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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.

Failing The Course: Energy Economics and Subsidies

When I was a young lad in college, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early 1980s, I took a course in energy economics taught by Prof. Morris Adelman.  I was an anomaly:  there were probably no more than a handful of courses then being taught in energy economics in the colleges and universities around the world, and Adelman was one of the very few people around who could have plausibly been called an “energy economist”.

Thirty years on, and the relative dearth of economic understanding in the energy sector persists.

Certainly, there is much more attention now being paid to the intersection of energy and economics at centers of higher education, but these professors are teaching students who will be leaders 20-40 years from now.

Most of today’s leaders involved in energy policy, who went to school decades ago (as I did), do not seem to have been exposed to (or if so, to have grasped) the importance of economic principles when setting energy policies.

Perhaps this economic ignorance in the energy policy realm is most apparent by the prevalence of energy subsidies.

As I’ve posted before, energy subsidies are powerful and dangerous things:  powerful because they are effective, dangerous because their effects can be bad.

And how prevalent are they?  The International Monetary Fund just issued a new study, entitled “Energy Policy Reform: Lessons and Implications”, that brings a fresh analysis of this difficult-to-measure topic.

By IMF’s estimates, on a worldwide basis, energy subsidies of all types summed to nearly $2.5 trillion in 2011, equating to over 3% of global economic output (GDP).

Certainly, some of the less-developed kleptocratic oil producing countries of the world are among the worst performers.  For instance, under the despotic rule of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela directed nearly 17% of its economic output into energy subsidies.

However, the U.S. performed no better than the world average, with fully 2.4% of its GDP subsidizing American petroleum markets.

This is not a good thing at all.  As the IMF notes right at the top of the executive summary of the report:

“Energy subsidies have wide-ranging economic consequences.  While aimed at protecting consumers, subsidies aggravate fiscal imbalances, crowd-out priority public spending, and depress private investment, including in the energy sector.  Subsidies also distort resource allocation by encouraging excessive energy consumption, artificially promoting capital-intensive industries, reducing incentives for investment in renewable energy, and accelerating the depletion of natural resources.  Most subsidy benefits are captured by higher-income households, reinforcing inequality.”

In all, it’s a long litany of ails that are amplified by energy subsidies.  And yet, they persist.  Why?

Do I really need to answer that question?

Whether future leaders have the strength to prevail over political forces that aim to preserve and enhance energy subsidies remains to be seen.  However, it is cause for some hope that a greater number of future leaders are being better taught about energy economics and better informed by estimates such as those produced by the IMF.

Let’s hope these future leaders pass their energy economics courses — not only when they attend school, but more importantly, when they’re out in the real world and make decisions and recommendations and actions that have consequence to us all.

Failure Is An Option: Cost Is Not No Object

I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to polls about energy issues.  Way too often, the questions are posed in such a way that they practically compel the respondent to answer in a certain way. 

Seriously:  if someone asks you “would you like the energy you use to have less environmental impact?”, are you going to answer “no”?

Valuable polls force people to make tough tradeoffs, as it is under “either-or” situations that true preferences are more accurately revealed.  In the case of energy polls, since most consumers are fundamentally economic decision-makers, questions have to be wedded to the potential dollars-and-cents implications.

And so I put a bit more credence in the results of a recent poll by the investment banking firm Lazard (NYSE: LAZ), in which they asked U.S. voters how much more they were willing to pay for lower-carbon sources of electricity. 

As reported in an article by the Financial Times, the Lazard poll indicates that, on a scale of 1-10 (1 meaning highly unwilling, 10 meaning highly willing), only 21% of respondents reported a score of at least 8 in terms of willingness to pay more for clean energy, with an average willingness to pay of an extra $9.74 on the monthly electricity bill.

Since the average American household spends about $100 per month on electricity, these findings suggest that the average American would be willing to tolerate about a 10% increase in electricity bills.  Implicitly, this means that the average American would be willing to pay about twice as much as they normally pay for electricity — for 10% of their electricity supply.  Given that the average price of electricity in the U.S. is about 10 cents/kwh, the typical American would thus be willing to spend up to 20 cents/kwh for 10% of their electricity to support an accelerated transition to cleaner power generation. 

Unfortunately, many clean electricity generation options — especially those that can achieve large-scale in the many locations not endowed with truly excellent renewable resources — remain at costs at or above 20 cents/kwh delivered to the customer. 

Consequently, it’s unrealistic for clean electricity technologies to supply more than a small portion of the overall power generation portfolio in the U.S. unless and until that fact changes.

