Predictions For Cleantech In 2012

It’s December again (how did that happen!?) and our annual time for reflection here at Kachan & Co. So as we close out 2011, let’s look towards what the new year may have in store for cleantech.

There are eggshells across the sector for 2012. Global economic uncertainty in particular is leaving some skeptical about the chances for emerging clean technologies. And those who watch quarterly investment data, or who look only in a single geography (e.g. North America) may have seen troubling trends brewing this past year. But the true story, and the global outlook for the year ahead, is—as it always is—more complicated.

As you’ll read below, we predict a decline in worldwide cleantech venture capital investing in 2012. But as you’ll also read below, we believe the gap will be more than made up by infusions of corporate capital. And the exit environment, depending on who you are and where you list, still looks robust in 2012 for cleantech (it may not have felt so, but it was actually surprisingly robust in 2011, according to the data. See below.) All in all, if you’re a cleantech entrepreneur seeking capital, our advice is brush up that PowerPoint and work the system now… while there’s still a system to work.

Because, as we detail below, the largest risk, to cleantech and every sector in 2012 we believe, is the specter of precipitous global economic decline and the systemic changes it might bring. Details below.

Here are our predictions for cleantech in 2012:

Cleantech venture investment to decline
In the face of naysayers then forecasting a cleantech collapse, in our predictions this time last year, we called an increase in global cleantech venture investment in 2011. We were right. At this writing, total investment for the first three quarters of 2011 is already $6.876 billion, with the fourth quarter to report early in 2012. Given historical patterns (fourth quarters are almost always down from third quarters), we expect 2011 to close out at a total of ~$8.8 billion in venture capital invested into cleantech globally. That’d be the highest total in three years, and second only to the highest year on record: 2008.

cleantech 2012 predictions venture investment
Total 2011 investment is expected to show growth from 2009’s figures once the fourth quarter (dashed lines, estimated) is added. However Kachan predicts total venture investment in 2012 to decline from 2011’s total. Data: Cleantech Group

Yet in 2012, we expect global venture and investment into cleantech to fall. Not dramatically. But we expect cleantech venture in 2012 as measured by the data providers (i.e. companies like Dow Jones VentureSourceBloomberg New Energy Finance,PwC/NVCA MoneyTree, and Cleantech Group) to show its first decline in 2012 following the recovery from the financial crash of 2008. Our reasoning? There are factors we expect will continue to contribute to the health of the cleantech sector, but they feel outweighed by factors that concern us. Both sets below:

On one hand: What we expect to contribute to growth in cleantech investment in 2012

