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Book Review: "The Clean Tech Revolution"

"The Clean Tech Revolution" by Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder will be released tomorrow -- June 12, 2007. Here is my review in a two-sentence nutshell, plus why I like it, and what it does and does not cover.

In a nutshell

The Clean Tech Revolution is an excellent briefing for any investor who is turning their attention to the cluster of business opportunities defined by insiders as "clean tech." The authors' enthusiasm for the topic makes it an enjoyable read, even if you don't plan to invest.

Why I like it

The Clean Tech Revolution lives up to its name -- looking at present and future change for the better -- and it takes a realistically comprehensive view. It's a nice break from gloomy sky-is-falling rhetoric, and from wide-eyed optimistism for saving the world with CFLs, or algae.

"I expected a factual, level-headed analysis of our industry from these authors, and they delivered."

Pernick and Wilder hooked me immediately by defining what clean tech is not: nuclear energy and "clean coal." I agree wholeheartedly. While the nuclear spin marketing campaign may or may not revive that dying industry, coal is a reality we will have to live with (as Europe lives with its nuclear reality today).

With enough of the other technologies discussed in this book, IGCC could be the only type of new dinosaur-driven power plants built in the U.S. If we can achieve that, I would call it a bona fide "clean tech revolution."

The revolution will require funding from serious, dedicated investors. Pernick runs a consulting firm, Clean Edge, which initiated a NASDAQ index for clean-tech stocks. His book is squarely aimed at investors, both public and private.

What the book covers

One chapter is dedicated to each of eight major categories: solar, wind, biofuels, green building, automobiles, the grid, mobile power, and water filtration. Some of these categories are highly publicized, while others await the limelight. All are important.

If you (or someone you know) haven't been following these areas, this book will quickly give you the background you need to get started. The authors explain in plain English a wide array of technologies at a high level, including plenty of examples and statistics to keep the discussion interesting and credible.

Each chapter includes boxed paragraphs titled "Breakthrough Opportunity" or "The Clean-Tech Consumer," describing a certain technology for investors or the average Joe, respectively.

Most chapters include a list of "Ten to Watch," ranging from giant IBM to an Australian startup that makes wall panels from straw. (The book takes a U.S. perspective. For a European perspective, try The Solar Economy: Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Global Future by Hermann Scheer.)

By the end of each of these eight chapters, you'll have an essential understanding of the evolution of that category, where it stands today, and the challenges it faces, along with some of its major players.

The remaining three chapters are devoted to the selling side of the clean tech revolution. "Create Your Own Silicon Valley" suggests ways for regions to become world-renowned hubs for clean-technologies as well as showcases for their own uses of them. This will be useful information for businesspeople who plan to talk with policymakers. Several examples are briefly profiled, including Pernick's home town of Portland Oregon. "Clean-Tech Marketing" is a primer on basic tech marketing principles and seems more like an appendix (former marketeer Pernick is an adjunct instructor at Portland State University).

What the book does not cover

The Clean Tech Revolution is not an explanation of the technologies and how they work, nor is it an analysis of energy or environmental policy. Policy is messy and the authors avoid getting bogged down in it. They also avoid technologies that are difficult for newcomers to grasp. (If LEDs are "geeky," get a load of Web services for mesh-networked building controls.)

Serious investors will need to understand the complexities, nonetheless, or risk being blindsided. Readers seeking in-depth explanations will find them in titles devoted to the respective categories -- Greg Pahl's Biodiesel: Growing A New Energy Economy or John J. Berger's Charging Ahead: The Business of Renewable Energy and What It Means for America, for example.

Pernick and Wilder cover the first-order sciences, most of which are currently in either demonstration or manufacturing. Their book touches briefly on second-order and third-order dynamics in the large, complex clean-tech sector. A balanced portfolio should include non-scientific specialties -- distribution channels, installers, financiers, integrators and consultants -- that will be the clean-tech "picks and shovels"* in a 21st-century services kind of way. None of the categories can succeed without them.

For example, an area of opportunity that deserves some examination is that of verification and compliance. While its intellectual property won't come from the National Labs, this is a services industry that will grow alongside the revolution in clean technologies. What SOX is to traded corporations, CSR is becoming for public and private businesses alike. This category comprises the firms that green companies will hire to audit and certify, measure and verify.

* During the internet boom, a frequently repeated corollary was that the people who made money in the Gold Rush were those selling picks and shovels. Indeed, companies such as Cisco did very well during the "bubble," without ever launching an e-commerce startup.

As I moved farther into the last half of the book, I looked for more to tie these technologies together. I also expected to see discussion about the influence of mass transit and urban planning in Europe and other progressive regions, rather than our single-minded American focus on biofuels and hybrid cars. The chapter on water focuses on filtration, and skims over toxins (and the myriad global laws regulating them). This already is an area of tremendous opportunity, and it affects even "green" industries, such as photovoltaics manufacturing.

I enjoyed the book and learned some new things. I expected a factual, level-headed analysis of our industry from these authors, and they delivered.

Release date: June 12

The Clean Tech Revolution by Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder, published by HarperCollins, 320 pages, $26.95.


Great book review, Denis. An updated 2nd version of the book has just been published. Read the book review and interview with author Clint Wilder on CleanTechies: