South Carolina’s Clean Tech Revolution Has Begun

Greg Hilton

Greg Hilton

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Talking About a Revolution
There is a revolution underway…one that is reshaping the way we fundamentally live our lives.

While many definitions of clean technology exist, the one that I gravitate towards is technologies that harness renewable materials and energy sources or reduce the use of natural resources by using them more efficiently and productively. 

Clean tech covers a wide range of technologies; from solar photovoltaic, wind power, biofuels, and biomaterials, to portable power, smart grids, water desalination, fuel cells, and plug-in hybrid vehicles.  It also includes some more exotic technologies such as tidal power, microbial fuel cells distributed hydrogen generation, and nanotechnology-based materials.  Yes, even energy efficient technology is considered a "clean" technology (they call it the "nega-watt"; the watt of power you never have to use is the cleanest of all).

That's the strategic value in supporting a clean technology economic development platform.  It drives wealth creation, climate change mitigation, and energy independence. Energy will be the dominant issue facing our world for the next 100 years and clean tech is the new frontier for economic opportunity. 

According to a recent release by The Cleantech Group in 2009, clean tech venture capital investment reached $6-7 billion (numbers still coming in). While this number is slightly lower than 2008 levels, the drop was nowhere near the almost 33% plunge that traditional venture investment took in 2009.  Investment in clean tech has catapulted from less than $1B in 2002, to over $8B in 2008, a 700% increase.  How did your portfolio do over that period?

What's driving this growth?  Profit driven ventures understand that the revolution has begun and cleantech is at the crossroads of a fundamental shift in the global economy.  Continually lower costs for the production of clean energy, growing concerns about the need for real climate change, and a rapidly shifting consumer profile are creating tremendous opportunities for firms focused on developing cleantech solutions.

Where does SC Stand?
This revolution is already taking shape in even South Carolina.  A short drive around our state reveals this pattern unfolding.  Major investments in wind energy at places like GE in the upstate and the recent Department of Energy (DOE) announcement of a $98M investment in next generation wind turbine research at the Clemson Restoration Institute in North Charleston demonstrate that you don't have to be able to produce wind energy to benefit from its growth in demand.  

Five years ago, no one in the cleantech industry would have pointed to Columbia as a center of innovation, but now Columbia (and South Carolina) is giving juggernauts like Ohio and Connecticut something to think about. USC's recent announcement of a $12.5M Energy Frontier Research Center, several prominent recruits through the Endowed Chairs program, and a host of fuel cell and clean energy start ups have confirmed the university's leadership in Future Fuels.  Indeed, this is evidenced by the recent announcement of Trulite (a fuel cell manufacturer) to relocate its corporate headquarters and R&D to the Columbia area. 

Just a short drive to Aiken and we see the fruits of our state's agri-energy investments with a $795M biomass energy facility, being dubbed "the largest energy efficiency project in American history."  In addition, whether you are for or against it, South Carolina has become a focal point for the nuclear energy industry with more than $40 billion (with a "b") worth of planned investment within a 100 miles radius of the capital.  These are investments that will create real jobs for South Carolinians and will put our state on the clean energy map. 

Where Do We Go From Here?
Indeed, while venture capital in clean tech has eluded South Carolina (to date), a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that in 2007, our state was home an estimated 884 businesses involved in clean energy (disclaimer, they broadly define the term).  However, there is much to be done and South Carolina must answer the cleantech call by investing in building and nurturing this nascent industry in our state.  To create the clean energy future we deserve, we must create a world class environment for start-ups to form and flourish, expand access to much needed capital, and build a policy framework that will encourage clean technology proliferation. 

The revolution is underway and it is South Carolina's opportunity to step up to the plate.


Greg Hilton is a senior project manager with Sagacious Partners.  He is an entrepreneurially minded economic development practitioner, focused on empowering communities through next generation ideas, strategies, and applications.  Some of his current engagements include EngenuitySC, the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness, the Fuel Cell Collaborative, iTs|SC, and the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management.


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