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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.

 

Rethinking the Role of Government in Cleantech

Another year, another wringing of the hands over tax credits and incentives for clean technology.

Lobbyists and vendors in the U.S. are once again singing the blues, calling for continued and expanding government investments in clean technology. At the same time, political challengers continue their Solyndra hootenanny, raking the current administration for how it spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

One can’t help but wonder whether it’s time for a different tune when it comes to government involvement in cleantech.

Perhaps conversations about policy support should be less about giving more taxpayer money to prop up the space, and more about elected officials setting long term market stability and enabling the private sector to deploy capital to assume risk in cleantech.

Why? First, some background…

Down with incentives
Every time U.S. tax credits for renewable energy development come up for renewal, the cleantech sector cringes at having to once again “play chicken” with whichever administration is incumbent at the time.

The U.S. Production Tax Credit (PTC), which provides a 2.2-cent per kilowatt-hour benefit for the first ten years of a renewable energy facility’s operation, was born in 1992. But it’s had a hardscrabble life, clinging to life support after seven one and two-year extensions bestowed alternately by Republican and Democratic Congresses. Neither major American party has been willing to show long term incentive support for renewable energy.

The PTC for incremental hydro, wave and tidal energy, geothermal, MSW, and bioenergy was extended until the end of 2013. But the production tax credit for wind expires at the end of 2012. And that’s got wind lobby groups girding up. In a recent statement, American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) CEO Denise Bode cited a study suggesting Congressional inaction on the PTC “will kill 37,000 American jobs, shutter plants and cancel billions of dollars in private investment.” The same study suggested extending the wind PTC could allow the industry to grow to 100,000 jobs in just four years. Expect this battle to simmer all summer.

The unpredictability around cleantech incentives is taking its toll. “The U.S. is hitting a brick wall with the cessation of benefits,” remarked John Carson, CEO of Alterra Power, on the subject at a recent cleantech investment conference I co-chaired in Toronto. He wasn’t happy, and do you blame him? Nobody likes living hand to mouth. But that’s what happens when you rely on credits and incentives like the PTC or its loved and loathed counterpart in the U.S., the Investment Tax Credit (ITC).

And then there are the cleantech subsidies provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), which are now winding down.

If it feels that clean technology vendors and lobbyists are spending an undue amount of energy and resources chasing such subsidies worldwide, they likely are.

Up with mandates and standards
Rather than funding and administering subsidies to help the clean and green tech sectors find their footing, a case could be made that governments should focus on passing aggressive policy mandates, standards and codes.

Instead of using taxpayer money to make technology bets, regional and national governments could focus on passing laws, including broad brush stroke ones like the renewable portfolio standards in the U.S. that mandate a certain percentage of power from renewable sources by certain dates, and then step back and let the private sector figure out how to deliver. Or mandate change more granularly—for example, that coal power plants need to meet certain efficiency or emissions standards by certain dates, and, again, let the private sector figure out how. (Ironically, if there were more public support to actually clean up coal power instead of simply disingenuously parroting, beginning in 2008, that “there’s no such thing as clean coal” and throwing up our hands because environmental ads told us “clean coal doesn’t exist today”—and if that translated into political will and a mandate—cleaner coal power could exist today. Yes, there’d be a penalty on the nameplate capacity of plants’ output, but there’d also be billions saved in health care costs. But we digress.)

Taxpayers should take their politicians to task for trying to play venture capitalist, i.e. by investing their money in trying to pick winners (a la Solyndra) in complicated markets. Professional venture capitalists themselves, who focus on their game full-time, barely pick one winner in 10 investments.

Drawbacks of incentives
How could government grants, loans, tax credits and other subsidies possibly be bad in cleantech? Free money is good, right? Here’s a list of drawbacks to these incentives, some of them not as obvious as others:

  • They can go away and cause market disruption – to wit, the points earlier in this article.
  • The existence of loans and grants silences critics – Few speak out against pots of free money, because they might want or need to dip into them in the future.
  • Incentives favor only those willing to apply for them – and therefore are often missed by companies working on disruptive, fast-moving tech, or who are focused on taking care of customers’ needs.
  • Criteria are often too narrowly defined – Criteria for incentives often favor certain technology (solar photovoltaic over other solar, or ethanol over other biofuels), and as a result, lock out other legitimate but different approaches.
  • Picking winners means designating losers – Recipients of government grants or loan guarantees get capital and an associated halo of being an anointed company. Those that don’t are comparatively disadvantaged.
  • Not the best track record – Incentives go to companies best staffed to apply for and lobby for them. And those aren’t necessarily the companies that could use the capital the most effectively, e.g. to compete in world markets, or create the most jobs.

