Will Cleantech Save Our Economy?

By Jordan Robertson, AP Technology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Our economy sure could use the Next Big Thing. Something on the scale of railroads, automobiles or the Internet — the kind of breakthrough that emerges every so often and builds industries, generates jobs and mints fortunes.

Silicon Valley investors are pointing to something called cleantech — alternative energy, more efficient power distribution and new ways to store electricity, all with minimal impact to the environment — as a candidate for the next boom.

And while no two booms are exactly alike, some hallmarks are already showing up.

Despite last fall's financial meltdown, public and private investments are pouring in, fueling startups and reinvigorating established companies. The political and social climates are favorable. If it takes off, cleantech 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.

(Want to read about more items invented during the recession? Check out this MainStreet story.)

A year into the Great Recession, innovation isn't slowing. This time, it's 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 we'll be using it.

Yet for all the benefits that might be spawned by cleantech 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 during the next decade on energy technology and says that could create 5 million jobs. This recession has wiped out 7.2 million.

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