that will one day manage energy in homes or offices. Some of the early efforts have begun to trickle out. Central Indiana Power merged with a local telco to provide communications services and power and gas. Verizon, meanwhile, unfurled an initiative in February to provide cloud computing to utilities.
At the other end of the spectrum, utilities are going to start to recruit more heavily from telcos and retailers in an effort to build customer-friendly faces and support desks, sources tell us.
9. Nuclear Winter. The unexpected disaster in Fukushima will likely put the nuclear comeback on hold. It also doesn’t hurt that nuclear remains expensive. Areva’s Jacques Besnainou recently noted that the budget for a nuke facility his company hopes to open next year in Finland has ballooned from $3 billion to $5 billion.
10. Food is the New Oil. You aren’t alone if you've begun to suspect that food prices are rising. Increased consumption, droughts, fires and other problems are all putting pressure on food. Even business models contribute to the problem. Back in the '70s, banks convinced agribusiness conglomerates to cut costs by eliminating silos and storage facilities.
“Because of that, for the first time ever, there are no food stocks. In a good year, there is barely enough,” Hendrik Bruins, a professor of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research and the Swiss Institute for Dryland Environmental Research, told us in March. If China were to experience a major crop failure, all of the food exports in the world couldn’t make up the difference.
Partly as a result, investors have begun to explore options for postponing phenomena like Peak Fish. Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, for instance, recently invested in Kaiima, which has a novel GMO that regulators don’t consider a GMO.
A version of this article originally appeared in Fortune.