Has `clean tech’ been eclipsed by fossil fuel innovation?

(AP)

I ran across this graphic that poses the question “is clean tech dead?” The Solyndra bankruptcy has raised new questions about whether we’re getting our money’s worth from investments, both public and private, in clean energy technology. The graphic comes to the conclusion that while “clean tech” investments are rising, the ventures may not survive without investment from the government. That’s going to be increasingly difficult to come by thanks to Solyndra’s failure and the overall mood of budget austerity in Washington.

But there’s another factor that the graphic overlooks: innovation in fossil fuels. In a meeting this week with the Chronicle’s editorial board, author and energy researcher Daniel Yergin made the point that the greatest advance in energy technology has actually been hydraulic fracturing, which has completely changed the domestic energy picture in the past five years.

Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer, expanded on this idea in a recent Bloomberg News column. He notes there’s little to show for the $535 billion of private investment — venture capital, public offerings and so forth — in energy technology between 2006 and 2010, especially when compared to the tech boom of the 1990s.

What is worrying is that almost a decade of energy investing hasn’t produced any home runs — no green-energy equivalents of eBay, Amazon, Google or Facebook. The modest, incremental advances we have seen don’t perceptibly move the needle on the energy problem.

In the meantime, however, a real revolution has happened in traditional energy — one that poses a serious challenge to companies and investors betting on alternative energy. This breakthrough is arguably one of the greatest advances in energy production since the 1960s. And it came not from a Silicon Valley company, or from MIT or Stanford, but from the son of a Greek goatherd who immigrated to the U.S.

He’s talking, of course, about Houston’s George Mitchell and his company’s development of fracking technology. By unlocking new reserves in the U.S., fracturing has changed the energy equation, helping to bring fossil fuel prices down and undermining the economics of clean tech. Is clean tech dead? Its prognosis had certainly gotten bleaker.