What governments could and should be doing
In the cleantech research and consulting we do worldwide at Kachan & Co., we’ve come to believe that governments are best focused on activities to create large and sustained markets for clean technology products and services.

Doing so gives assurance to private investors that there will be continued demand for their investments—one of the most important prerequisites to get venture capital, limited partners and other institutional investors to write large checks.

Given that objective, governments should, in our opinion, pursue:

  • Setting mandates and standards – e.g. the amount of power generated from renewable sources, new targets for fuel efficiency, green building or other dimensions.
  • Improving codes and other regulations – making building codes more stringent could drive energy efficiency, green building and smart grid investment.
  • Building the talent pool
  • Stabilizing the economy
  • Fostering political stability
  • Commitment to infrastructure projects – including water, transportation and grid.
  • Building showcase projects – regions wanting to foster local cleantech can do as Abu Dhabi has done with itsMasdar initiativeas Saudi Arabia is now doing with solar, or as China has done with hundreds of green development zones; in doing so, all three of these countries have sent strong signals to large corporations and investors that they view clean technology as strategic.
  • Rolling back so-called perverse government subsidy support today of the fossil fuel industry, including direct and indirect subsidies.

Cities as test beds of policy innovation
Interestingly, cities are emerging as petri dishes of progressive cleantech policy, and are increasingly where such innovation is taking place.

For instance, Barcelona has established that large companies need to create as much as 30% of their power from solar thermal technologies. The city of Berkeley, California pioneered what is now known as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, wherein property owners are able to pay for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on their property taxes. This month, Phoenix, Arizona introduced what it calls the largest city-sponsored residential solar financing program in the U.S. And New York City is taking the lead in residential demand response by trialing a program to curtail the consumption of 10,000 room air conditioners at times of high demand.

Given the world’s current financial malaise, and especially in light the Occupy momentum globally, I’m surprised more folks aren’t questioning how their governments spend their money in cleantech. Because, as described above, there are other arguably more effective ways elected officials can help usher in a cleaner, greener future than throwing around billions in incentives.

After all, how much fun would a pristine planet be if we’re all destitute because governments have crumbled under crushing debt?

This article was originally published here. Reposted by permission.

 

A former managing director of the Cleantech Group, Dallas Kachan is now managing partner of Kachan & Co., a cleantech research and advisory firm that does business worldwide from San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver. The company publishes research on clean technology companies and future trends, offers consulting services to large corporations, governments and cleantech vendors, and connects cleantech companies with investors through its Hello Cleantech™ programs. Kachan staff have been covering, publishing about and helping propel clean technology since 2006. Details at www.kachan.com. Dallas is also executive director of the Clean Mining Alliance.

Solar Eclipse

The sections of the blogosphere concerned with energy topics were abuzz last week with the news that Solyndra had filed for bankruptcy.  

Until recently one of the poster children for cleantech, Solyndra’s apparent demise was all the more notable due to its blue chip investor roster and its prominent selection by the Department of Energy in March 2009 for a $535 million loan guarantee.  Indeed, President Obama visited Solyndra’s facilities only 16 months ago touting the company as a shining example of cleantech innovation, job-creation, and wealth-creation.

Solyndra follows closely in the footsteps of fellow solar module manufacturer Evergreen (NASDAQ: ESLR) to receive substantial government financial support…and fail not long thereafter.

So many commentators have written about Solyndra in the last few days that I’m tempted to look at another topic for this week’s posting, but I feel compelled somehow to chip in my $0.02.

The first penny:  what is going on in the solar business that’s causing companies like these to crash and burn?  Isn’t the solar business booming? 

Yes, the solar business continues to grow rapidly.  One of the reasons that the industry is growing is that the price of solar energy is falling, becoming more economically attractive for more potential customers.  This is a good thing.  However, it does put pressure on the companies that make products for the solar marketplace.  Simply put, like most forms of energy, solar energy is generally a commodity, where lower-cost producers win and high-cost producers either have to improve or die.

By its own account, Solyndra was not the lowest-cost producer:  its product was inherently more expensive, but promised other advantages that would reduce costs elsewhere in the total installed solar energy system.  It’s quite possible that these theoretical advantages never really materialized, as most implementers of solar projects – while still with plenty of room for innovation – have begun to standardize their business practices (e.g., sales, marketing, procurement, installation) relative to conventional PV modules, most of which are available from other suppliers at a lower cost.  In other words, Solyndra’s proposed solution did not neatly “fit” the marketplace in which it was competing.

While it is indeed good news that the price of solar modules has been falling, it’s nevertheless inescapable to point out that this trend is driven heavily by increasing penetration of supply from Chinese PV module manufacturers, capitalizing on their low cost structures and immense financial/policy support from the central government – neither of which are readily available to U.S. PV module innovators.  In other words, for newbies in the PV industry like Solyndra to succeed, they are going to have to produce a module at a cost comparable to those sourced from China – yet with higher wages and taxes, more stringent rules for doing business (e.g., environmental regulations), and less government support. 

If you say it can’t be done, you’d be wrong:  U.S. based First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR) is widely-recognized as the leader in today’s global PV market, with a very low cost structure due to several proprietary inventions.  The Chinese and new entrants from the U.S. alike will have to aim at First Solar as its target.  At the same time, First Solar will have to hustle to maintain its competitive edge in the dog-eat-dog solar business.

My second cent:  the hue-and-cry from many pundits that Solyndra’s collapse is evidence of faulty energy policy from the government – not just the loan guarantee program and Solyndra’s selection, but all of the efforts to promote clean energy technologies like solar energy.

There’s no question that the government is not great at picking winners.  In my view, it’s far more effective for the government to put in place market-based mechanisms with overarching goals, and then let the private sector players compete fairly.

The problem is, when it comes to the energy markets, those who oppose subsidies for renewable energy like the loan guarantee program are almost unanimously also opposed to any market-based mechanism that aims to internalize the cost of emissions associated with fossil fuel energy so as to make the playing field for clean energy closer to fair. 

(As an aside, these same opponents also tend to oppose the removal of subsidies for fossil fuel energy.  And, these same opponents also tend to deny that anthropogenic climate change is likely to be happening.  And, these same opponents also tend to oppose a variety of environmental regulations.  And, these same opponents are often led by sources of information that derive financial gain from fossil fuel interests.  A lot of generalizations in the above passage, and while generalizations are often dangerous and there are undoubtedly some exceptions, I feel comfortable in making these statements on the whole.)

Lacking any political will to try and structure the energy marketplace in the most logical manner to drive towards clean energy solutions, the government thus resorts to incremental, tactical, second-best (actually, probably closer to nth-best) policy mechanisms like the loan guarantee program.

As a venture capitalist, the loan guarantee program does very little to spawn technology innovation and support start-ups of interest to me.  Rather, the program is aimed to provide some security to lenders to offer debt for scaling up companies whose technologies are essentially proven.  The loan guarantee program mitigates execution risk in the growth or expansion stage, or in early project deployment.  Typically, the assets against which the loans are made (e.g., manufacturing equipment) have substantial residual value. 

Thus, as Solyndra goes through the liquidation process, the private sector lenders behind the company are likely to get some of their money back – and the hit to the taxpayer will probably end up being less than the face value of $535 million, although my fellow CleanTech Blog colleague Neal Dikeman is not too optimistic.  Time will tell.

As for concerns that Solyndra was improperly or inappropriately selected by the Obama Administration to receive the loan guarantee in the first place, this is an issue worth further investigation.  Improprieties wouldn’t surprise me, as I’ve sensed improprieties of similar flavors in various governmental operations and civic affairs over the past few years.  In my opinion, the U.S. has become a country in which government – federal, state and local – has become increasingly “pay-to-play”. 

If Solyndra turns out to be yet another example, it would bother me…but I would also add two further comments: 

1) I would be willing to bet a considerable sum that the list of companies in conventional energy that have recently received public sector finance benefits unfairly or unethically is very long (as “big energy” has lots of money and they throw it around very liberally in the lobbying arena), and

2) Let’s implement market-based mechanisms in the energy sector to discourage emissions, so that we can get rid of targeted subsidy programs where undue influence in government selection can occur.