In other words, without significant cost reductions, the promise of many clean energy technologies will remain just that:  promise.  Customers — citizens, voters — will not bend over backwards economically to foster a high degree of penetration of new clean energy technologies.  And, we’ll keep more or less doing what we’re doing today.

Against this backdrop, it’s interesting to read the recent report by Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), “The Impact of Clean Energy Innovation”.  Google recognizes that the clean energy movement needs significant cost breakthroughs to become massive in scale, and aims to depict what could happen if such breakthroughs were achieved over the next few decades:  offshore wind down from 20 cents/kwh today to below 5 cents/kwh, solar from 15-20 cents/kwh today to 2-4 cents/kwh, and carbon-sequestered coal generation from ???? (i.e., unavailable) today to below 5 cents/kwh.

As much as anything, the report is a call to unstick the lethargy and break from the status quo do-nothing posture that tends to befall the energy sector.  It’s as if Google aims to goad the energy industry into action, with such implorations as “Technologies that innovate fastest win” — something that Google should know about first-hand.  The closing line of the study couldn’t be any clearer in prodding for acceleration:  “The benefits [of energy innovation] are clear, so let’s go!” 

But Google is fundamentally a nimble and entrepreneurial Internet company, and they are shouting into the din of the massive and bureaucratic energy sector.  It seems naive, to me, that their words will resonate with their (presumably) intended audience.

Alas, along with the rah-rah cheerleading, the Google report’s authors also identify the immense obstacles to the path they themselves promote.  Notably, they confess that “smart policies are needed to drive innovation.”  In today’s toxic political environment, it is difficult to imagine any substantive new policies encouraging further energy innovation being implemented, much less so-called “smart” policies — always difficult to achieve in the best of times.

And, as Devon Swezey of the Breakthrough Institute notes in his recent essay “The Coming Clean Tech Crash” in the Huffington Post, “In an era of heightened budget austerity,  the subsidies required to make clean energy artificially cheaper are becoming unsustainable.”

At bottom, Google recognizes the challenge:  “Coal is very hard to displace on economics alone.”  Coal-fired generation is just so damned cheap (as long as environmental issues are overlooked), that its 50+% market share in the U.S. will be hard to dent materially if the invisible hand of the market is the only hand on the tiller.

Compounding the issue is the return of cheap natural gas.  As Google notes, greater utilization of natural gas generation driven by recent low gas prices would be good in the short-term for reducing emissions, but will slow innovation leading to wider-scale deployment of truly clean (i.e., zero or near-zero emissions) energy solutions truly necessary for the long-term:  yet another example of the type of tradeoffs often faced in the energy sector and indeed in society at large — with the short-term usually winning out over the long-term.

So, ultimately, a cleantech utopia is only achieveable with major technology breakthroughs to reduce costs to politically acceptable levels, yet clean energy innovation is greatly hindered (though not entirely stymied) by many of the forces at work.  This is the playing field on which we in the cleantech sector are faced with playing.  Sound like fun to you? 

Before you opt in, be aware that failure is indeed an option.  Don’t jump into the game thinking that this will be easy, because it will be anything but.  And, the way to score big points in the game is to reduce costs, period.

Dollars and Sense For Energy

One of the most important yet overlooked points about the penetration of clean energy into the marketplace is that there’s pretty much only one thing that matters:  cost.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  people buy all sorts of things — clothes, cars, electronic gadgets — based on non-economic factors, but energy is purchased based on its price. 

Think of it this way:  How much attention do you pay to the price of a gallon of gasoline?  Of beer?

Generally speaking, energy is a commodity, hard to differentiate, making price the main purchasing factor.  So, when some people object to clean energy technologies, the primary basis for their complaint is typically that it costs too much relative to other (typically incumbent, typically dirtier) energy sources. 

“Making the Case for Clean Energy” by Gabriel Miller, Camilla Sharples and Paul Ho of Hudson Clean Energy Partners does a nice job of comparing the costs of alternative sources of energy supply.  In particular, there’s an excellent graphic in the article depicting the reduction in cost of new energy technologies over the past 100 years as they are introduced and gain traction in the marketplace — thereby giving lots of evidence in support of the claim that new energy technologies will get more cost-competitive over time.

While we can’t rest assured, and must work to make those economic gains happen, those of us in the cleantech space have nothing to apologize for:  if history is any guide, new clean energy technologies will get cheaper over time, and can in many (most?) cases become cost-competitive with fossil fuels — especially as they get scarcer and dearer.