A cleantech perspective: Canadian federal election

For those of you who aren’t aware, Canadians will be heading to the polls at the end of this month to vote for a new governing party and prime minister. We’ll likely end up with the same Liberal minority government that we had before, but this election at least gives us a glimpse of party policies with respect to the environment and clean energy.

It’s tough to get a clear picture of where the four main (non-separatist) parties stand, given most of them have yet to release details of their campaign promises. Last I checked, and judging exclusively from content on their Web sites, the Liberals and Green Party have the most details while the Conservatives hardly mention the word environment and the NDP use more space criticizing the Liberals than articulating in any useful way their own policies on the environment.

I expect more details will come from all parties in the coming weeks. I’d have to say I’m most disappointed with the NDP, which claims to be a champion of environmental issues but has failed to give Canadians any serious look of what it plans to do and what kind of investments it’s prepared to make.

I know NDP leader Jack Layton is big on environmental issues, but personal conviction and clear policies are two different things. Yes, Jack, you keep saying “we have a plan,” but where the hell is it? In general, it’s a shame that the environment (and by association clean energy and related technologies) is not being given greater priority in this election. If you ask me, somebody needs a serious kick in the ass to get this issue — hybrid vehicle incentives, solar subsidies, emission mandates, Kyoto obligations, energy-efficiency loan programs, ethanol/biodiesel and tax-shift policies — more prominence on the election radar screen.

A better job must also be done to link healthcare costs with the lack of action on the environment. Other than throwing money at the provinces, the feds can’t do much in the area of healthcare because it doesn’t have jurisdiction. But it can cover the healthcare angle by turning attention to the environment and proactively tackling environmental problems that cause sickness and contribute significantly to the overburdening of our healthcare system.

Hopefully the release today of the Green Party’s election platform will help kickstart the issue. Among other things, party leader Jim Harris said he would entrench the right to a clean environment in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to the party’s election platform.

(Disclosure: I don’t know who I’m voting for yet, but I can tell you I’m not voting Conservative).

Thoughts as new year begins

My Spectrum column, the general technology column that I write for the Toronto Star, listed today what I believe will be the defining technology trends in 2006. Among them I mentioned that cleantech investments will continue to soar, building on the back of multibillion-dollar commitments in 2005 from the likes of General Electric, Ford, British Petroleum and others. I’m also seeing more entrepreneurs and investors, who made their fortunes (or lost them) during the high-tech boom, now turning their attention to alternative energy and other cleantech ventures, either in executive roles or in an angel/VC capacity.

Examples including Greg Kiessling, who sold his Toronto software company a few years ago for $52 million and has since used his wealth to back the creation of renewable energy retailer Bullfrog Power. His private venture capital firm, Up Capital, appears to invest exclusively in clean energy startups.

There’s also Mac Brown, former chairman and majority owner of now defunct Linux software company Rebel.com, which fell into receivership four years ago. Brown has resurfaced on the Ottawa scene as president of Magenn Power Inc., which has developed a blimp-like generator for the wind power market. Even veterans, such as MacDonald Dettwiler founder John MacDonald, have moved on to cleantech. MacDonald is now CEO and co-founder of a solar technology venture in Vancouver called Day4 Energy.

These Canadians join a list of U.S. tech-turned-energy gurus that include Idealab founder Bill Gross, who is focused on solar technology; Desh Deshpande, founder of Sycamore Networks Inc., who is now chairman and investor in lithium-ion battery innovator A123Systems Inc.; and venture capital heavyweight Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has become one of the leading venture capital investors in cleantech companies and is blazing a trail for other tech generalists in the VC community.

Of course, the pitfall to all of this is that hype overshadows reality — as it did during the dot-com boom and bust. The rising interest in cleantech is real, but as the sector becomes more popular it risks being diluted by wild promises and unrealistic claims. I’m already beginning to see this as I look for new companies to profile on this blog. Separating the good from the bad is becoming increasingly difficult, and already some VCs are dismissing the term “cleantech,” saying it will quickly become outdated and overused — or already has.

On the other hand, key drivers — i.e. rising oil, natural gas and gasoline prices; supportive government policy and legislation; widespread public support and increased awareness; commitments from major market players; Kyoto and global warming concerns; and rising business costs — are all very real. This, perhaps, makes it even more necessary than ever to challenge and scrutinize the business plans and claims of emerging players in the cleantech field as they jump to exploit a problem-filled world in need of solutions.