What’s Changed in Cleantech Investing? Two things: Economics and Returns

I’ve been investing in cleantech since 2001, founded a bunch of startups, and have a good stack of exits to my name across every cleantech investing wave. In fact my last 4 investments have all exited. Not sure I’ll ever be able to say that again. And renewable power is cheaper than fossil. It’s fun to be able to say that now with a straight face.

Reflecting back, while a lot has changed, much has stayed the same. What has fundamentally changed are improved economics, and massively increased sizes of capital, exits, and returns, besides the obvious climate and policy pushes behind the energy transition. What hasn’t, is mispricing of risk. But hey, that’s what being a venture investor is all about, right?

Economics

Unlike a dozen years ago, when investing in cleantech was all about policy and we called it alternative energy because renewables were fundamentally more expensive than fossil: today it’s cheaper to build a renewable power plant than it is to even run a fossil fuel power plant. Policy frameworks are less the driver than energy economics. A decade ago policy frameworks were still a crucial minimum condition. Lazard research has been reporting for a while that in the US the average cost of solar and wind was cheaper than just the marginal cost of coal and gas generation. And shows energy storage within striking distance of peaking power plants at scale. If you haven’t read the Lazard report, it’s a must read. And in a great article on emerging markets, long a hard place for renewables to outcompete cheap coal, Bloomberg just noted solar is cheaper than coal in India.  Collapsing costs primarily in batteries and solar, have fundamentally and likely permanently altered the underlying economics of the key technologies in favor of cleantech and energy transition companies. This isn’t going away even if you think the policy frameworks are. And yes, on an unsubsidized basis.

Venture Returns – Is anyone making money?

The other change is increased raw size of markets, exits and returns.  A decade ago, returns in cleantech for venture funds still looked dicey, and while money was being made, the exist smaller, successes were much narrower, especially for mainstream venture funds who struggled to port their investment models from IT to cleantech. And I actually know a few funds from the early days that literally returned zero. Not just zero profits like 1x capital. Like awfully close to absolute 0x capital.  And for much of the last decade the private company unicorn phenomenon that drove a huge chunk of venture returns largely skipped cleantech deals, with only a handful of unicorns (C3 Energy as a rare example one of the few on the unicorn list for quite a while). In fact most of the key IPO and M&A exits were well in the <$1 Bil level – and the valley investor’s funds largely struggled with the sector. And aftermarket performance of cleantech IPOs in the pre 2010 timeframe was also choppy, even a rockstar company like First Solar is still 75% off its 2008 high (even though it’s at $92/sh vs the 2006 IPO of $20).

The returns improved in the succeeding 5 years. I was asked by one of my colleagues at Shell in 2015 what the best cleantech venture backed exits were. At the time, it was the Tesla IPO ($226 mm raised /$1.6 Bil IPO 2010), 60% Acq of Sunpower/Total ($1.4 Bil 2011), and Nest/Google ($3.2 Bil 2014), with a couple of dozen solid return venture backed exits mainly in the $50mm to $500 mm range.  Including a few nice IPOs like Sunrun ($251 mm raised/$1.36 Bil IPO 2015), OPower ($116 mm raised/$1 Bil IPO 2014), Silver Spring ($81 mm raised/$750 mm IPO 2013) and a few others. There were good exits, and plenty of money getting made for disciplined investors, but soon crowded out by other venture markets. However capital returns in cleantech in the last decade have not looked back, with a fatter tail post exit for long term holders than often in the early exit, and recent dramatically rising exit values.

Turns out that was just the beginning.  My favorite example now when asked did VCs make money in cleantech in the first wave? That single 2004 vintage venture backed deal and 2010 IPO, Tesla Motors, currently at $675 Bil in Market Cap, has alone carried insane venture like returns even if calculated on all the capital invested by the entire cleantech venture capital sector over its entire history, ignoring every other exit. 

Risk

The latest exit trend du jour is of course SPAC heaven, and while we all know this is likely to end rather badly, they have driven significant venture exits and returns, perhaps at the risk of poor aftermarket performance. But all is not forlorn, many of even the early IPO wins like Tesla, Sunrun and Enphase have literally seen venture like multi X growth and returns post listing – were investors to hold on.  And that’s likely to happen again – for the good companies. I had a great chat with an old friend Ira Ehrenpreis, an early Tesla investor, the other day on this very topic of when to hold and when to sell. Ira put his money where his mouth was and held Tesla. In that case it was definitely the right call – and not one I would have made as I’d likely have taken those awesome profits at or around the IPO in his shoes. Holding would also have been the right call with Sunrun and Enphase, which didn’t hit their stride until well post IPO, but not Opower, which peaked near its IPO at just under a billion, and was acquired by Oracle for about half of that a bit later. Will it be for the army of cleantech SPAC deals that don’t yet have product or revenue?

But what about non tech assets? When we turn to the global asset scale the numbers get just even more mind numbingly large. Just consider the global wind and solar asset investments which have been averaging just under a $1 Trillion every 36 months, at a relentlessly increasing MW/$. The industry is now up to the entire annual GDP of Germany spent on renewables generation globally in aggregate, and adding at the rate of one Philippines or Pakistan GDP every year, or one Italy every 3 years. Put in energy $ terms, annual renewables investment is already at about 2/3rds of the world’s annual E&P investment in oil & gas, and total renewables assets are now equal to total assets in BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, plus the top 10 national oil companies combined, and adding at the rate of a new major oil company by assets about every 365 days. And see paragraph above, power from those renewables is cheaper per kwh than the power from those fossil assets. Put in Silicon Valley terms, global renewables power generation alone, not technology, or anything else in cleantech, is adding just in assets the equivalent to the aggregate market cap of 100 average new tech unicorns each year.

These investments and exits and returns are not just PPP (“Paris, Policy, and Prayer”). And they have driven new corporate and financial investors into the sector.  Amazon for $2 Bil here, Bill Gates for a Billion there, Chevron, Shell, Aramco, etc for a few hundred million each in venture, and finally you’re looking at real money. Check out the fun WSJ article SPAC Demand to Draw VCs to Cleantech, for another take.  While writing this, two more, Quanergy and Embark, just announced in the last week. The returns aren’t just SPAC fodder of course. Solar products and services company Shoals Technologies, a 2021 IPO, and the most recent clean energy unicorn Aurora Solar, providing software to the industry, highlight the growing strength outside of SPACs.

However, like in the 2005-2010 time frame, risk is again getting mispriced by investors on a grand scale. That time it was thin film solar and cellulosic biofuels, and this time again SPACs are our perfect whipping post. Cases in point include Lordstown Motors, following on the Nikola debacle. Here are my favorite Lordstown articles:

Lordstown Motors warns investors it may go out of business – CNN.

Lordstown president dumped his stock to reportedly expand his turkey hunting farm – Yahoo! Finance

Watch the CEO on Jim Cramer discussing all his “orders”, and then Squawkbox discussing the meltdown, Jim Cramer discussing “where’d the orders go and I can’t help you anymore“.

Does anyone really want to bet against a sea change in mobility? Probably not. But did anyone not see the Nikola and Lordstown implosion coming? Anyone? And yet they are still at $7 Bil and $2 Bil market caps. Which would rank somewhere pretty high on the list of the top cleantech exits of all time up until like 24 months ago. A quote from an investor friend, “I know we should short it, but who really wants to take that risk?” I’ll let you decide whether the risk in those two are still mispriced…

This also highlights that no one in cleantech talks about the valley of death in cleantech financing anymore. A huge topic at every conference a dozen years ago. Good, and even no so great companies have access to later stage, corporate, and public capital that wasn’t visible a decade ago. Opening of course, the need for someone to fund some early stage companies to grow up and sell to the rest of the SPACs, right?

But bottom line, this is not 2008. It’s 2021, and the hype may be back, but the things that really matter in cleantech investing are very, very different.

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