Where’s the next boom? Maybe in `cleantech’

October 6, 2009

Energy breakthroughs could be the next big thing, but how many jobs can they generate?

By Jordan Robertson, AP Technology Writer
9:33 pm EDT, Tuesday October 6, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Our economy sure could use the Next Big Thing. Something on the scale of railroads, automobiles or the Internet — the kind of breakthrough that emerges every so often and builds industries, generates jobs and mints fortunes.

Silicon Valley investors are pointing to something called cleantech — alternative energy, more efficient power distribution and new ways to store electricity, all with minimal impact to the environment — as a candidate for the next boom.

And while no two booms are exactly alike, some hallmarks are already showing up.

Despite last fall’s financial meltdown, public and private investments are pouring in, fueling startups and reinvigorating established companies. The political and social climates are favorable. If it takes off, cleantech could seep into every part of the economy and our lives.

Some of the biggest booms first blossomed during recessions. The telephone and phonograph were developed during the depression of the 1870s. The integrated circuit, a milestone in electronics, was invented in the recessionary year of 1958. Personal computers went mainstream, spawning a huge industry, in the slumping early 1980s.

A year into the Great Recession, innovation isn’t slowing. This time, it’s better batteries, more efficient solar cells, smarter appliances and electric cars, not to mention all the infrastructure needed to support the new ways energy will be generated and the new ways we’ll be using it.

Yet for all the benefits that might be spawned by cleantech breakthroughs, no one knows how many jobs might be created — or how many old jobs might be cannibalized. It also remains to be seen whether Americans will clamor for any of its products.

Still, big bets are being placed. The Obama administration is pledging to invest $150 billion over the next decade on energy technology and says that could create 5 million jobs. This recession has wiped out 7.2 million.

And cleantech is on track to be the dominant force in venture capital investments over the next few years, supplanting biotechnology and software. Venture capitalists have poured $8.7 billion into energy-related startups in the U.S. since 2006.

That pales in comparison with the dot-com boom, when venture cash sometimes topped $10 billion in a single quarter. But the momentum surrounding clean energy is reminiscent of the Internet’s early days. Among the similarities: Although big projects are still dominated by large companies, the scale of the challenges requires innovation by smaller firms that hope to be tomorrow’s giants.

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Bank Stocks Cede Biggest S&P Weighting to Technology

May 21, 2008

By Elizabeth Stanton

May 21 (Bloomberg) — Bank stocks lost their position as the biggest industry group in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to technology companies after tumbling 31 percent since 2006.

Computer and software makers led by Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp. accounted for 16.26 percent of the benchmark for large U.S. companies based on yesterday’s closing prices. Financials, led by Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., fell to 16.19 percent.

Banks slid the most among 10 industries in the S&P 500 last year and are the worst-performing group so far in 2008, as lower U.S. real-estate prices led to losses on mortgage debt and derivatives approaching $380 billion globally.

“The earnings power of the financial sector has been impaired because of the credit crunch,” said Thomas J. Lee, chief U.S. equity strategist at JPMorgan in New York. “Technology is benefiting from a global economy that’s been expanding, particularly in emerging markets.”

As the S&P 500 has retreated 3.7 percent this year, its financial components have decreased almost 13 percent. Bear Stearns Cos. lost the most, dropping 89 percent as a run on the brokerage firm prompted the Federal Reserve to arrange a March 16 takeover by JPMorgan. The index declined 1.6 percent today.

Financial shares in the index declined almost 21 percent in 2007, their worst year since a 24 percent drop in 1990. They have plunged 31 percent since the end of 2006.

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