Stunning Cleantech 2012

It’s been a busy, ummm interesting year.  We’ve tracked profits to founders and investors of $14 Billion in major global IPOs on US  exchanges and $9 Billion in major global M&A exits from venture backed cleantech companies in the last 7-10 years.  Money is being made.  A lot of money.  But wow, not where you’d imagine it.

5 Stunners:

  • Recurrent Energy, bought by Sharp Solar for $305 mm, now on the block by Sharp Solar for $321 mm.  Can we say, what we have here gentlemen, is a failure to integrate?  This was one of the best exits in the sector.
  • Solyndra Sues Chinese solar companies for anti-trust, blaming in part their subsidized loans????????  Did the lawyers miss the whole Solyndra DOE Loan Guarantee part?  It kind of made the papers.
  • A123, announced bought / bailed out by Chinese manufacturer a month ago, now going chapter bankruptcy and debtor in possession from virtually the only US lithium ion battery competitor Johnson Controls?
  • MiaSole, one of the original thin film companies, 9 figure valuation and a $55 mm raise not too long ago (measure in months), cumulative c $400 million in the deal, sold for $30 mm to Chinese Hanergy just a few months later.  (Not that this wasn’t called over and over again by industry analysts.)
  • Solar City files for IPO, finally!


My call for the 5 highest risk mega stunners yet to come:

  • Better Place – Ummmmmmmmmm.  Sorry it makes me cringe to even discuss.  Just think through a breakeven analysis on this one.
  • Solar City – a terrifically neat company, and one that has never had a challenge driving revenues, margin, on the other hand . . .
  • BrightSource – see our earlier blog
  • Kior – again, see our prior comments.  Refining is hard.
  •  Tesla – Currently carrying the day in cleantech exit returns, I’m just really really really struggling to see the combination or sales growth, ontime deliveries, and margins here needed to justify valuation.

I’m not denigrating the investors or teams who made these bets.  Our thesis has been in cleantech, the business is there, but risk is getting mispriced on a grand scale, and the ante up to play the game is huge.


A Holy Moly Gutsy Week in Cleantech

Reading cleantech news and SEC filings this last couple of weeks makes for a holy moly OMG damn that takes guts set of moments. Well, the cleantech sector is nothing if not entertaining.  I’m obviously going to have to up my game and find more entertaining deals.


Total buys controlling stake in Sunpower. Sunpower was certainly a pioneer, and really kicked off vertical integration in photovoltaics with its acquisition of Powerlight in 2006. $2.3 Billion equity valuation? 46% share price acquisition premium? Wow. No guts, no glory. But at something like a little south of a PE of 30 on the 2011 earnings guidance as well as 2011 year over year revenue growth forecast of close to 30%, probably not too far out of line. And they didn’t even have to buy the whole thing!

Sunpower has had a hell of a run, but basically every solar analyst on the planet has been crowing that its core strategic advantages have seriously eroded. And maybe they have. We shall see. But growth is growth, and high performance panels are high performance panels. With another $1 billion in letter of credit from Total to backstop it, I think this is a gutsy, but strong move. If I’m Sunpower, I needed to do something. And with my stock price at not much over 10% of my high? This is a deal I’ll take. And if I’m Total, buy control of Sunpower for a 7th of it’s price peak and a PEG of around 1 to get a Tier 1 position in solar and stacks of growth potential I can pour cash into? Or build another offshore platform? Hmmmmmmh. I think I’d actually like the solar play this time. And take the margin risk.


KiOR files for IPO. Um, wow. Fascinating technology, though still a lot of scale-up to be done. We know for sure that Vinod Khosla has a cast iron stomach and more guts than me. I read the S-1 cover to cover last night. S-1s are notoriously messy reading and tricky to decipher how the venture rounds were done, but here’s what it looks like at first read:

July 07 Khosla invests $2.5 mm in a milestone deal of $1.4 and $1.1 for c. 50% of the stock excl option plan, a c. $2.5-3 mm pre money/ $5-6 mm post.  Great, nice cheap deal.
Mid 08 Artis (who was also heavy into Solyndra) and Alberta Investment pump in another c. $12 mm for c. 55% excl option plan, about a 1x uptick c. $10-12 mm pre-money.  CEO comes in here.  Price and capital in still within normalcy, but rolling almost as fast as we did our Zenergy deal in superconductors a few years back. But then it gets really gutsy.
Aug 09 Khosla $15 mm bridges a conv note, and gets paid handsomely when in
mid 2010 Khosla puts in another $80-90 mm in addition to the prior Convertible note for 35% of the Company, but all of the voting control.

