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Kai Ryssdal: Oil closed just shy of $50 a barrel today. Good, perhaps, for consumers. Not so promising for research into renewable energy. Last month Shell froze its investments into solar, wind and hydrogen power. BP has been scaling back its research into alternatives to oil since 2007. But at a conference in Washington today, many investors said they still see a sunny future for clean tech. Marketplace's Caitlan Carroll explains.

Caitlan Carroll: At the Carbon Tradex Conference in Washington, the talk among attendees is less about if they should invest in renewable energy and more when.

JAMES CAMERON: I think the overriding question is all about time.

That's James Cameron from the floor of the conference. He's one of the founders of Climate Change Capital, an investment house dealing in clean tech. Cameron says investors want more direction on the policy front before throwing money into research.

JAMES CAMERON: You could have a brilliant business strategy that is dependent upon a particular outcome of the legislation and find that you run out of money before the rules are made effective.

The Obama administration's stimulus plan dedicates about $80 billion to clean tech. That's a great promise for the future renewable energy market. But the economy's put the brakes on everything.

Applied Materials announced this week that its big solar panel deal of almost $2 billion is actually much smaller, only $250 million. Scale downs like that will probably continue until the economy picks up.

KEN MEDLOCK: That's going to affect investment across the board. It's not just renewables. It's not just carbon abatement programs. It's everything.

Ken Medlock is an energy fellow at Rice University. He says although companies would prefer the economy picked up, this slowdown allows them to take a breath and think about energy development moving forward. So it's kinda of good for companies, and he says it could actually be good for the environment, too.

MEDLOCK: When demand is down we reduce carbon emissions defacto because we're consuming less carbon-based fuel.

Less travel, less production, less pollution.

I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.