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High-profile failures "part of maturing" of green tech sector

Tom Ryan
via Flickr
Beacon Power, now filing for bankruptcy, set up shop to to store power from the grid using flywheels

Federally subsidized energy projects have struggled recently.

First solar power firm Solyndra shut down, putting the Department of Energy on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in loans. Then Beacon power - another company that had benefited from the same program - filed for bankruptcy.

But Carol Murphy, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, says the local green energy sector has taken these high-profile failures in stride.  

"If you look nationally it's not just green energy companies," she argues. "People have been jumping on these stories now, but for any startup company there's a high rate of failure.""Not quite ready"

Massachusetts-based Beacon power operates a project in Stephentown, near Albany.  The plant stores power with flywheels. And while it did not belong to Murphy's association, she says the company's experience isn't all that unusual: in general, failures and mergers come with the territory as a "green" clean tech sector ripens and matures.

"There's certainly no guarantee that if you're a company in what, in the U.S., is relatively new technology and business model, that you're going to make it," she cautions.

Beacon's CEO, Bill Capp, was similarly prudent in speaking with The Washington Post:

Capp added that he didn’t understand the political furor surrounding Solyndra’s collapse. “I don’t get it. The whole point of the loan guarantee program is it was designed to help companies that weren’t quite ready to get a commercial loan,” he said.

Today's economy makes the whole process of launching a green startup more fraught than usual, as venture capitalists become more cautious about throwing around their cash. That makes financing green sector projects harder.

Murphy says this climate means companies will still hit up their local and federal governments for help. But with growth projected in the sector, she argues, they still deserve another shot.

"Saying, 'We're going to go do a contract' - or, for solar, 'We'll give you a rebate for some of your investment' - makes it much easier to actually get some of these projects going," Murphy says.

Murphy says the unknowns of state policy do not encourage companies to make investments. Right now, New York has a Renewable Portfolio Standard - a quota of 30 percent for power produced by environmentally friendly sources. But that statute expires in 2015, and it's unclear if, and how, it will be renewed - which, according to Murphy, makes it even tougher for renewable companies to plan for the future.

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