Somewhere in there the state of Mississippi gives them $75 mm in no interest loans kicking in this last quarter (which sounds like it goes into default if KiOR doesn’t invest $500 mm into the state of Mississppi by 2015).

They then file for an IPO with Credit Suisse, UBS, and Goldman. All with like just a 15 barrel of oil equivalent per day pilot plant, planning to scale to a still miniscule 800 BOEPD with the couple of hundred million dollar investment from Mississippi and Khosla.

This isn’t just Khosla priming the pump and dumping on the rest of the venture world.  This is money where your mouth is.  This is make ’em pay to play style Texas Hold’em.  Pushing all in on a pair of queens with a straight flush showing on the flop.  Figuring pot odds be damned, the pair of queens is worth a shot if we can push half the table in with us, and we’ll just buy back in and do it again  if it doesn’t work out.  Damn. No guts no glory.


And of course, for BrightSource, one IPO filing and more “tortoise troubles”. Basically the regulators now think there are more endangered desert tortoises getting moved or killed than they had permitted Brightsource at Ivanpah.   The week after you file for an IPO and Google gives you money? 😉

And phase II and III are on ice or partial ice. I asked my wife how exactly it happens that they miss this badly on the number of tortoises (she’s been doing environmental risk assessments in the SoCal desert her whole career).  Her answer, usually means somebody on one side or the other doesn’t understand statistics.

This is already a very tight deal. And I was never sure exactly what a measely $250 mm in IPO money was going to do to help, when each project costs $2 billion, and takes fifty to a hundred million and years to develop. I’m thinking they need some real Total style money in this one to win.  But at this time in my reading, I’m beginning to think I have no guts.

Time to think about upping my game again.  My partners will be glad to hear that.  They think I’ve gotten a little risk averse.

Brightsource, Fisker and Solyndra – Soul Crushingly Bad Numbers Make up 17% of Near Record 1Q11 Venture Investment

GreentechMedia and Cleantech Group this quarter reported near record levels of cleantech venture capital investment. Nearly $2.6 Billion in deals.  No, quantitative easing hasn’t made the dollar slide that much yet, the numbers are real – mainly as the solar and transport  deals vintage 2004-07 are getting deep into their capital intensive cycles.  But a near record $2.6 billion, so everybody’s happy, right?

Personally, a quick scan of Greentech Media’s summary of the top deals sent cold shivers up my spine. The deals may be getting done, but are we sure investors are making money?  Let’s take three of the big ones and the only ones where Greentech Media quoted valuation numbers:  BrightSource, Fisker, and Solyndra.  Between the three of them that’s 17% of the announced Q1 deal total by dollars.

BrightSource Energy (Oakland, Calif.) raised a $201 million Round E for its concentrated solar power (CSP) technology and deployment, bringing its total funding to more than $530 million in private equity. That funding is in addition to a federal loan guarantee of $1.3 billion. The investors include Alstom, a French power plant player, as well as the usual suspects — Vantage Point Venture Partners, Alstom, CalSTRS, DFJ, DBL Investors, Chevron Technology Ventures, and BP Technology Ventures, together with new investors with assistance from Advanced Equities.  VentureWire reports that the latest round values the company in excess of $700 million.

Brightsource has been a darling for a long, long time.  It is easily the farthest along, most experienced and most ambitious of the solar thermal developers.  So what about the numbers?   Well it’s announced 2.6 GigaWatts of PPAs with SoCal Edison and PG&E.  And they’ve started construction on the first phases of the 392 MW Ivanpah development in the Mojave desert.  That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad news: $700 mm pre-money valuation + $201 mm in round 5 means only a 1.7x TOTAL valuation for investors on the $530 mm that has gone in.  Or the previous round investors are now in aggregate up 2.1x on their money for a 7 year old company after the 5th equity round is in.  Not sure who, but a few of those rounds got rocked, and not in a good way, or else we just did four wonderfully exciting 15% uptick rounds in a row.  But it gets worse.

This first plant, the one they’re headed IPO on, still hasn’t come on line let alone finished phase I.  DOE has committed $1.37 Billion in debt to it, and NRG $300 mm in equity, with more equity capital needed.  So once completed, the venture investors after their meager 2.1x uptick in the first 7 years, are between 3-8 years in on their venture investments and now own part of a heavily leveraged state of the art $2 Bil+ highest cost in the market power plant throwing off revenues of say $125 mm/year.  Perhaps $140-$150 mm at the high end (estimates have varied on capacity factor and price).  Right sounds almost passable.  But now let’s build the cashflow statement.  Add in Brightsource’s estimated direct labor at $10-$15 mm/year ($400 mm over 30 years from their website), plus maintenance/repairs at 0.5% of assets per year of another $10 mm (and hope to God it can stay that low – that would be a tremendous success in and of itself), then add on debt service on $1.37 billion assuming an only available by government guarantee 30 year amortization at 5%, and we eat another $80-$90 mm per year.  So we’re at $100 to $120 mm in annual costs, and $125 to $140 mm in annual revenues.  And we haven’t included gas, water, or any contribution to overhead, which are all non trivial. And don’t forget we’re building this out in 3 phases over several years.

