Smart investors — including big firms placing millions and billions of dollars of their clients' money — know to look for long-term growth that gets ahead of emerging trends. That time-tested approach makes a great deal of sense today in looking at our energy future.

Investors, from hedge fund wizards to institutional money managers like my company, see tremendous promise in the emerging clean-energy sector. So when stakeholders come to suburban Baltimore on Thursday to discuss the economics of a regional clean-fuels standard, we'll be paying close attention.

My Maryland-based company, Calvert Investment, runs mutual funds that invest in businesses spanning the globe. Everyone knows it's been a tough year for the markets. But in the long term, we see a world of growth opportunities in the inevitable global transition to a clean-energy economy.

That's right: inevitable. Big-picture indicators all point in that direction. Earth's population is growing, and we're bumping up against resource limits. That's not to say we'll run out of traditional energy sources anytime soon, but limited energy resources will become more expensive as they become increasingly difficult to extract, as competition for them increases, and as their full societal costs are increasingly reflected in their market price.

It's a pattern repeated throughout our economic history. Eventually, energy sources based on scarce or inefficient resources dwindle, and new replacements grow into engines of economic development. The renewable-energy sector — from biofuels to algae to wind and solar power — is especially exciting because it offers a chance to break that cycle: These energy sources cannot run out, they're clean and they get cheaper with scale. The clean-energy sector is growing worldwide, on both the energy-efficiency and alternative-energy fronts, and offers potentially huge opportunities in the years to come.

Other countries, such as China, already have policy frameworks and public investment that give home-team companies a real advantage. Of course, American companies cannot expect vast clean-tech public investment on China's scale. But if we are to compete, we need standards here in the U.S. that provide our job creators with incentives and market signals that give them the confidence to invest, innovate and grow.

The clean-fuels standard being considered for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states is an example of the kind of policy that makes sense to investors. It does not favor particular technologies or tools; it sets a bar and lets the private sector figure out how to reach it. It does what good policy does best: provides broad signals that encourage companies to invest and innovate in ways that lead to cleaner, homegrown energy sources.

The specific details of how this standard will be implemented are still being developed, but it basically works by requiring fuel providers to reduce the carbon intensity of fuels, while giving them the flexibility to choose the most cost-effective compliance strategy. The standard takes into account all so-called well-to-wheel pollution, including extraction, production, transport and combustion. This standard brings new technologies and innovative fuels into the market. It creates competition among producers to invest, innovate and deploy the most cost-effective cleaner-fuel alternatives, including options such as clean electricity, biofuels from plants like sugarcane and grass, algae, and others we haven't invented yet.

This standard would be an incentive for our part of the country — which now imports almost all of its transportation-related energy — to be a bigger player in the emerging clean-energy economy. It would also help boost our nation's energy security while tackling a key source of greenhouse gas emissions.

There's been bad news for some clean-energy companies lately, but that's no surprise. Every startup industry — from automobiles a century ago to computers and the Internet in our day — experiences these kinds of growing pains. Not all startup companies succeed, but our world-class entrepreneurial risk-taking is what has made us what we are.

In the long term, the basic drivers of the clean energy economy can't be ignored. The era of easy access to cheap energy resources is ending. The world needs a greater diversity of far cleaner energy. And if we in Maryland and the U.S. want to own a healthy piece of this sector, we need sensible policies that encourage investment and innovation.

Capital doesn't stop at state borders, or international ones. Investment flows to companies providing solutions wherever they are. Every market-friendly policy that supports energy solutions — from our state's renewable portfolio standard, to a regional clean-fuels standard — makes it more likely that investment, and the innovation and jobs it brings, will flow to Maryland.

Stu Dalheim is director of shareholder advocacy at Bethesda-based Calvert Investments. His email is stu.dalheim@calvert.com.