Clean Tech: Schools bet on the next big thing

Clean tech could have major implications for schools across the world.
Clean tech could have major implications for schools across the world.

A new concept is gaining traction in the business world. It’s called “clean tech”–alternative energy, more efficient power distribution, and new ways to store electricity, all with a reduced environmental impact. Now, schools and colleges are accelerating the trend by creating clean-tech programs that give students real-world training and expanded job possibilities.

Despite last fall’s financial meltdown, public and private investments in clean tech are pouring in, fueling startups and reinvigorating established companies. If it takes off in a sustained way, clean tech 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.

Innovation is focusing on 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 people will be using it.

Yet for all the benefits that might be spawned by clean tech 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 this investment could create 5 million jobs. The current recession has wiped out 7.2 million jobs.

And clean tech is on track to be the dominant force in venture-capital investment 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, it is reported.

That pales in comparison with the dot-com boom, when venture cash sometimes topped $10 billion in a single quarter. Nonetheless, 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.

“Ultimately IBM and AT&T didn’t build the internet. It was built by Silicon Valley startups,” says Bob Metcalfe, an internet pioneer who now invests in energy projects with Polaris Venture Partners. “And energy is going to be solved by entrepreneurial activity.”

Schools are wasting no time preparing students and staff for what could be the next big innovation.

The California Department of Education and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. are laying the groundwork for a new “green energy” academy pilot program.

The New Energy Academy, launched Oct. 1, is a three-year program designed to provide energy career education for students who otherwise might not have the opportunity.

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