Green IT Winners and Losers of 2009

1Executive Summary

As the year winds to a close, GigaOM Pro’s crack team of contributors takes a look back at what went right, what went wrong, and for whom.

Winners

Carlos Ghosn,
CEO and President of Renault-Nissan

India Economic Summit 20092009 was not a good year for major automakers. But as the market for plug-in vehicles drew both increased government support and public interest, the Renault-Nissan Alliance and its chief, Carlos Ghosn, gained new prominence. The alliance plans to launch an all-electric vehicle in the U.S. and Japan by 2010. “We are convinced that the mass availability of affordable zero-emission vehicles is the most significant breakthrough our industry could deliver,” Ghosn said in mid-2008, “and, together with Renault, Nissan intends to be the breakthrough leader.”

So while Ghosn’s early drive to dominate the global EV market has helped the company stay on track to make available the Nissan LEAF next year and develop a family of electric Renault concepts — forming strategic alliances for batteries along the way — competitors have had to race to keep up. Inthe meantime, Nissan won a $1.6 billion low-interest loan from the Department of Energy in the highly competitive Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program to retool its Smryna, Tenn., factory to build electric cars and batteries. It remains to be seen how profitable Nissan and Renault’s EV bet will be over the long term, but the pair is well-positioned to grab an early lead in this growing market. — Josie Garthwaite

Hypermilers

Never has there been a better time to be a hypermiler — the moniker used to describe hybrid drivers who change their behavior and in some cases, make tech mods to their vehicles, in order to eke out triple-digit MPGs. A number of smartphone apps and after-market vehicle retrofits have emerged in an effort to meet demand for the real-time and cumulative data about fuel efficiency that hypermilers have come to love (and obsess over) in the Toyota Prius display. And the amount of gadgets and gizmos at fuel-misers’ finger tips — and the accuracy of these tools — can be expected to increase as more new vehicles incorporate real-time efficiency gauges, automakers open up more data and smartphone app developers invent ways to channel hypermilers’ mojo. — Josie Garthwaite

Wireless Data Center Sensors

sentillalogoGreen data centers were all the rage in 2009.  Hardly a week went by that a renewable energy-powered, free-cooled and/or LEED-certified facility didn’t break ground or open its doors. All in all, they were encouraging signs that the IT industry is accommodating growing data center demand in an environmentally responsible way. There are many “winners” in this regard, from energy-efficient server vendors to energy management firms, but one group stands apart: wireless sensor makers. As providers of easy-to-deploy monitoring technology, data center operators depend on them to evaluate the effectiveness of their energy-saving schemes. Standouts include startups like Arch Rock, Sentilla and SynapSense, a Sequoia Capital-backed firm that counts IBM, Facebook and Yahoo as customers and is partnered with HP.  And proving that it’s a field that still has plenty of innovation ahead of it is Packet Power, which embeds wireless sensors in the component that all IT systems have in common: the power cable.  — Pedro Hernandez

Smart Grid Open Standards & IP

The U.S. National Institute for Standards has spent 2009 racing to solidify standards for the next-generation of the digital power grid, aka the smart grid. There are still a number of sticking points that will need to be hashed out in 2010, but the bulk of the industry appears to agree that open standards are key and Internet Protocol will be a dominant player. The conclusions come from lessons learned in information technology, and leading network players like Cisco and Silver Spring Networks are laying that infrastructure out now.  — Katie Fehrenbacher

Carbon Polluters

cop15day242When it came to addressing global climate change, 2009 ended with a whimper, rather than a bang. In the final days of the climate change talks in Copenhagen, the majority of world leaders signed off on a 3-page agreement that outlined only a non-binding commitment to limit global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. While the Obama administration has tried to put a rosy spin on the outcome, calling it “a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough,” the UNFCCC acknowledged that the actual pledges made by participating nations were “insufficient to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees or less,” and “called for a review of the accord, to be completed by 2015.” The startups and major corporations that spent the last year cranking away on carbon accounting software tools, renewable energy technologies, and hundreds of other carbon emissions-reduction opportunities, hoping to capitalize on a “Copenhagen Protocol,” will see a decidedly less dramatic growth of their market until rigorous, binding rules are adopted. So, at least for now, carbon polluters can continue to emit dangerously high levels of greenhouse gases unchecked. — Celeste LeCompte

Losers

OptiSolar

For those in the greentech industry who followed the rise and fall of thin-film solar player OptiSolar in 2009, the writing had been on the wall for some time. The company was in the process of building one of the largest solar photovoltaics projects ever, at 550 MW, but refused to disclose who its funders were or the technology that enabled its solar material to be produced at such a low cost. And when the economic downturn took hold, OptiSolar’s fall was both dramatic and steep: It sold off its crown jewel solar project to leading thin-film player First Solar for $400 million, cut almost all of its staff and ultimately halted manufacturing. Over and out. — Katie Fehrenbacher

Smart Grid’s Street Cred

An image of a smart meter

While the smart grid got the most attention and funds in history in the U.S. in 2009, utilities have so far failed to adequately explain to consumers why the smart grid is needed and how it will affect them. The looming example of this oversight came when a Bakersfield resident sued northern California utility PG&E claiming that the smart meter installed at his home caused a significant boost in his utility bill. PG&E is currently hiring an independent auditor to test the meters, software and network, but the ripple effect from the lawsuit — picked up by mainstream media nationwide — will still be felt throughout 2010. — Katie Fehrenbacher

Chamber of Commerce

Taking a hard-line stance against the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency turned out to be somewhat less than a smooth move for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the position alienated some of its highest-profile member. It also stirred up the vigilante pranks of the The Yes Men, who staged a hilarious fake press conference to “announce” a reversal of the chamber’s climate stance. But while Nike has stepped down from the group’s board and several utilities — including California’s PG&E — have said they’ll let their membership lapse at the end of this year, Apple made the boldest move: It resigned from the chamber in the fall. — Josie Garthwaite

Consumer Electronics Association

Starting January 2011, Californian retailers can only sell TV sets that consume 33 percent less electricity than models on the market (up to 58 inches) when the new standards were proposed in 2008.  By January 2013, sets sold in that state have to be 50 percent more efficient.  The new rules, imposed by the California Energy Commission, are expected to save residents $8 billion in energy costs over 10 years.

It’s not unusual for trade groups to rail against regulations that affect their business, but there was a strange disconnect when the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) publicly voiced its opposition.  To be clear, the CEA didn’t earn a spot on this list because it was on the losing side of a unanimous vote by the commission (though it certainly didn’t help).  No, the CEA made the list because it made tone-deaf arguments against more efficient TVs while the vast majority of the sets currently being produced by its own members already comply with the new rules.

So far, TV makers like Vizio seem unfazed. What’s more, the new rules may help spur sales of LED-backlit screens and — dare we dream — light a fire under the anemic OLED market (incidentally, the next loser on this list). For the CEA, however, 2009 was a lesson in picking your battles. — Pedro Hernandez

OLED Display Tech

While OLEDs are providing stunning visuals and extending battery life on certain mobile devices, OLED makers are having a hard time taking those benefits to devices with larger screens. The latest evidence of this uphill battle comes from Kodak.

This month, the struggling imaging company announced that it had sold its OLED business to LG.  Although Kodak is maintaining a grip on its IP, Kodak’s chief intellectual property officer, Laura G. Quatela, made a sobering admission saying, “Realizing the full value of this business would have required significant investment.”  That’s code for saying that the enterprise was costing Kodak more than it can afford. — Pedro Hernandez

That’s our list. Who do you think we missed?

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