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The "Green Bubble"

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On Beacon Hill, another sign the state is intent on developing the clean energy sector: Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill Wednesday to increase the number of "green jobs" in Massachusetts and to support a new center to promote the industry here.

It's growing nationally: investment in US 'clean tech' companies in the last quarter grew 41 percent...to its highest level ever.

Some in Greater Boston's clean energy sector warn this red hot growth is going to burn some investors, as when the Internet Bubble burst. But others are welcoming the "Green Bubble" with open arms. WBUR's Curt Nickisch reports.

TEXT OF STORY:

CURT NICKISCH: If you think the Earth is overheating, how about the clean energy sector? Sahir Surmeli is a corporate finance lawyer at Mintz Levin, a Boston firm involved in clean energy deals. He says the drumbeat of high gas prices and calls for alternative energy are bringing investors out of the woodwork.

SAHIR SURMELI: You've got a lot of people saying, wow! I see a lot of people investing in a lot of new energy technologies, where should I be looking?

NICKISCH: So, he says, money is increasingly flowing to fledgling companies with yet unproven ideas. Plus, the stock market now says some solar energy companies are worth more than General Motors. Sound familiar?

BOB METCALFE: In the same breath, I'd like to warn everyone that there is a bubble. And it's great.

NICKISCH: That's Bob Metcalfe. He knows something about bubbles. The founder of Ethernet and 3COM runs Polaris Venture Partners nowadays, a venture capital firm in Waltham that's putting more of its funding into clean tech startups.

METCALFE: I will argue until the cows come home that the Internet bubble was very much worth it, and a great example of how a speculative fury can drive technological innovation. Now the trick is to repeat it for energy!

NICKISCH: Metcalfe's just one of a legion of web entrepreneurs, techies and executives frothing up the energy space recently. The New England Clean Energy Council even holds classes in energy policy for former dot-comers:

[Sound of training session, "...Which dovetails a little bit with the exit strategy discussion we had earlier tonight."]

NICKISCH: At this session in a corporate boardroom in Cambridge, Chuck Digate is listening intently. He's launched and sold software firms and had planned on starting another computer company. But now the training's helped him hatch an idea for a clean tech business. He won't say give it up... only that he's definitely got the bug for alternative energy.

CHUCK DIGATE: It's just way too important and interesting and potentially very lucrative outcomes as well, for you to ever even think about going to back whatever you were doing. So I hope to do something very ambitious in this space.

NICKISCH: Ambition's great. But temper it with realism, says Bob Crowley. He runs the Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation. That's a state-run venture capital firm. Crowley says tons of investors bitten by all this clean energy bullishness are going to lose a lot of money, when the technologies they fund never pan out.

BOB CROWLEY: If you throw enough spaghetti against the wall it might stick. Well, there's a lot of spaghetti that ends up on the floor. And I think the same thing's going to happen here.

NICKISCH: But advocates of the clean energy boom say we need a big bowl of spaghetti. Russ Landon runs the Boston office of CanaccordAdams investment bank. He says for the technologies that do stick, the upside is enormous.

RUSS LANDON: You can call it a bubble if you want but we are nowhere in terms of how big this industry i.e. the clean tech industry has to be.

NICKISCH: After all, Landon says, the Internet was a market in the billions. Energy is in the trillions.

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

This program aired on August 14, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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