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Green Energy Has Clear Winners and Losers in 2011

The clean, or green, energy sectoris more dynamic than ever.

Not only is research and development pushing forward in so many different directions, certain technologies are evolving quickly, while others are just getting going.

An Aerotecture turbine near Chicago.
Source: Aerotecture International
An Aerotecture turbine near Chicago.

New investment is key in this diverse, capital-intensive sector, and despite a somewhat sluggish global economy, venture capital is finding plenty of opportunity in clean tech.

The year 2010 was a record, with $7.8 billion invested globally, according to the closely followed data of Cleantech Group.

More recently, some $2.23 billion was invested across 189 deals in the third quarter. That's 12 percent more than the previous quarter. What's more, 59 percent of those deals involved second or later rounds of financing, an indication that the companies involved were living up to expectations.

The sector's dynamism, however, may be best reflected in the gravitation of investment capital.

For the first time, energy storage received the most venture capital funding ($514 million), displacing solar ($350 million). Solar also lost the No. 1 spot in deal volume. Energy efficiency was the most popular area, with 34 funding rounds.

Energy storage (e.g. batteries) — considered something of a silver bullet — still presents sizable technological hurdles, while efficiency is now clearly the low-cost, plain vanilla version of clean tech.

This rotation of sorts is commonplace in maturing industries. Still, to mark our annual November "Green Is Universal" Week, we decided to take a broader view — wrapping in other developments in the alternative energy sector this year — to create our "Winners and Losers" special report.

Green - Winner & Losers - A CNBC Special Report
Green - Winner & Losers - A CNBC Special Report

By no coincidence energy efficiency and storage, specifically electric cars, along with the booming recycling business, are our three winners.

At the same time, the U.S. solar industry is clearly one of our three losers. So is the global nuclear business. Both, unfairly or not, are linked to major negative news events: the stunning failure of solar producerSolyndra, an Obama administration's investment darling, and the horrific near meltdown of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plants in Japan.

Nothing as fatal as those events struck the ethanol industry, our third loser, which is more a victim of conventional market forces and uncertainty over government incentives, a key element in the alternative energy sector.

All three losers, however, have one thing in common — momentum has temporarily shifted against them and that's rarely good for keeping and attracting investors.

Consider "Green Winners & Losers 2011" a progress report, not a final grade. For these groups, like the alternative energy sector in general, it's way too soon for that. Dynamic, indeed.

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