The Solyndra hangover was still present as the fourth quarter of 2011 came to a close. Multiple subsidies, including the critical Treasury Department’s cash grants program for renewable energy projects, expired, unable to muster political support for an extension. These cuts followed a series of subsidy rollbacks across Europe and have prompted a schism among solar players: First Solar is exiting all subsidized markets, while other companies like SolarWorld continue to pressure the U.S. government to take action against China. But despite the general upheaval in the solar market, some major players, among them Berkshire Hathaway–owned MidAmerican Energy, see opportunities amid all the disruption.
The fourth quarter also saw a first glimpse of how well the electric vehicle (EV) market is doing. So far it’s pretty tepid, with Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sales figures coming in below expectations. Though the table is set for two big rollouts this year — Tesla’s luxury Model S sedan and the long-delayed Fisker Karma — EVs remain expensive, particularly for the mass-market EVs like the Leaf. It will be worth watching to see if the luxury sedans find a market with a wealthier audience.
In the green data center space, the much-hyped dream of disruption in the server processor market took a step forward with HP’s deal with Calxeda to manufacture ARM-based servers. This matters because HP has such a leadership position in the server market and deep contacts in enterprise IT. It still has to sell customers on taking a chance on an ARM server with energy savings’ being a downstream benefit, but it makes it more and more likely that large, webscale IT companies will make some space in the data center to try out a new configuration.
Finally, cleantech got an injection of consumer-grade product design when Tony Fadell, who led design on 18 generations of the iPod and 3 generations of the iPhone, released his smart thermostat, the Nest. Historically, home energy management (HEM) has struggled to present the right combination of hardware and software that would interest people in their energy usage. So far the Nest looks promising, if only because it has a sleek design, and aside from the sticky details of installation, customers have to do very little — the device programs itself based on learning a user’s behavior. Time will tell if the Nest is the innovation home energy management has been waiting for.