  • China gets a hold on its economic turbulence – For five years now in our annual predictions, both here at Kachan and when I was a managing director of the Cleantech Group, we foretold the rise of China as cleantech juggernaut. Yet, now with China having become the largest market for and leading vendor of cleantech products and services by all metrics that matter, and now receiving a larger percentage of global cleantech venture capital than at any point in history, there have been recent warning signs. New data just in (for instance, falling Chinese property prices and sluggish export growth because of faltering first world economies, not to mention the first decline in clean energy project financing in China since 2010 as wind project financing declined 14% in the third quarter of 2011 on fears of over-expansion) suggests the Chinese economic engine is slowing. On the face of it, that might look bad for cleantech. But we put a lot of faith in China’s central government and the seriousness with which it views this sector as strategic. Even now, the country has just gone on the record forecasting creating 9 million new green jobs in the next 5 years. Nine million! And China has a good track record in executing its 5-year plans.
  • Rise in oil prices – Cleantech is a much wider category than energy. But for many, renewable energy is its cornerstone. And while there’s no question about the long-term markets for renewables, the biggest factor affecting their short-term commercial viability is the price of fossil-based energy. The good news: indications are that oil prices are headed upwards in 2012, which should be expected to help make renewables more economic. Naysayers maintain that a poor global economy will destroy demand for energy, keeping the price of oil artificially low. For much of 2011, the price of oil was relatively low. But we argue the price per barrel will continue its inexorable rise in 2012 given continued growth in the size of the global market for oil, driven by market expansion in the developing world. Further adding to the expected oil price increase is a little-known fact: there’s been a decline in the quality of oil the world is seeing on average. And the poorer the quality of the oil, the more it costs to refine it into the products we require. Oil prices are headed up.
  • Corporations’ even stronger leadership role – Corporate venturing was up in 2011, possibly setting new record highs, according to the data providers (4Q data not in yet.) Cleantech corporate mergers and acquisitions globally were up in 2011, again possibly setting new record highs, according to the data. The world’s largest companies assumed the leadership we and others predicted they would last year at this time—and indications are they will continue to do so in 2012, with balance sheets still strong.
  • Solar innovation as a perennial driver – Investment into good old solar innovation and projects is still strong, and has remained so for years, while other clean technologies have risen and fallen in and out of investment fashion. And that’s despitemost solar companies being in the red and having billions of dollars in market capitalization disappear over the last year. As some solar companies will continue to close up shop in 2012, look for investment into solar innovation to remain strong in 2012 as the quest for lower costs and higher efficiencies continues.
  • Persistence of the fundamental drivers of cleantech – The sheer sizes of the addressable markets many cleantech companies target, and the possibilities for massive associated returns, will continue to draw investors to the sector. Why? The world is still running out of the raw materials it needs. Some countries value their energy independence. More than ever, economies need to do more with less. Oh, and there’s that climate thing.

On the other hand: What worries us about the prospects for growth in cleantech investment in 2012

  • Investor fundraising climate tightening – Today, limited partners (i.e. “LPs” – the organizations and/or wealthy individuals that fund venture capital companies) are still bankrolling cleantech worldwide; in its 3Q 2011 Investment Monitor for clients, the Cleantech Group details 34 dedicated cleantech and sustainability-focused funds receiving billions in capital commitments internationally in the third quarter of 2011 alone. But we expect a slowdown in venture fundraising in 2012. Blame Solyndra for negative American LP sentiment. Or blame the lack of rock star returns in cleantech of late. But there are more indications than ever that some LPs are becoming increasingly reluctant to fund cleantech. They’ve been grousing about cleantech for years. But the politicizing of the Solyndra bankruptcy has amped the rhetoric higher than ever, and will foster a self-fulfilling prophesy in 2012, particularly in America, we believe.
  • Waning policy support in the developed world – Expected conflicting government policy signals to continue in 2012. Don’t expect cleantech-friendly U.S. policy leadership in 2012, an election year. We wouldn’t be surprised if the ghost of Solyndra and other U.S. Department of Energy stimulus grants and loan guarantees continued to haunt American cleantech through the whole of 2012, making any overt U.S. government support of clean or green industry unlikely. While cleantech is far from solely an American phenomenon, there’s no mistaking that the (now expired) American national loan guarantee program helped loosen private cleantech capital in an immediately post-2008 shell-shocked economy. However, continued uncertainty over the future of the U.S. Treasury grants program and production tax credits is holding the U.S. back. Policy support suffers elsewhere in the developed world. For instance, in the UK, investor confidence was recently dealt a blow by a dramatic drop in solar feed-in-tariff (FIT) rates, and the erosion of renewable policy support in Germany and Spain is well known.
  • Lag time of negative sentiment – Even if the sky indeed started falling in cleantech (and we don’t believe it yet has), it would take a few quarters to show in venture or project investment numbers. Remember, deals can take quarters to consummate. Transactions being counted now may have been initiated a year ago. Fear takes several quarters to manifest. Which is why we believe today’s uncertainty will start to show in 2012’s performance.
  • VCs still circling their wagons – In 2007, before the financial crash, the percentage of early stage venture investments into new cleantech companies was roughly the same as later-stage venture investments into established companies. Since the crash of 2008, deals have remained skewed—both by number and size of deals—towards later stage companies, illustrating investors’ preference to keep existing investments alive than take risks on new companies. While the exact ratio varies quarter to quarter, and from data provider to data provider, there have been generally fewer early stage companies getting funded. That’s hampering cleantech innovation. We expect the trend to continue into 2012.
  • Perennial concern about exits and IRR – Despite the size of its massive addressable markets and near-record amounts of capital entering the space today, on the whole, cleantech investors are still seeking the returns that many of their web and social media tech brethren enjoy. Even now, 10 years into this theme that we started calling cleantech in 2002. That’s not for lack of exits; 2010 saw the largest number of cleantech IPOs on record (93 companies raised a combined $16.3 billion) and 2011 has already had 35 without the last quarter reporting. And cleantech M&A activity in 2011 was strong and significantly higher than last year. No, the concern is for lack of multiples. For instance, 8 of the 14 IPOs of the third quarter of 2011 were trading below their offering price as of the publication of the Cleantech Group’s 3Q 2011 Investment Monitor. Don’t let anyone tell you exits aren’t happening in cleantech. They’re just underwhelming. And/or they’re happening in China.
  • Macro-economic turbulence, collapse, or at least, reform – They’re the elephants in the room: The Occupy movement. Arab Spring. Peak Oil. The continued and growing mismatch between overall global energy supply and demand and food supply and demand. Ever-increasing debt and trade deficits. Currency revaluation or political/military developments. Any or all of these could spur another massive global economic “stair-step” downwards of the scale we saw in 2008, or worse. Concern about all of these points and the impact they’d have on the cleantech sector weighs heavy on us here.

