Venture capital firms have poured a record $4.6 billion into greentech companies in the United States, Europe, China and Israel through the first three quarters of 2008 – but with the economy in freefall, don't expect that record-setting pace to continue.

That's the word from Ernst & Young, which released its analysis of greentech investment in those major global markets on Thursday, updating figures for U.S. investment it released in October.

The $4.6 billion figure represents 13 percent of all venture capital investments in the regions the report covered, and growth of 82 percent compared to the same period in 2007. (The Ernst & Young figures are slightly lower than similar sums from Greentech Media and the Cleantech Group, but within the same range. The differences occur in how different investments are classified.)

"However as the global financial crisis continues and the time from initial investment to exit gets longer, venture capital investors will likely moderate the pace of investment across all sectors, including cleantech," wrote Gil Forer, Ernst & Young's Global Director of Cleantech, IPO and Venture Capital Initiatives.

Analysts and venture capital firms have been in agreement on that assessment, though some differ on the question of whether or not greentech will actually see a drop in investment in the coming months, or just a slowing of that record-setting growth (see VC Investments to Fall in '09, Except in Greentech and VCs Predict Greentech Investment Slowdown).

Predictions are further clouded by the nature of greentech investing to date. Much of the money that has poured into the field has gone in massive chunks to individual companies. Solyndra and Nanosolar, which have produced only a nominal amount of products for shipment, have received a few hundred million each.

The disappearance of these types of deals will cut VC funding by 40 percent in the first half, said Rob Day, a partner at @Ventures. Nonetheless, smaller companies focusing on products like software that don't require factories could still continue to get cash. 

The United States continued to lead the world in greentech VC investment, with $3.3 billion invested in greentech companies through the first three quarters of the year, up 71 percent from the same period last year, Ernst & Young reported.

But Europe, China and Israel also saw growth, as European nations moved to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, China continued to grow as a center of manufacturing of solar and wind power products and Israel saw increased investor interest in its solar and water treatment and conservation startups.

Across Europe, venture capital investment in greentech companies reached €481.8 million ($692 million) in the first three quarters of 2008, up 67 percent from the same period last year, Ernst & Young reported. The largest share went to energy generation, €371.3 million ($533 million), up 220 percent from the same period last year.

Of that, wind power companies garnered €182.7 million ($262 million), while solar companies raised €139.0 million ($200 million), the firm reported.

Other European greentech companies bringing in the cash were those the "environment" category, which includes air purification, waste management and recycling companies, which brought in €49.9 million ($71.6 million). Energystoragecompanies, which include battery, fuel cell and flywheel companies, grabbed €24.8 million ($35.6 million).

In Israel, greentech companies drew $76.5 million in VC investment in the first three quarters of 2008, more than double the $35.1 invested in the same period last year. The big winners were solar companies, which raised $46.5 million, and water treatment, conservation and monitoring companies, which raised $18.2 million.

The most rapid growth, however, came in China, where venture capital firms invested $165 million in the first three quarters of 2008, a near-six fold increase from the $29.1 million invested in the same period in 2007.

That huge growth was driven by investment in renewable energy companies, which gathered $95.8 million in the first three quarters of 2008, up from a mere $4.6 million in the same period last year – and of that funding, solar, with $85.2 million, was the clear leader.

In the United States, solar companies also led the pack with $1.7 billion in VC investment in the first three quarters of 2008, up 152 percent from the same period last year.

U.S. alternative fuel companies, which include biofuels, took second place with $455.5 million, but that was only 7 percent more than the same period last year. Companies that make energy efficiency products or provide power and efficiency management services, on the other hand, saw less money but more growth in investment – $186 million in the first three quarter of 2008, up 32 percent from the same period last year.