So after all that, if it works, and if it works well, those investors MAY see a net of $20 mm-$40 mm /year in cashflow from that plant by 2014/2015 or so that they can use to cover plant overhead, fuel bills, the remainder which is then split between them and NRG to cover corporate overhead and then pay taxes on; or they may be losing money every month.  But we’ll make it up in volume, right?


But there is hope:

#1  pray for lots and lots of ITC (30% on the $600 mm in non subsidized capital would shave almost a whole 10% off the total cost!)

#2 pray for an IPO (and think VeraSun, sell fast).

#3 pray for a utility who overpays for the development pipeline

Two good articles with some more history from Greentech Media here and here.


Fisker Automotive (Irvine, California), an electric vehicle maker, raised $150 million at a $600 million pre-money valuation (according to VentureWire), from New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The firm previously raised $350 million in VC, as well as a $528 million loan from the DOE.

Terrific, another high flyer.  Same analysis, this one’s younger, only 4 years old, and only on investment round 4, which is good, since they’ve now apparently got a total valuation of only 1.5x investors money, or 1.7x total uptick for the prior 3 rounds of  investors.  But since they’re only in so far for 1-4 years not 3-8 like in Brightsource, they’re ahead of the game ;).  But once they take down their $528 mm in DOE debt (which this last tranche was supposed to be the matching funds for), they’ll be at a soul crushing 110% Debt/Equity.  Oh, and did I mention that the real way to calculate Debt/Equity assumes equity is net book value?  And since with these startups we’re using contributed capital, once should think of our debt to equity ratios as very very very very artificially low – but I didn’t want to scare you too much.

But look on the bright side:

#1 If they really hit their 15,000 car per year at $95K/car and typical 5%-10% automotive operating margins, they could be at solidly into junk bond land at 4-7x debt to EBIT!  (Assuming of course you believe they build a $1.5 billion/year automotive company with no more cash).  Of course, they apparently have a whole 3,000 orders placed for the c. $95K car, and are currently planning closer to 1,000 shipments for year 1.  Compare that to the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, which cost closer to $30K each.  Chevy has been planning on shipping 10,000 Volts in 2011, and 45,000 in 2012.  Nissan has targeted first year Leaf production at c. 20,000, and apparently had more than that many orders before they started shipping.

#2 pray for an IPO

#3 Buy Nissan stock


Solyndra (Fremont, California), a manufacturer of cylindrical solar PV systems for industrial and commercial rooftops, closed $75 million of a secured credit facility underwritten by existing investors. Solyndra had annual revenues exceeding $140 million in 2010 and has shipped almost 100 megawatts of panels for more than 1,000 installations in 20 countries, according to the CEO.

I’m certainly not the first or only one to cry over Solyndra.  And I’m pretty certain I won’t be the last.

Founded in 2005, with a cool billion in equity venture capital into it now, I believe they were on F series before the IPO was canceled last year? With this $75 mm Q1 deal (in secured debt, of course, their investors are learning) they’ve announced another $250 mm in shareholder loans since the IPO cancellation, and the early round investors have been already been pounded into crumbly little bits.  But it’s worse.

If I followed correctly, the original IPO was to have raised $300 mm, plus pulling down the $535 mm in DOE debt.  Here less than 9 months after that process canceled (could that be right?), they’ve now raised 80% of the cash the IPO was planning, except all in debt, and grown revenues nearly double since starting that process.  My only response to this was OMG.  So they’re at a 26% Debt/Equity Ratio for a money losing company, where debt exceeds revenues by a factor.  Pro Forma for the DOE loan fully drawn they’re at 44%, and something like 6x debt to revenue.  These are crushing numbers for healthy profitable companies.  It gets worse.

Go read their IPO prospectus.  Teasing out who invested how much in each round from each fund, and the size of those investors’ announced funds, plus the number of funds that “crossed-over” and did their follow-ons from a newer fund, and you quickly realize there are several venture funds that literally tapped out on Solyndra, likely either hitting house or contractual maximum commitments to a single deal.  The concentration risk in Solyndra is possibly enough to severely pound multiple fund managers, not just Solyndra.


Please somebody please tell me I’ve got the numbers all wrong.