Venture dip made up for by rise in corporate involvement
The world’s largest corporations woke up to opportunities in cleantech in 2011, making for record levels of M&A, corporate venturing and strategic investments. General Electric bought lighting and smart grid companies. Schneider Electric bought some 10 companies across the cleantech spectrum. Corporate venturing activity was high, as were minority-stake investments. In just the third quarter alone, ZF Friedrichshafen invested $187 million in wind turbine gearbox and component maker Hansen Transmissions of Belgium, Stemcor invested $137 million into waste company CMA in Australia, and BP invested $71 million into biofuel company Tropical BioEnergia in Brazil. And there were dozens more minority stake transactions like these throughout the year.

Look for even more cash-laden companies to continue to buy their way into clean technology markets in 2012, supplementing the role of traditional private equity and evidencing a maturation of the cleantech sector.

Storage investment to retreat
Significant capital has gone into energy storage in recent quarters. In 3Q11, storage received $514 million in 19 venture deals worldwide, more than any other cleantech category. Will storage remain a leading cleantech investment theme in 2012? We’re betting no. Here’s why.

Storage recently made headlines as the subsector that received the most global cleantech venture investment in the third quarter of 2011, the last quarter for which numbers are available. An analysis of the numbers, however, shows the quarter was artificially inflated by large investments into stationary fuel cell makers Bloom Energy and ClearEdge Power. Do we at Kachan expect more investments of that magnitude into competing companies? No. Why? Even if you believe analysts that assert that stationary fuel cells for combined heat and power are actually ramping up to serious volumes (oldtimers have seen this market perpetually five years away for 15 years, now), just look how crowded the space currently is. Bloom and ClearEdge are competing with UTC Power, FuelCell Energy, Altergy, Relion, Idatech, Panasonic, Ceramic Fuel Cells and Ceres Power … just some of the better-known 60 or so companies vying for this tiny market today. And many are still selling at zero or negative gross margins.

But the main reason we’re not bullish on storage: Smoothing the intermittency of renewable solar and wind power might turn out to be less important soon. Sure, nary a week goes by without announcements of promising new storage tech breakthroughs or new public support for grid storage (e.g. see these three latest grid storage projects just announced in the U.S., detailed halfway down the page.) But we believe that utility-scale renewable power storage might be obviated if utilities embrace other ways to generate clean baseload power.

