The 10 Biggest Cleantech Victories of 2008

Last week we brought you the 10 Biggest Cleantech Disappointments of 2008 — such as electric car maker Tesla hitting a wall, and T. Boone Pickens putting his massive wind power project on ice. But nascent industry also saw a lot of significant milestones in 2008. Here are some of the green highlights:

1) The Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit Passed…Finally: Clean power startups were fretting throughout the first half of the year, but a financial crisis was what it would take for Congress to finally extend the investment and production tax credits that play such a vital role in the cleantech industry. In 2009, the wind industry will be looking to get its tax credits extended even further.

2) Obama Won, Promises Cleantech Support: A victory in 2008 for President-elect Barack Obama promises a future in which the U.S. turns it attention to fighting climate change once and for all — an abrupt shift from the current administration. Obama has pledged $150 billion investment in clean power over the next decade and a green-tinged stimulus that will provide jobs from the get-go; he’s already appointed an array of scientists and eco-advocates for his cabinet posts.

3) Record Level of Cleantech Investing: It might not last in 2009, but 2008 saw a record level of venture investment in the cleantech industry. According to the Cleantech Group, venture firms invested $2.6 billion into 158 companies globally in the third quarter of 2008, a 37 percent increase from the year before and a 17 percent increase over the previous quarter. In fact, the first three quarters of 2008 brought in more cleantech investment than all of 2007.

4) Massive U.S. Solar Plants Moved Forward: With the renewable portfolio standards in states like California calling for a certain percentage of electricity to come from clean power, utilities became a lot more aggressive on doing deals with solar companies to get solar facilities built in 2008. Northern California utility PG&E (s pcg) signed 800 MW worth of solar purchase agreements with SunPower (s SPWRA) and OptiSolar for photovoltaic solar power plants, as well as 900 MW of solar thermal projects with BrightSource.

5) First Solar’s Panels Reached Grid Parity?: Another contributing factor to the rush of solar deals is the drop in the price of solar technology. According to one analyst — Pacific Crest’s Mark Bachman — thin-film solar darling First Solar (s FSLR) has already reached grid parity, or the point where photovoltaic electricity is as cheap as conventional electric power. If true, that’s a major victory for the U.S. solar photovoltaic industry.

6) Mainstream Tech Went Green: Infotech companies started to see the merit of energy efficiency, and even clean power, in 2008. Google (s GOOG) was the second most active cleantech investor in the third quarter of this year. Intel has been investing in solar, battery and energy storage companies, and has been advised to move into lithium-ion battery production. Companies like IBM (s IBM), HP (s HPQ) and Sun (s JAVA) made significant efforts to cut down on energy consumption in their data centers and design lower power computing hardware. To learn more about the merger of greentech and infotech, check out our upcoming conference in March in San Francisco.

7) Better Place Struck Deals: While we’re not sure how electric vehicle startup Better Place will fair over the long run — the proposed networks still need to secure funding — the company struck a string of deals in 2008, offering hope to the future of electric transportation. Deals included partnerships with Israel, Denmark, the California Bay Area, Hawaii and Australia.

8) U.S. Wind Market Blew Strong: So T. Boone has delayed his wind farm plans, but the U.S. still saw a significant amount of wind turbine construction in 2008. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the U.S. has installed over 20,000 MW of wind capacity, and is now the world leader in wind electricity generation, with enough to power 5.3 million American homes.

9) The Year of Plans: It was hip to conjure up a plan to use technology to fight global warming. In 2008 we heard detailed plans from wind power builder T. Boone Pickens, former Vice-President and cleantech investor Al Gore, former Intel Chairman Andy Grove, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Plans deliver hope and more chance of action.

10) Electric Vehicles On the Horizon: The high price of gas this summer (which has since dropped) spurred large auto makers to declare electric vehicle plans, while startups also moved aggressively into the market. Since then there’s been some serious hangups — the auto industry’s near-death experience, Think stumbling, Tesla slowing down — but 2008 planted the seeds of an electric vehicle trend that will emerge more significantly in 2009 and 2010.