GE Picks Up the Slack on Green Tech

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I have a piece in today’s magazine about General Electric’s big solar bet. The multinational behemoth—which has already built a $6 billion-plus wind turbine business—is now looking to move into solar manufacturing as well. That might be bad news for competitors like First Solar, but it’s good news for those who want to see solar power become more than just a rounding error in global energy calculations:

For all their usual preferences for the small and local, greens should hope for GE’s success. If they want solar power to win big, they need the biggest player in the game.

The power and influence of a $190 billion company was on display yesterday GE announced the latest winners of its $200 million-dollar “ecomagination Challenge.” The Challenge—which GE carries out with several venture capital partners—is a sweepstakes for small but scrappy clean tech startups looking to scale up. Yesterday GE and its partners announced that they would invest $63 million in 10 companies in the growing home energy sector, many of them focusing in energy efficiency and IT. Some of the winners include:

  • Hara, an environmental and energy management software company
  • Nuventix, which offers better thermal management of electronics
  • SunRun, which offers residential solar installation and service

There were thousands of applications for the ecomagination challenge, which allowed GE pick the best and the brightest ideas. It’s a neat example of what GE executive Beth Comstock called in the Huffington Post “collaborative innovation,” which allows companies to leverage the power of networking to cast their net as wide as possible for R&D:

The Challenge represents one of the largest open innovation initiatives ever. GE and its partners have reviewed nearly 5,000 business proposals from more than 150 countries. We have committed $134 million to bring more than 20 of the most promising clean tech innovations to a combined market worth $35 billion, with 10 more receiving grants and others still being evaluated. And, in one of the most significant clean tech retail partnerships to date, GE and Best Buy will fast-track clean technologies from the Challenge community to store shelves.

As stimulus funding begins to run out and the federal government goes into a deficit-induced shell, larger companies like GE may represent the best chance small clean-tech startups have to secure continued funding—and continued life. Ecomagination—GE’s somewhat Disney-sounding environmental division—has grown significantly since GE CEO Jeff Immelt launched it in 2005 to some skepticism. Mark Vachon, GE’s vice-president of ecomagination, told me yesterday that the company plans to double down on its environmental initiatives, which range from clean energy to water to health:

In the next phase we really want to open up and take advantage of GE’s ability to scale. This problem is simply too big to tackle any other way.

There’s no shortage of good ideas out there, as the thousands of applicants to GE’s innovation contests show. We just need to figure out a way to get them funded—and get them growing. If the government is going to pull back from that role, big business might be the only other bet.