In 2012 or soon thereafter, we expect those clean baseload options will start to include new safer forms of nuclear power (don’t believe us? Read Kachan’s report Emerging Nuclear Innovations—U.S. readers, don’t worry: nuclear innovation won’t apply to you.) Or NCSS/IGCC turbines powered by renewable natural gas delivered through today’s gas distribution pipelines (see The Bio Natural Gas Opportunity). Or even geothermal (gasp!) or marine power (see below). All of these promise to be less expensive than solar and wind when you factor in the expense of storage systems required—incl. electrochemical, compressed air, hydrogen, flywheel, pumped water, thermal, vehicle-to-grid or other—if solar and wind are to be relied on 24/7.

Marine energy to begin coming of age
I’m a closet fan of marine energy, despite today’s extraordinarily high cost per kilowatt hour. We started covering wave, tidal and ocean thermal energy conversion equipment makers in 2006. Anyone who’s heard me talk publicly on the subject has had to suffer through hearing how I’d much prefer invisible kit beneath the waves than have to gaze upon solar and wind farms taking land out of commission.

In 2006, the lifetime of equipment from then-noteworthy companies like Verdant Power and Finavera (which since exited marine power after a failed test with California’s PG&E) in the harsh marine environment could sometimes be measured in days. The designs just didn’t hold up. Even Ocean Power Delivery, now Pelamis Wave Power, with its huge, snakelike Pelamis device, had hiccups in early onshore grid testing. Back then, the industry clearly had a long way to go.

Today, six years later, we think it’s time to start taking marine energy seriously. A high profile tidal project is now underway in Eastern Canada’s Bay of Fundy. Several weeks ago, Siemens raised its stake in UK-based tidal energy developer Marine Current Turbines from less than 10% to 45%, because it liked the predictability of ocean energy, and Voith Hydro Wavegen handed over its first commercial wave project to Spain. And last week, Dutch company Bluewater Energy became the latest vendor to secure a demo berth at the European Marine Energy Centre at Orkney, Scotland—the most important global R&D center for marine energy. Things are going on in marine power. Still, its major hurdle is the large variation in designs and absence of consensus on what prevailing technologies will look like.

2012 won’t be the year marine power becomes cost-competitive with coal, or even nearly. But you’ll hear more about marine power in 2012, and see more private and corporate funding, we predict.

Increased water and agricultural sector activity
Look for increased venture investment, M&A and public exits in water and agriculture in 2012.

At one point, only cleantech industry insiders championed water tech as an investment category (and, frankly, at only a few hundred million dollars per year on average, it still remains only a small percentage of the overall average $7B annual cleantech venture investment.) Industrial wastewater is driving growth in today’s water investment, with two of the top three VC deals of the last quarter for which data is available promoting solutions for produced water from the oil and gas industry, and the largest M&A deal also focused on an oil and gas water solution. Regulations aimed at making hydraulic fracturing less environmentally disruptive to will spur continued innovation and related water investments in 2012.

Where water was a few years ago, agriculture investment appears to be today. There was more chatter on agricultural investment than ever before at cleantech conferences I attended around the world this past year. Expect it to reach a higher pitch in 2012, because of:

Investing in farmland is even resurfacing, in these uncertain times, as a private equity theme.

Remember the food crisis three years ago, when sharply rising food prices in 2006 and 2007, because of rising oil prices, led to panics and stockpiling in early 2008? Brazil and India stopped exporting rice. Riots broke out from Burkina Faso to Somalia. U.S. President George W. Bush asked the American Congress to approve $770 million for international food aid. Those days could return, and they represent opportunity for micro-irrigation, sustainable fertilizer and other water and agriculture innovation.

And so concludes our predictions for 2012. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Leave a comment on the original post of these predictions on our site.

This article was originally published here. Reposted by permission.

