Cleantech Cleans Up Message, Stops Selling Green

The hungriest thing in some restaurants may be an old refrigerator that gobbles up kilowatts of electricity. Luke Fishback’s analytics software can show that usage, teasing out energy consumption data in a commercial kitchen down to each appliance. Beyond analytics, the software recommends ways to cut energy usage. Fishback pledges he can deliver energy savings as high as 50 percent.

Fishback, founder and CEO of Durham, NC, startup PlotWatt, acknowledges that his company’s technology eases demand on the power grid. But he doesn’t present PlotWatt as a cleantech company. Instead, he tells potential customers his technology addresses expensive power bills—one of the top pain points in any restaurant.

“The way I do that is not by making you a green Dunkin’ Donuts,” explains Fishback. “The way I do that is by making you a more profitable Dunkin’ Donuts.”

PlotWatt is an example of new technologies are emerging that give homes and businesses new ways to measure, analyze, and save energy. But some companies that could fall in the cleantech category aren’t touting their products and services as either clean or green. In fact, “cleantech” is a dirty word in some circles, says Fishback, speaking at the Energy Thought Summit in Raleigh, NC, last week. The conference brought together startups and energy executives to discuss a wide range of energy issues, including clean technology. To some of those at the summit, as well as a growing number of stakeholders in the energy industry, energy efficiency is best discussed in the context of economics rather than environmentalism.

If some cleantech companies are dropping the cleantech label, it might be because investors have become wary of such investments. A lot of the money poured into cleantech technologies five or six years ago ended up in failed investments, says Josh Gould, technology-to-market advisor for the U.S. Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects-Energy. ARPA-E invests in early stage, potentially disruptive energy technologies that the private sector sees as too risky to invest in. Gould says the landscape for cleantech investing is leaner now compared with previous years.

Venture capital firms are typically looking for technologies that can bring them a return ten times greater than their initial investment in about five years. But Fishback says much of cleantech is perceived as an incremental improvement that sells to a slow buyer—not ideal venture for capital investment. That’s led a lot of cleantech firms to seek out alternative funders and partners while shedding the cleantech image along the way.

Nonetheless, cleantech technologies are making their way into the mass market. Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), the nation’s largest electric utility with customers in six states, counts 170,000 smart thermostats from Nest installed in its service territory. Kris Bowring, director of business development for Lowe’s Home Improvement (NYSE: LOW), argues that consumers are … Next Page »

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Frank Vinluan is editor of Xconomy Raleigh-Durham, based in Research Triangle Park. You can reach him at fvinluan [at] xconomy.com Follow @frankvinluan

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