Gates Gets It

by Richard T. Stuebi

A few weeks ago, the American Energy Innovation Council released a report calling for a bipartisan commitment to increased governmental involvement in encouraging more research to spawn the new energy industry of the future.

The five key recommendations of the report are:

  1. Create an independent body to propose a national energy strategy
  2. Triple federal spending on energy research to $16 billion per year
  3. Create centers of excellence in energy research
  4. Fund ARPA-E at $1 billion per year
  5. Establish a New Energy Challenge Program to drive pilot project deployment

Members of the Council represent a “who’s-who” of American business leadership, and they recently met with President Obama upon the report’s release. Quotes from press coverage after the meeting were revealingly strong.

Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric (NYSE: GE): “We have a policy today. Our policy is uncertainty…I’d say status quo for this country is a losing hand.”

Ursula Burns, CEO and Chairwoman of Xerox (NYSE: XRX): “The incident in the Gulf just kind of intensified this discussion – that we have a fragile, brittle system.”

But it is the presence and statements of Bill Gates, the legendary founder and Chairman of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), that are telling. Until now, Gates has been largely silent on energy and environmental matters. However, as you can see in a posted video, Gates is now beginning to speak up on these issues.

Gates said in a news conference after the meeting with Obama that he and his fellow business leaders hoped “that any energy bill, particularly that’s raising revenue, should be heavily influenced by the Council’s report” to put more revenue into energy research.

To the humanitarian Gates, the world’s poor are “going to be the ones, when there are climate change effects, who suffer by far the most. And they need cheap energy. That’s actually something that unites the rich and poor.”

Note that Gates didn’t waffle by saying “if” about climate change. It’s a matter of when and where climate change will start biting.

Of course, the technoscenti don’t view Gates with the same esteem as, for instance, a Steve Jobs of Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL). While not as exalted as Jobs, as the second wealthiest person in the world (who pals around with the world’s third wealthiest person, Warren Buffett), Gates ought to have a lot more impact with those who control the really big dollars (not just public but private and philanthropic).

So, when someone like Gates starts making noises that our current approach to energy and environmental issues is untenable, perhaps it’s a sign of bigger changes afoot in the cleantech realm.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Pragmatism for the New President

by Richard T. Stuebi

I consider myself an equal opportunity offender. Many people in the energy industry or those who for some reason don’t believe in climate change think I’m somewhat of a radical. On the other hand, many ardent environmentalists think I’m too apologetic, conservative or pessimistic about what carbon reductions can realistically be achieved in what time frames and at what costs.

Therefore, I appreciate it when I find someone who makes well-argued, nuanced and balanced statements like those I would attempt to make. A recent example: a September speech at the Metropolitan Club in Washington DC by David J. O’Reilly, the Chairman and CEO of Chevron (NYSE: CVX).

I was particularly pleased by his comments on renewable energy and climate change. O’Reilly was quite clear and blunt: “Renewable energy is very real. We need it. It will be an essential part of the future I envision.” His only caveat, which I agree with: “It’s not realistic to suppose that it can replace conventional energy in a timeframe that some suggest,” referring to Al Gore’s well-intentioned but wishful-thinking goal of 100% U.S. electricity supply from renewable energy by 2018.

As for climate change, his comments were also measured and reasonable: “There is no doubt that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased. And although there is uncertainty about the future impacts on climate, most people agree that it’s not a good idea to continue unrestricted hydrocarbon combustion. And I agree.” This line acknowledges that climate science is still subject to considerable uncertainty (see, as one example, a recent paper published in Geophysical Review Letters by two MIT Earth and Planetary Sciences professors), while at the same insisting that it’s very worthwhile to move concertedly towards lower carbon intensity in the likely case that the increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to unfavorable impacts on the planet.

O’Reilly closes by noting the importance for the next President to mobilize the public in a sustained commitment for change. “We need collaboration to achieve real progress. Businesses and consumers need affordable energy. Young and old want renewable energy. Republicans and Democrats seek reduced emissions….Today, public sentiment supports action on energy policy. That action should lead to a future of greater energy efficiency, enhanced supplies of all forms of energy and reduced emissions. While I am concerned about the urgency of the situation today, I’m also optimistic. I believe that, by the time my grandchildren are my age, our energy system will look much different. But we must get started now.”

Wise words, in my humble opinion. Let’s hope our new President can pull us together, in the face of declining oil prices and weakening economic conditions, towards a new resolve on energy.

A good start for the President-elect would be to read an open letter written by Ernest Moniz, the Director of the MIT Energy Initiative in this month’s Technology Review. Moniz’s four-pronged recommendation for a major step-up in Federal commitment:

1. Implement carbon dioxide emissions pricing, presumably through a cap-and-trade system
2. Add a surcharge on energy to generate $10-15 billion annually for the next 10-15 years to spend on development and deployment of new low-carbon energy technologies
3. Establish a mechanism spanning the various bureaucracies of the Federal government that will lead to a truly coherent energy policy — perhaps by appointing an energy advisor to the President
4. Commit to implementing a “smart grid” within 10 years

When one considers that the Federal government now allocates less than 3% of its research dollars to energy, down from10% in 1980, it seems pretty clear that the U.S. doesn’t put its money where its mouth used to be, and needs to get much more serious. Step one will be a President who himself is serious, and doesn’t fall prey to cheap populism or get swayed by protecting the interests of a select set of constituencies.

We need to stop the dogma and hyberbole from both sides, buckle down, and get on with it. I hope our new President can lead the way.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Blogroll Review: Biocrude, Alaska, & Policy

by Frank Ling

Waste to Oil

Think you need special enzymes to convert plant materials into fuel? It looks like science is getting closer to eliminating that step. Pretty soon we might be able to directly convert crop residues, waste paper, and pretty much anything organic into bio-crude, which is essentially oil.

The secret ingredient? Heat. It turns out that raising the temperature breaks the bonds of organic materials (in fact heat pretty much breaks any bond at a high enough temperature) through a process known as pyrolysis.

Jim Fraser, in a recent article at the Energy Blog, explains how this works:

Fast pyrolysis is a process in which the organic materials are rapidly heated to 450 – 600 °C at atmospheric pressure in the absence of air. Under these conditions, organic vapours, pyrolysis gases and charcoal are produced. The vapours are condensed to bio-oil. Typically, 70-75 wt.% of the feedstock is converted into oil.

The product can be used not only to replace gasoline and diesel, it can be used as feedstock for the chemical industry.

Steamed Alaska

Geothermal power is coming to a resort near you. At least the ones in Alaska.

At the Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks, Alaska engineers have created a breakthrough hydrothermal system that generates power using “low-temperature” reservoir water at 165 F, in contrast to conventional systems that required at least 300 F.

Jack Moins writes in EcoGeek:

The plant cost a mere $2.2 million to build as it uses all off the shelf parts. It produces 200 kw at a cost of 5 cents per kwh, compared to the former costs of 30 cents per kwh when using diesel. The design is projected to pay for itself within four to five years. Hydrothermal power is very promising, as it is estimated that the water beneath the Earth’s surface holds 50,000 times the amount of energy in the remaining gas and coal resources

Among its innovations, the system uses a three-pressure system and ammonia-water cycles, which limits the use of toxic coolants. With this early success, the entire town of Chena is adopting hydrothermal for its buildings and a greenhouse for food production

U.S. Climate Legislation

All the major US presidential candidates are making global warming a part of the their platform. Whoever wins, policy for energy, environment, and even agriculture are bound to change significantly.

But democracy is not always a fast process. Dan Reicher, director of climate and energy initiatives for and former U.S. assistant energy secretary, says that the next president will indeed push for change but any regulations will take time to phase in.

Rachel Barron, in Green Tech Media, writes:

2009 could bring a dramatic increase in support from Congress for R&D and more favorable approaches to clean-energy incentives.

Frank Ling is a postdoctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley. He is also a producer of the Berkeley Groks Science Show.

Which Way to the Sun? Where is Solar Headed?

I had a chance to talk with David Hochschild, the outgoing Executive Director of PV Now about his thoughts on the solar industry and recent changes. PVNow is an industry association that, among other things, helped lobby for the net metering and the solar initiative in California and increased RPS standards in Texas and New Jersey. David is a well-known advocate and speaker on solar issues.

David, can you give us a bit of background as to PV Now, and your role in the industry?

Sure. I co-founded Vote Solar in 2002 after working on the $100 M solar bond campaign in San Francisco. More info at For the last year, I have been Executive Director of PV Now, the consortium of major solar companies, working to promote pro-solar policy at the state level.

While PV is the only viable solution for small point of use electric generation, solar thermal is generally considered a hugely more economic solar solution at multi-megawatts scale than PV, but PV gets all the press in its drive to compete with the grid at large scale. Why is that? Understanding that your focus is PV, how would you like to see solar thermal fit in the solution set?

Am a huge fan of solar thermal and am getting a thermal system installed on my house this weekend, actually. I think PV gets more attention in California partly because we experienced an energy crisis that was really an electricity crisis and the blackouts were an electricity problem. But the contribution solar thermal can make is very real and very important and I think the passage of the ITC bill this year, if it happens, will do a great deal for solar thermal. States like Hawaii and countries like Israel already have a 30% market penetration for solar thermal and there’s no reason CA couldn’t as well. A little known fact – the country with the most solar thermal in the world is China. My personal view is that US should be leading in both PV and solar thermal and that if we can get the 8 year solar tax credit bill passed this year (HR 550), we will be in position to retake the lead.

It feels like there has been a changing of the guard in terms of the leaders in PV module production. What’s your take? Who would you rank as the up and comers?

I think China is emerging and we’ll see companies like Suntech really continue to grow rapidly. Older industry leaders, like BP, that used to dominate, are now sliding down the rankings of PV manufacturers. It’s also a good time for American solar manufacturers like SunPower and Evergreen, which are growing fast and are aided by the emergence of more state-based US PV markets like PA, TX, NJ, and AZ, in addition to CA.

And similarly on the integrator and installer side – what does the future hold? How do these companies best survive in a much more competitive environment?

I think there will be a major changing of the guard here too and things will get more sophisticated, which is long overdue. The installation cost of PV in Germany is about 30% less than the US so there is a lot of cost cutting to be found in installation. The savings are not just going to come from better manufacturing. Things like mountings systems, electronic shade analysis, snap-connects, better installation methods, customer energy calculators, reducing the # of site visits, all these factors bring down costs.

PV concentrators – I have long felt that concentrators are in a catch-22: if PV module costs don’t fall rapidly (as the industry works hard to drive them down), then the solar industry will struggle anyway, but if PV costs do fall as rapidly as expected – then why would the industry need concentrator technology whose primary advantage is reducing the amount of PV module? What’s your take?

If you are referring to technologies like Solaria’s – that take a concentrating lens and amplifly the amount of light on a PV panel – that will move forward and be important no matter what happens to the cost of PV because the lens will always be cheaper than silicon and the benefit you get from them is profound. I am optimistic about this sector in particular because, if they get it right, it could bring PV costs for conventional silicon technology down by 30% or more, fairly quickly. But there are still obstacles to be worked out such as heat gain and how you deal with that, which is a major issue in PV performance.

And where the rubber meets the road, do you have a PV system on your roof? If so, who did you buy it from, whose technology did you pick and why? If not, whose technology would you use?

I live in San Francisco by Dolores park and my wife and I have a 2kW system on our house that we installed in 2000. BP panels. If I were doing it today, I would opt for a higher efficiency panel such as SunPower.

After thinking about it a bit, I’d asked David to clarify a couple of his comments.

Can you elaborate a little on large solar thermal – like parabolic trough projects. I see little reason to do a large grid connected 5-10+ MW PV system, instead of a solar trough system. What are your thoughts on the competitive situation between PV and solar thermal trough power as PV tries to get to “grid scale”?

You’re absolutely right about CSP. I just visited the new CSP plant outside Las Vegas – 64 MW. And it is a superior technology for central station solar generation. No question. And that will only get better as newer synthetic oils come on to the market that can be heated to hotter temperatures than are currently possible (750 degrees is about the limit and that is a major constraint on how much power CSP can produce but this is likely to change soon). The federal ITC was the only reason that Nevada CSP plant got built so we can expect a lot more if the ITC gets extended.

I think the role that PV is best suited for is rooftop applications and there is so much available roofspace in this country, it’s ridiculous. So large scale PV is great, but in my view, it is best for rooftops rather than deserts.

Also, as to our discussion on changing of the guard, BP Solar among others has announced some major expansions.

Does this indicate that the “old guard” is likely to retake market share? It has been suggested to me that the some of the market share changes were related to silicon supply constraints that are now easing.

Regarding BP, yes they are making capacity expansions, but so is everyone. Nobody in this sector is NOT growing. The question is how fast they are growing. And I do think we are witnessing a major shakeup and many of the companies that were top market leaders over the last 5 years will not be over the next 5 years.

Myself, I tend to agree with David on this. While it is hard to pin down winners and losers, rapidly growing markets and changing competitive dynamics and cost curves do not make for stable market shares. It will be interesting to watch.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.

A Call for Action

by Richard T. Stuebi

A Call for Action: that’s the title of the introductory report by the newly formed United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP).

The USCAP is a group of organizations who have come together to press the U.S. Federal government to stop arguing and start taking real action to address climate change. And, from what I read in the report, it’s very encouraging, not just “green-wash”.

USCAP states that “we know enough to act on climate change”, and recommends “national legislation in the United States to slow, stop and reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions over the shortest period of time reasonably achieveable.” USCAP “pledge[s] to work with the President, the Congress, and all other stakeholders to enact an environmentally effective, economically sustainable, and fair climate change program consistent with our principles at the earliest practicable date” .

USCAP strongly argues for “mandatory approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the major emitting sectors”. And, the targets they propose are not toothless: current levels within 5 years of enactment, 90-100% of current levels within 10 years of enactment, 70-90% of current levels within 15 years of enactment, and — most importantly — 20-40% of current levels by 2050.

These are not the positions of parties that merely want to appear concerned about the environment. These statements are very consistent with those of leading environmental organizations — which shouldn’t be that surprising, given that several USCAP members are in fact leading activists on the climate change issue: Environmental Defense, NRDC, Pew Center on Global Climate Change and World Resources Institute.

Let’s give due credit to the corporate members of USCAP, who are making it increasingly acceptable for the private sector to get on board the bandwagon for promoting action to combat climate change:

Alcoa (NYSE: AA)
Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT)
Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK)
DuPont (NYSE: DD)
PG&E Corporation (NYSE: PCG)
PNM Resources (NYSE: PNM)

Unfortunately, these companies are far ahead of many others who should also be, but aren’t, on this list advocating for climate change action.

Hopefully, with ongoing pressure from the public, politicians, peers and investors, the list of USCAP members will grow to include all the major players in the energy and financial worlds. Maybe then we’ll finally see the stalemate in DC on climate change start to break. Until then, the companies on the roster of shame remains way too long for me to list here.

If you own shares in energy companies that aren’t on this list, you might write to urge management to get aboard the USCAP movement, and to reposition the company accordingly. Or, you might want to think about dumping the stock, as it might not fare well in a carbon-constrained future, given the company’s apparent preference for clinging to the past in a defensive posture rather than seeking to seize the future.

Richard Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy.