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?


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. 


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.

Eco Pro 2013

This December, I had the pleasure of attending Eco-Products Exhibition (Eco-Pro) 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. Though not well known outside of Asia, Eco-Pro is the largest event of its kind in this part of the world. In its 15th year, 185, 000 visitors attended this years event with 711 participants showcasing their environment-oriented products, services, and technologies. Though a majority of them are well-known big companies, mid- or small-size enterprises (SMEs), NGOs, and universities had a large presence as well.

Every year, Eco-Pro features a particular theme. With the recovery of Fukushima on everyone’s mind and the uncertainty in fossil fuel supply, the focus on 2013 was on renewable energy.  In July 2012, the government of Japan introduced a feed-in tariff (FIT) to promote energy generation from renewable resources including solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. As a result, the application for the development of renewable energy reached 13 GW (million kW) in February 2013, only six months after the introduction of the FIT scheme. For investors in these projects, this policy guarantees 100% purchase of all power at a fixed price for electricity generated by solar PV systems larger than 10kW.

In spite of this monumental achievement, only about 10% is actually generating power. Japan still gets less than 2% of its energy from renewable sources (excluding hydropower).

The key to integration of renewable energy sources, which are highly intermittent, is it the deployment of energy storage systems to store energy when it is not needed and release it when demand is higher.

As one of the largest solar PV panel maker in the world, Kyocera is also operating a utility scale solar plant (so-called mega-solar projects) with a rating of 70 MW, enough to power 22,000 households in Kyushu. To store the excess energy produced during the daytime, the company has developed 14.4kWh lithium ion batteries at the household level. The capacity is sufficient to operate a refrigerator and TV simultaneously for 24 hours during power outages. While these units cost $24,000, smaller batteries from Panasonic can be purchased for as low as $9000.

The interface between renewable energy generators and the grid or battery system is an area of technology that is undergoing rapid innovation and is one of the barriers to deploying widespread renewable energy systems. In Japan, NEC has developed inverters that requires no power conditioning. That means direct current from a solar panel can go directly into a battery without being converted into alternating current (AC), which is how electricity is generally transmitted on a grid. This eliminates power loss and boosts overall efficiency.

While the technologies demonstrated here are inspiring, the institutional aspects of solar projects was also highlighted at this year’s Eco-Pro. Developing the market conditions to properly manage solar projects remains a big challenge. In Japan, mega-solar projects are typically profit-driven rather than as CSR. There is a concern that after the 20-year FIT period is over and the initial costs have been paid off, the operators may lose interest in maintaining these facilities, which would be a detriment to the local community it serves.

Nevertheless, these projects can contribute to the well-being of society if managed appropriately. For example, in Inami town in Wakayama prefecture, the local government is working with private businesses and its university to develop their solar project. This is the first public-private partnership of its kind of Japan and is operated by Plus Social. The company will take in the revenues under this scheme while supporting local activities in Wakayama prefecture and Kyoto. At the same time, Ryukoku University will play an important role in educating the public in Inami town.

Innovations in Vehicles

Another major area of innovation for the environment is in cars and other vehicles in the transportation sector. Complementing the integration of renewable energy are electric vehicles that could not only use emission-free electricity from the sun or wind, they can act at storage mediums to accommodate the variable nature of these sources on the grid. Below are three automotive technologies featured at this year’s Eco-Pro. They demonstrate new innovations that not only use less energy, but also reduce pollution.


toyotaToyota’s Prius has set the standard for hybrid vehicles with not only domestic sales but also a formidable international market. At this Eco-Pro, they showcased the new Prius HPV, which can be wirelessly charged when parked. By parking properly over a power source, the vehicle is charged by a system consisting of an on-board charging unit, a wireless communication control, and a secondary coil. It relies on resonance between the oscillating magnetic field between the two coils so that power can be transmitted to charge an exhausted battery. With the 4.4kWh lithium-ion battery pack, the car can be charged in 90 minutes.


BridgestoneAs one of the world’s largest producer or tires for vehicles, Bridgestone has begun development of next generation Air Free (non-pneumatic) tire. Today’s conventional tires requires an inner tube. Although their durability and use have improved substantial since vehicles first came on the road, their disposal has been problematic. Often they are left in landfills where the results could be toxic if they catch on tire. On the other hand, Bridgestone’s new concept tires have no inner tube or metal components inside.

With a unique structure of spokes stretching along the inner sides of the tires supporting the weight of the vehicle, there is no need to periodically refill the tires with air, meaning that the tires require less maintenance. At the same the worry of punctures is eliminated. The spoke structure within the tire is made from reusable thermoplastic resin, and along with the rubber in the tread portion, the materials used in the tires are 100 percent recyclable.

While the R&D and have only been going on a couple years, the company expects to commercialize them in a few years. They will first appear on light vehicles and those that travel short distances in the city.


mazdaAs companies around the world are now touting their efforts to improve the energy efficiency of their products but also in their production process, the car industry is not standing still.

Car companies have poured enormous investments in building vehicles with better mileage but some are also developing new technologies to lower the energy consumption during the production process.

Mazda demonstrated their superlight aluminum engine, but they also showed how the manufacturing could be improved. It turns out that the most energy intensive part of automobile production is not the assembly itself, but the painting process. That’s because it consists of multiple coats of paint that have to be baked. By applying a new process, Mazda has been able to paint their cars with fewer steps, less volatile chemicals, and less energy in the coating process.

Worlds of Differences

I’ve always known that Americans hold a pretty different view about the state of the energy sector than elsewhere in the world, but never really knew how to characterize those variances.

Today, I write in gratitude, thanking the efforts of Sonal Patel, senior writer at Power magazine.  Patel developed this helpful visual framework summarizing the recent issuance of the World Energy Issues Monitor, a a global survey undertaken annually by the World Energy Council posing the question “what keeps energy leaders awake at night?”

For each of three regions — North America, Europe and Asia — Patel has drawn circles for each major issue area of potential concern to the energy sector and placed them on a two-dimensional chart, where higher indicates more impact and right represents more certainty.   The size of the circles is proportional to the urgency of an issue.

Perusing Patel’s graphic is an illuminating exercise.  Of note:

Only in North America is the topic of “unconventionals” — meaning producing oil and gas from unconventional sources such as shale and oil sands — viewed as a particularly big deal.  In Europe, unconventionals are somewhat lower on the radar screen, and in Asia barely on the screen at all.

Conversely, energy prices are a critical topic in Europe and Asia, but deemed only of modest importance in North America.

Similarly, energy efficiency is high on the agenda in Europe and Asia, not so much in North America.  Even more starkly, renewables are seen as only a low-impact issue in North America, and a more significant issue elsewhere.

Perhaps because of the high penetration of renewables there, energy storage is of most interest in Europe, but of less interest in North America, and of hardly any interest in Asia.

Nuclear energy is viewed as a high-impact issue in North America, moderate impact in Europe, and (perhaps surprisingly) low-impact in Asia.  So, for that matter, are electric vehicles.

The so-called “hydrogen economy” — involving the use of fuel cells for power generation and transportation — retains a bit of interest in North America (though with low urgency), but has fallen off the map elsewhere.  Carbon capture and storage (CCS) follows somewhat of the same pattern, although Europe does hold it in higher esteem than hydrogen.

True, there are some commonalities to acknowledge:  the smart grid and policies to deal with climate change and energy subsidies are seen in approximately the same light globally.

However,  more than anything else, Patel’s framework shows that leaders in the energy industry live in very different worlds, depending upon which part of the world they live and work in.

How About A Sane Energy Policy Mr. Obamney?

It’s Presidential Election year.  Ergo, time to discuss our 40 year whacked out excuse for an energy policy.  Royally botched up by every President since, umm?


Make US energy supply cheap for the US consumer and industry, fast growing and profitable for the American energy sector, clean, widely available and reliable, and secure, diversified, environmentally friendly and safe for all of us.


Cheap, Clean, Reliable, Secure, Energy


An Energy Policy that leaves us more efficient than our competitors

An Energy Policy that leaves us with more and more diversified, supply than our competitors

An Energy Policy that leaves us more reliable than our competitors

An Energy Policy that makes us healthier and cleaner than our competitors

An Energy Policy that makes us able to develop adopt new technologies faster than our competitors

An Energy Policy that makes it easy for industry to sell technology, energy, and raw materials to our competitors

An Energy Policy that keeps $ home.

A Sane Energy policy


Think more drilling, less regulation on supply, lower tariffs, more investment in R&D, tighter CAFE and energy efficiency standards, simpler and larger subsidies for new technologies, less regulation on infrastructure project development.


A couple of key action items:

  • Support the development of new marginal options for fuel supply, and support options that improve balance of payments, whether EVs ethanol, solar et al
  • Make crude oil, refined products, Gas, LNG and coal easy to import and export
  • Drive energy efficiency like a wedge deep in our economy
  • Support expansion and modernization of gas, electric, and transport infrastructure
  • Support long term R&D in both oil & gas, electric power, and renewables
  • Reduce time to develop and bring online new projects of any type (yes that means pipelines, solar and wind plants, offshore drilling, fracking and transmission lines).
  • Support policies and technology that enable  linking of energy markets
  • Challenge the OPEC cartel like we do EVERY OTHER cartel and break the back of our supply contraints
  • Support the export of our energy industry engineering, services and manufacturing  sectors overseas
  • Incorporate energy access into the core of our trade policy
  • Support deregulation of power markets
  • Support long term improvement in environmental and safety standards
  • Broadly support significant per unit market subsidies for alternatives like PV, wind, biofuels, fracking as they approach competitiveness

Or we could do it the other way:

  • Leave ourselves locked into single sources of supply in a screwy regulated market that involves sending massive checks to countries who’s governments don’t like us because that’s the way we did it in the 50s?
  • Keep massive direct subsidies to darling sectors so the darling sectors can fight each other to keep their subsidies instead of cutting costs?
  • Keep a mashup of state and federal regulatory, carbon and environmental standards making it virtually impossible to change infrastructure when new technology comes around?
  • Promote deregulation in Texas, and screw the consumer in every other market?
  • Every time there’s a crisis, we can shoot the industry messenger in the head, stop work, and subsidize something.
  • Continue the Cold War policy of appeasing OPEC so they can keep us under their thumb for another 30 years
  • And drop a few billion here and there on pet pork projects

Come on guys, stop the politics, let’s get something rational going.  Oh wait, it’s an election year.  Damn.

And in the meantime how about making energy taxes (a MASSIVE chunk of your gasoline and power prices) variable, so they go DOWN when prices go up.  Then at least the government’s pocket book has an incentive to control cost, even if they’re incompetent at putting together a policy that does so.

The End of Nuclear Power? Or Just the Beginning?

This week’s news: US NRC freezes decisions on new reactor, license renewal applications

“The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted unanimously Tuesday not to issue final decisions on granting licenses to build new nuclear power reactors and 20-year license renewals to existing ones, pending resolution of the agency’s waste confidence rule overturned by a court in June.

The commissioners, however, also ordered that NRC review of these license applications continue and that the agency’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel not accept or deny new challenges that may be filed in these proceedings relating to waste storage issues.”

Nukes in the US not dead of course, but the revival still on hold?


The post Fukushima nuclear future in Japan?  Still shut down, the replacement generation fleet still a patchwork.  The future is . . .?


And Germany?  Trying to get out of nukes puts intense pressure on gas (from Russia), renewables, and the grid.  As well as adds costs. Prognosis unclear.


Has Fukushima changed China’s nuclear energy ambitions? Or just its technology choices?


And exactly what are the costs for nuclear?  I will say generally, that on a cents per kwh basis, the broad lowering of interest rates benefits nukes better than any other form of power but hydro, given the combination of high portion of the of costs from the capital, and the high capacity factor.


So is the end of nuclear power’s 50 year challenge to coal power insight?  Or are we on the verge of a resurgence?  Situation unclear at best.

The World According to BP

On January 18, BP (NYSE: BP) released Energy Outlook 2030, its official corporate view of the future of energy.  Every year, BP releases its Statistical Review of World Energy that serves as an excellent compendium of historical and current data on a host of energy-related issues, but rarely does BP present its projections of trends and the associated implications on the energy markets.

At the release event in London, BP’s CEO Bob Dudley made a brief speech covering the highlights of the Outlook.  It’s an easy and good read, which I will summarize here.

Dudley began by reciting what he termed “five realities”.  In reality, these so-called “realities” are nevertheless anticipations of events to come.  However, they do seem like pretty safe bets as playing out as described:

  1. Global energy demand will increase by 40% by 2030.  As Dudley notes, “that’s like adding one more China and one more U.S. to the world’s energy demand by 2030.  Nearly all that growth – 96% in fact – is expected to come from the emerging economies with more than half coming from China and India alone.”
  2. Fossil fuels will supply roughly 80% of global energy demand in 2030.  Dudley continues, “renewables will grow rapidly, but from a very low base.”  In other words, while renewables will be a great growth industry for the next few decades, the enormous head-start in market share that fossil fuels enjoys from more than 100 years of development, along with continued demand growth, means that energy markets and the energy industry will be dominated by fossil fuels for the lifetime of anyone who reads this blog post.
  3. Oil will continue to be essential for transportation, with 87% of mobility based on petroleum.  While increased fuel efficiency, hybrid vehicles, and expansion of biofuels will reduce needs for petroleum, the explosive growth of the developing economies and their voracious desire for vehicles means that oil demand will continue to grow.  Dudley notes that oil demand growth will be less than 1% annually, which “doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up to an additional 16 million barrels per day by 2030.”
  4. To supply this increasing demand, new frontiers will continue to be tapped.  This will be oil from deep water – what should be a sticky subject for BP, given the Deepwater Horizon debacle from less than two years ago – heavy oil such as the oil sands in Alberta (which Dudley noted needed to be “produced carefully and responsibly”), and unconventional gas plays such as shale gas and tight gas.
  5. Global CO2 emissions will rise by almost 30% by 2030.  Dudley emphasized that “this is a projection, not a proposal.  BP supports action to limit emissions including a carbon price and transitional incentives that encourage renewable energy to become competitive at scale.”  The last two words – “at scale” – are critical, not just for cleantech advocates and for the planet, but also supermajors like BP, who by their sheer size can only be bothered with energy phenomena that represent more than niches.

It’s a daunting picture.  As Dudley states, “this is not an outlook for the world as we wish to see it,” but nevertheless “it should be important input for policy-makers.”  And, it should be added, for participants and advocates in the cleantech space.

From this sober perspective, Dudley outlines “five opportunities” surfaced in the Outlook:

  1. Energy efficiency gains will be critical to the world of the future, as they simultaneously reduce consumer costs, improve energy security and cut emissions.  Frankly, this is “motherhood and apple pie” that just about all observers of the energy sector point out – nothing new here.
  2. Technology advancement will be crucial.  Dudley notes that BP thinks “the efficiency of the internal combustion engine is likely to double over the next 20 years” – an extraordinary possibility for a technology that’s over a century old and ought to be quite mature.  Innovation is not only imperative for efficiency gains but also for supply expansion to meet worldwide demand growth even netting out improvements in efficiency.  New energy supply technologies are not just in the realm of renewables but also in the realm of hydrocarbon production as well, increasing the economic access to fossil fuels on the frontiers described above.
  3. Competitive forces are an essential stimulant of capturing efficiencies and pursuing innovation.  Although Dudley doesn’t exactly say so, I think this is code for “expect increasing energy prices”, thus driving efficiency and new technology.  (Also unsaid:  “Don’t blame us or accuse us of gouging when energy prices are high.”)  I think these comments are also a soft unobtrusive plea for more access by private sector companies, and correspondingly fewer obstacles thrown up by governments, to developing new energy resources.
  4. Natural gas will be a very big thing.  Dudley calls natural gas a “sustainable option being deployed at scale”.  The latter claim of scale is inarguable, though the former claim of sustainability is semantically dubious.  Even so, it is true when Dudley says “gas typically generates fewer than half the emissions of coal” – notably, the one and only time that the word “coal” is uttered by Dudley in his entire talk.  (Admittedly, BP doesn’t have any coal business, but coal remains a sizable piece of the global energy economy, and to mention the role of coal just once is telling.)
  5. Biofuels show great potential.  According to Dudley, BP has “an optimistic view on the future of biofuels,” but “the world needs to focus on biofuels that do not compete with the food chain and are produced in a sustainable way.”  Thereafter follows some touting of second-generation biofuels (e.g., cellulosic ethanol), which still remain tantalizing but commercially-unavailable.  To me, this fifth “opportunity” is the most speculative of the bunch.

Dudley closes his comments by discussing BP’s obviously very substantial place in the world of energy. 

He acknowledges the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and BP’s activities in expanding production of the controversial oil sands in Alberta.  No doubt, he had to, in order to avoid allegations of “greenwashing” BP’s record.

However, he tries to counterbalance this by extolling $7 billion of investments in renewables since 2005, “focused on creating large-scale commercial businesses that are not dependent on subsidies,” and BP’s emphasis on improving energy efficiency – in part because BP requires “all new projects to calculate the impact of future carbon pricing on their operations”, planning for “a future where carbon does have a price.”

Perhaps this is the most optimistic item in Dudley’s synopsis of BP’s future view of the energy sector over the next 20 years.  Hopefully, not unrealistic.

A World of Hurt

Seemingly generating nary a ripple here in the U.S., the International Energy Agency (IEA) just issued its 2011 World Energy Outlook — its annual synopsis on the future of the global energy sector. 

If ignorance is bliss, then we’re certainly blessed by generally not bothering to confront the pretty-alarming conclusions of the report. 

A pastiche of the highlighted snippets in the Executive Summary, when stitched together, provide a glimpse of the world we’re now choosing to invent for ourselves and future generations:

“There are few signs that the urgently needed change in direction in global energy trends is underway.”

“Global investment in energy supply infrastructure of $38 trillion (in year-2010 dollars) is required over the period 2011 to 2035.”

“The age of fossil fuels is far from over, but their dominance declines.”

“The cost of bringing oil to market rises as oil companies are forced to turn to more difficult and costly sources to replace lost capacity and meet rising demand.”

“Factors both on the supply and demand sides point to a bright future, even a golden age, for natural gas.”

“Coal has met almost half of the increase in global energy demand over the last decade.  Whether this trend alters and how quickly is among the most important questions for the future of the global energy economy.”

“The dynamics of energy markets are increasingly determined by countries outside the OECD.”

“All of the net increase in oil demand comes from the transport sector in emerging economies, as economic growth pushes up demand for personal mobility and freight.”

“China’s consumption of coal is almost half of global demand and its Five-Year Plan for 2011 to 2015, which aims to reduce the energy and carbon intensity of the economy, will be a determining factor for world coal markets.”

“Russia’s large energy resources underpin its continuing role as a cornerstone of the global energy economy of the coming decades.  Russia aims to create a more efficient economy, less dependent on oil and gas, but needs to pick up the pace of change.”

“International concern about the issue of energy access is growing.  Around $9 billion was invested globally to provide first access to modern energy, but more than five-times this amount, $48 billion, needs to be invested each year if universal access is to be achieved by 2030.”

“We cannot afford to delay further action to combat climate change.”

“New energy efficiency measures make a difference, but much more is required.”

“Widespread deployment of more efficient coal-fired power plants and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could boost the long-term prospects for coal, but there are still considerable hurdles.”

“Events at Fukushima Daiichi have raised questions about the future of nuclear power.”

“The wide difference in outcomes between [the scenarios analyzed in this report] underlies the critical role of governments to define the objectives and implement the policies necessary to shape our future.”

When observing the dysfunctional nature of the current political ecosystems in the U.S., in Europe, and in world affairs (e.g., the United Nations), and the increasing imperative for economic austerity to resolve the shortfalls in public coffers, it is hard to believe that governments (other than autocratic places like China and Russia) will be able to take any meaningful action to nudge the energy sector from its trajectory of “muddle-along.”  The chaos that IEA describes in the world energy scene will thus likely only intensify.

Lots of challenges in this world.  But, then again, lots of opportunities too.

IPOs and Bankruptcies and Cleantech “Hot or Not”

Last night while watching Office reruns, I realized I’d been remiss, and a lot’s had been happening in the public equities end of the cleantech sector.  Not to mention yesterday’s billion dollar BK broiler announcement by the one-time Next Greatest Thing, Solyndra.

So, with my usual aplomb, I thought I’d simply peanut gallery what’s “Hot or Not” in cleantech.


Bled Out on the Operating Table

Solyndra – BK (and not the burger kind). Well, we wrote about it a lot, and nobody believes us.  But bad product is bad product, and high cost is high cost, regardless of how much money you throw at it.  So who’s going to calculate the impact on the DOE loan guarantee program’s projected loan losses? Not.

Evergreen Solar (NASDAQ:ESLR)  – 🙁  And it was such cool technology, too.  I’m very sorry to see this one go.  At one point some years back it was the savior deal of the sector.  But we are in a race to cost down or die. Not.


Filed, Not Yet Hell for Leather

Enphase – I’m very very interested in seeing these guys make it.   Lots of growth.  Very thin margins so far.  Product costs looks miserably high.  Need to cost down like a banshee running from the Bill Murray.  But you’ve got to love the category killer potential and how fast they’ve executed.  First microinverter guy to manufacturing maturity eats the others like oatmeal (sloppy but eaten nonetheless). Hot.

Silver Spring – Hmmmmmmmmh.  Home run potential, but what’s the term?  Very high beta?  These contracts are massive, far strung, very very tight margin.  They’ve shown they can get the growth.  But with long lead time sticky contracts, it’s about managing costs during slippage and change-orders well, and it’s a very competitive business.  One blown contract gives back all the profits on the last 8.  But, give kudos for getting this far and making it to be a real player.  Now we’ll see if you can execute. Hot.

Luca Technologies – Hello?  Are you serious?  I read this S-1 cover to cover.  I had my technologist read it and go find their patents.  We love this area.  The concept of microbes for in situ is old as can be, but very very interesting..  The challenge is always cost and performance (not really a new nutrient mix?).  How do you get the bugs, nutrients, whatever you’re doing, down the hole and into the formation far enough and cheap and effectively enough to make a difference.  But in the entire S-1 and website, there is not a single technology description, fact, proof point or ANYTHING that suggests they’ve actually cracked the real nut.  The few numbers they do mention are not even to the ho-hum level.  Did a real investment banker really sign up to this?  Who wrote this?  Their PR guy with a liberal arts studies degree?  Really?  This smacks of a “trust us I’m Jesus and daddy needs an exit” deal.  In reality, probably interesting, but still very very very very very very very early science project.   Not.


We have a whole collection of biofuels stocks to discuss now.

Solazyme (NASDAQ:SZYM) – half of its 52 week, less than a buck over its low. Not.

Kior (NASDAQ:KIOR) – Somebody correct me, but did the filings really indicate Khosla put money IN to this IPO?  And it got off at low end of the range even after that? From one of their filings: “In conjunction with the Issuer’s IPO, an entity affiliated with the Reporting Persons purchased 1,250,000 shares of Class A common stock, resulting in an increase in beneficial ownership by the Reporting Persons by that amount. The
purchase was made at the initial public offering price of $15.00 per share, for an aggregate purchase price of $18,750,000. The source of funds used to purchase the shares of Class A common stock was Khosla’s personal assets.” At least it’s money where it’s mouth is.  Not.

Amyris (NASDAQ:AMRS) – 58% of its 52 week high, 20% over it’s low. Not.

Gevo (NASDAQ:GEVO) – 40% of its 52 week high, c. 20% off it’s low. Not.

Codexis (NASDAQ:CDXS) – 55% of its 52 week high, c. 20% off it’s lows. Not.

I’d comment on the fundamentals of each one, but I don’t want you to think I’m depressed.  Oh, by the way.  Did I ever tell you the story about the cleantech sector’s magically changing cellulosic biofuels business plans to “cellulosic bio-anything-but-fuels” plans as people finally woke up and realized how tough using lousy feedstocks and high cost processes in a commodities market actually is.  Of course, careful you don’t change from targeting fuels to making feedstock for dirt cheap who would want to be in that business commodity chemicals or specialty chemicals with a global aggregate gross margin market less than your cash on balance sheet.

And a Few Tidbits

Advanced Energy (NASDAQ: AEIS) – I still really like this company.  Somebody’s going to own inverters.  And the numbers look very interesting.  Very. Need to dig deeper. Hot.

American Superconductor (NASDAQ:AMSC) – Ummm.  Do you believe their wind business ever recovers?  One customer.  Buying a competitor with one customer.  Both in China.  Customer doesn’t like single supplier risk where the supplier makes high margins?  What did you think was going to happen?  Ugly ugly story.  Very real possibility that they trade on a log curve to straight zero.  Some chance of sunshine, but I’d cancel the picnic. Not.

A123 (NASDAQ:AONE) – I really really really want this to work.  But what’s the path to profits?  Not feeling it. Not.

Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) –  “Don’t worry, the NEXT car will fix my company’s fundamental problems” – quote attributed to the Tesla CEO who replaces the next Tesla CEO. Not.

Active Power (NASDAQ: ACPW) – Hey, did anyone notice these guys are growing revenues AND margins?  A long haul, but keep it up!  Need careful consideration before I’d jump into flywheels, but someone deserves a ton of credit as coach of the year.  Hot.

Satcon (NASDAQ:SATC) – Hammered, but still a market leader.  Got to think about this one – it’s historically traded for more than it’s fundamentals justified, but with PV Powered and Xantrex snapped up, hard to imagine they stay independent for long. Hot.

SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR)  – Wow.  Total. No guts no glory.  Highest cost producer, shall we call it the “performance queen”.  I do like this bet by Total, but it takes guts.  But when a market leader’s stock’s been hammered that far down somebody’s got to move and Total did . . .  Whether an individual investor can play is another story. Hot.

Ascent Solar (NASDAQ:ASTI) – Holy star solar batman!  These guys can sell ice to eskimos are have always been great R&D guys.  Still maybe the highest cost CIGS process known to astronauts.  I like these guys, but I’m not sure more cash fixes anything. Not.

Solon – What does “New US operational strategy” mean?  It means solar is a game of scale and execution.  Not.


Will Crystalline Solar Kill Thin Film? A Conversation with Applied Material’s Solar Head Charlie Gay

By Neal Dikeman

I had a chance to chat today with Dr. Charlie Gay, the President of Applied Material’s solar division.  You may recall, we broke the story in the blogosphere 5 years ago about Applied’s entry into solar, which was anchored with a highly touted and very aggressive strategy for turnkey large format amorphous silicon and tandem cell plants called SunFab.

Charlie reminded me that when they began 5 years ago, they did so along two major thrusts:  The acquisition of Applied Films in June 2006 getting an inline coating system for deposition of silicon nitride passivation layers on crystalline and in parallel an internal project to adapt their large flat panel display manufacturing technology for photovoltaics.

They still like the large module format, for a simple reason, cost in the field for large scale solar farms is heavily about getting area costs down relative to power output.  I was excited for another simple reason, when major capital equipment developers get involved, manufacturing maturity is not far behind, it forces everyone to rethink scale in different ways.

After a huge initial splash outselling everyone’s expectations in that SunFab concept, many industry analysts later kind of wrote them off as flash in the pan when they were reported having problems as implementations came in slower and smaller and harder than expected on their SunFab lines a couple of years ago, and a saw a major restructuring in 2009. But they’ve had success with that product anyways, EVERYONE saw a major restructuring in 2009, and more importantly the original vision of leading solar into mass manufacturing is still going strong, now across a range of products and technologies in thin film and crystalline manufacturing equipment.  Let’s put it this way, in their annual report they call themselves the largest equipment manufacturer to the solar sector, they have $1.5 Billion in annual revenues in the Energy & Environmental division, which is heavily PV, and there are like 120 mentions of the word solar in their annual report, almost once per page.

So what I really wanted to talk to Charlie about was the future of PV manufacturing. He frames the future by drawing a mirrored parallel between photovoltaics and integrated circuit manufacturing, beyond just semiconductors:

  • In IC, dozens to hundreds of device architectures exist, but basically one material, silicon.
  • In PV, there is essentially one architecture: the diode, but dozens to hundreds of material choices.

But silicon has been the mainstay material of PV for a number of reasons.  So we got into one of my favorite topics, the manufacturing improvement potential in crystalline silicon.

His version of Moore’s law for solar runs like this:  the thickness of the solar cell decreases by half every 10 years.  Today it’s 180 microns thick.  The practical possibility exists to get down to about 40 microns, with some performance improvement by making it thinner, but we can’t go much below 40 without being too thin to absorb enough light.  This fits with other conversations I’ve had suggesting that over the past couple of years most of the major crystalline solar manufacturers were working on paths to take an order of magnitude out of cell thickness.

If this comes to fruition, crystalline can literally wipe the floor with the existing thin film technologies.  Basically think sub $1 per watt modules with the performance of high grade crystalline modules today.  And as cost per watt equalizes, that higher efficiency starts to really tell, as since Balance of Systems costs have fallen at 10-12% per doubling of installed fleet, compared to module costs falling at 18-20%, in a world where BOS increasingly matters, the old saw about lower area cost per unit of power installed starts to actually bite for once.  Think ultra thin high performance low cost large format x-Si modules with fancy anti reflective coatings and snazzy high grade modules with on module inverters or DC optimizers mounted on highly automated, low cost durable trackers.  Think solar farms approaching effective relative capacity factors of 2.5-3 mm kW Hours per year per MW on 25 year systems at $2-3 per Watt installed.  Possibly the only thing on the planet that could match shale gas.

In fact, the entire thesis of thin film as a business and venture capital prospect has been built on the premise that crystalline material costs were just too high to get to grid parity. I’ve got scads of early thin film business plans touting that.  That thesis is under extreme pressure these days. I’d submit that if the industry 7 years ago had really understood how much improvement could be had, we’d have saved billions in potentially stranded thin film development.

Charlie says there are about a dozen different paths for enabling 40 micron cells.  The most interesting approach to him is an epitaxial growth process on reusable silicon templates.  A process which grows a thin layer of silicon on top of a reusable layer of silicon, using perhaps one mm thick silicon templates, etching the surface, and directly depositing silicon from trichlorosilane gas.  The idea would be to rack templates into a module array, grow the cells in an oven to your 40 micron level, then glue the glass module to the back side, and then separate it off to form a “ready to go assemble” module.  The challenge is basically oven and materials handling designs that get it cost efficient in high volume.

In essence, all you’d be doing is integrating a silicon ingot growth process directly into a module. Instead of growing ingots, cutting thick wafers, forming cells, then building modules from them, you grow cells racked into their own module personally instead of growing ingots first.

Hella cool.  A process like that means using fairly manageable capital equipment and materials handling technology development in known device and module technologies we could literally rip the ever living guts out of crystalline manufacturing costs.  And there are 11 more paths to play with???

The way he thinks about it, on a broader perspective more people are working in photovoltaic solar R&D today, by his estimate some 70,000 researchers and $3 billion per year, than in all of the prior PV history.   And that means whereas perhaps five main innovations over 35 years drove almost all of crystalline PV manufacturing costs (screen printing, glass tedlar modules, adapting steel from tires for cutting wafers, silicon nitride processes, and fast metrology tools), in today’s world, Charlie thinks we see 5 equivalent innovations in PV manufacturing technology every 2 years.

So I asked him to comment on whether there were parallel cost-down opportunities for thin films or whether it is an also ran waiting to happen.  He thinks there are.  He mentioned organics.  I pushed back hard, as organics have been written off by almost everyone for never seeing yield or performance, so where does he see the opportunity?  He responded that he picked organics to keep me from narrowing the materials field prematurely to just A-Si, CdTe, CIGS, and GaAS.  Silicon just like carbon can surprise us, e.g. bucky balls, carbon nanotubes, and just because early materials had stability and process issues, doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted the opportunities.

He says what he wants us to recall is that we are currently operating in PV manufacturing today with the materials that were on the radar in the energy crisis from 1974-1980.  That is changing in the lab and universities these days.  And given time the results will surprise us.

He draws a parallel between photography and photovoltaics, both invented in 1839, both rely on sunlight acting on materials. In photography, people started off putting films on glass, then putting films on mylar, and running things continuously.  Implying that in solar, we’re still on glass c. 1890.

He said to think about the original Ovonics/Unisolar vision in thinking about how you get to high speed continuous processing with thin film (think paper manufacturing, where done roll to roll it’s far more consistent than one-offs can be done).  If that is still our ultimate thin film paradigm (got to love the chance to use the word “paradigm”), the stars are still in front of us with what thin film COULD do.  And while roll to roll has had significant materials technology and process control challenges for the current class of materials, let’s go back to the mirror parallel to integrated circuits, in photovoltaics, one main device, scads of material options.  Just a matter of R&D hours and time.

He markedly did NOT suppose that the current state of thin film devices could beat 40 micron crystalline silicon by themselves.  It’s worth considering that we may look back and find that thin film, CdTe and First Solar were the stepping stones to 40 micron crystalline, not the other way around.  Maybe my next question to Charlie is whether he and I should set up Neal and Charlie’s 40 Micron Solar Company of America yet. 😉


Cleantech Investing: A View From 21

Ordinarily, I let my fellow blogging colleague Neal Dikeman of Jane Capital take the lead in covering cleantech IPOs and publicly-traded stocks. 

However, I recently received the May 2011 newsletter from 21Ventures, and found the commentary by David Anthony on cleantech public equities an interesting complement to Neal’s most current take — sufficiently so to expound upon it herein.

According to David, “by the end of Q1 2011, we will have seen the bottom of cleantech investing and valuations”, with three key subpoints:

1.  “Oil seems stuck above $100/barrel.”

2.  “Nuclear energy may be too ‘radioactive’ as a source for baseload grid power.”

3.  “Renewables will fill the void left by dwindling nuclear capacity.”

It’s a nice newsletter, well worth reading, though I think David’s analysis is a bit too sanguine.  Oil prices will remain volatile, and each time they go down somewhat, the rank-and-file will think (again) that our energy crisis has passed, thus reducing the pressure for change or action in moving towards cleantech.  David overlooks the growing sense of many that natural gas from shale will represent the answer to most if not all of our future energy supply challenges for years to come, thereby mitigating the need for renewables and/or energy efficiency.  And, David neglects to discuss the future role of coal, which I believe will hang on for a long time to come, and whose benefactors will rain on the parade of cleantech as much as possible whenever possible to elevate coal’s relative position in the energy scene. 

All of these factors will mean that cleantech investing will still experience more than its fair share of bumps along the road.  It will be a tough and choppy market to navigate, and I don’t think the public markets lend themselves well to companies unless and until they have very sizable and stable earnings — which most purely cleantech firms (including publicly-traded ones) do NOT have.  Thus, cleantech is an industry that, for awhile, will mainly be capitalized through private equity and venture capital markets, with liquidity events through sales to major corporate acquirers that have sufficient scale to float well on public markets, rather than IPOs for the most part.

But, I do share David’s closing summation:  “We have always believed that dwindling low-cost fossil fuel reserves, climate change, growing middle classes in emerging markets, and urbanization will converge to create some of the best investment opportunities in our lifetime.”  I think Neal would share this conclusion too.

7 Book Reviews in Cleantech and Energy

Sandor Schoichet s a longtime Cleantech Blog reader, and Director of Meridian Management Consultants.  Sandor has EE and SM degrees in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science from MIT, where he studied artificial intelligence, office automation, and business process reengineering, and completed a joint program in Management of Innovation at the Sloan and Harvard business schools. He holds undergraduate degrees in Information Sciences and Philosophy from UC Santa Cruz.  He published these book reviews on our sister site, and following our Cleantech Bookshelf,  we liked them so much we’re republishing them here as a Reader’s Choice Bookshelf.

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution
by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins

If there was one key to turning around the damaging business and environmental practices of modern culture, what would it be?  ‘Natural Capitalism,’ the seminal 1999 call for a broader focus on sustainability, presents an overwhelming case that the key is resource efficiency and effectiveness.  Just as conventional capitalism is all about using financial capital effectively, so ‘natural capitalism’ is about expanding that bottom line focus to include the  natural resources and ecosystem services underlying the ability of business and society to function in the first place.  The authors argue that with appropriate shifts in business perspective and government policy, our economy could be something like 90% more efficient in its use of irreplaceable natural resources, thereby mitigating ecosystem impacts, enabling global development, and staving off climate change.

Throughout history, until very recently, man has been a small actor in an overwhelmingly large world.  Most of the book explores how this has given rise to our ingrained cultural patterns of wasteful resource utilization, limited focus on capital efficiency, and drive for production volumes, while assuming unbounded access to subsidized natural resources and ‘free’ ecosystem services.  Shifting perspective to include natural capital on the business balance sheet, and to expand lean manufacturing principles beyond the factory walls is what’s required to address the ecology/climate change nexus.  This change in perspective is embodied in a range of sustainable business concepts, including the ‘triple bottom line’ (profits, people, and planet), and the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ model for recycling products and integrating industries to eliminate ‘waste’.

The basic principles of natural capitalism put forward can be summarized as: (1) focus on natural resource efficiency (2) using closed loop, biomemetic, nontoxic processes (3) to deliver more appropriate end-user services (4) while investing in restoring, sustaining, and expanding natural capital.  Following these principles leads not to constraints on business or lowered expectations, but an enormous range of new business opportunities to profit from improved efficiencies and environmentally beneficial activities.  One of the best expressions of this perspective comes in the discussion on climate change, providing a refreshing contrast to the recent spate of bad news on this front: “Together, the [available business] opportunities can turn climate change into an unnecessary artifact of [our] uneconomically wasteful use of resources.”

While the authors deliver an awesome, deeply researched articulation of their vision, showing with many examples why it’s important and how it can work within our current capitalistic economies, the book has two key flaws.  First, it falls prey to the syndrome first articulated by Paul Saffo, founder of the Institute for the Future, of confusing a clear vision of the future with a short path.  This combines with an  excessive reliance on sheer volume of examples to make their points, too many of them poorly explained, bristling with non-comparable numbers, and substituting hand-waving for real outcomes.  Deeper exploration of fewer examples might have illustrated the principles better, and have been much easier to read.  Also, 11 years after the original publication, many of the examples are seen to be hastily chosen and and used to support glib and overreaching conclusions that make the authors seem naive.  Examples include the advent hydrogen powered cars (“hypercars”), the potential for shutting down Ruhr Valley coal production in favor of direct social payments to coal workers, or the imminent triumph of the Kyoto Protocols for international carbon trading.  And, while much attention is paid to articulating the perverse incentives, misguided taxes and subsidies, and split responsibilities that impede more efficient system approaches, there’s short shrift given to new technology adoption rates, the scale of existing infrastructure investments, or the political complexities of changing incentives and subsidies.

However, if you are interested in understanding the genesis and foundations of the modern sustainability movement, this is a fundamental text.  Despite its flaws, after 11 years the fundamental argument and principles hold up well and are still inspiring.

Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future
by Robert Bryce

Bryce bills himself as a purveyor of “industrial strength journalism,” and ‘Power Hungry’ doesn’t disappoint. Starting with a clear statement of his own energy policy – “I’m in favor of air conditioning and cold beer.” – Bryce provides a muscular, data-driven analysis of our modern industrial civilization and the changing mix of energy sources that power it. This is an eye-opening discussion that does an unusually good job of conveying the scale of our existing energy infrastructure, and the challenge of providing adequate energy supplies for the future, not just for the US and Europe, but for the developing world and the third world as well, under the constraints of economics and decarbonization. Bryce articulate four energy imperatives – power density, energy density, cost, and scale – and uses them as a consistent framework for looking at what he calls the “Myths of Green Energy.” His “myths” run the gamut from the idea that wind power can really reduce overall CO2 emissions, to the idea that the US lags other countries in energy efficiency, to the idea that carbon capture and sequestration could work at scale, and intriguingly, even the idea that oil is a dirty fuel compared to the alternatives. While the debunking of green alternatives has flaws, especially in the lack of attention to advanced biofuels, smart grid technologies, and green building materials, it is refreshingly apolitical – focused on facts, practical alternatives, and the requirements of scale. In some ways Bryce ends up with conclusions similar to those of Bill McKibben in his recent book ‘Eaarth’: we will not be able to turn the tide on atmospheric CO2 quickly enough, the scale is too large, the transition times are too long, the pressure for global development is too great. We will have no choice but to mitigate some problems and adapt to the rest. However, instead of advocating acceptance of a “graceful decline” as McKibben does, Bryce lays out an energetic path forward, a “no regrets” policy he dubs N2N: shifting electrical generation aggressively towards natural gas in the near term, while investing in advanced nuclear technologies for the long run. The strongest element of the book is how he effectively links the future economic health of the US with rising prospects for the rest of the world … and that will take massive quantities of carbon-free power, not only for economic development, but for mitigating unavoidable climate change impacts as well. ‘Power Hungry’ is a challenging and valuable read for everyone interested in green energy and an effective response to the climate crisis.

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
by Stewart Brand

Brand, as ever, is a clear and forceful writer, fearlessly putting himself on the line with specific recommendations and a call to action. This is the Plan missing from Al Gore’s otherwise excellent textbook, ‘Our Choice: A Plan to Solve to Climate Crisis’ –harder-edged, more urgent, more tech-savvy, willing to name names, kick butt, and provoke a reaction. This is the place to start if you’re ready to move beyond the conventional green perspective and really get a grip on what responding to the climate challenge entails. Frightening and exhilarating at the same time!

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
by Bill McKibben

I’m conflicted about this book, and McKibben’s style in general. First, this is a valuable contribution to the debate about how to think about climate change and appropriate goals for our planetary future. McKibben actually presents many good ideas (in the second half of the book), rooted in a realistic and compelling vision of how our world is changing and how we need to adapt. However, his writing style, especially when presenting bad news (the first half of the book) is just “one damn thing after another,” an endless listing of specifics without adequate context or meaningful analysis … he apparently does not understand that anecdotes are not evidence. While he makes his argument most energetically, and has lots of suggestive detail that appears to support it, in the cases with which I am directly familiar he is guilty of taking things out of context, then making gross simplifications and overreaching generalizations. And this is too bad, because, overall, I think he’s basically right, and that his suggestions for change are excellent. Probably the most important aspect of this book is simply his tough, clear-eyed situation assessment of the damage that’s already been done, the building momentum of environmental change, and the need to get on with a meaningful response. I worry, though, that by beating us over the head with a stream of bad news, and then framing his suggestions for a response in terms of achieving a “graceful decline”, too many people will be turned off and won’t hear the good ideas towards the end of the book. The grand project of changing our culture so that we can live in a durable and robust symbiosis with our environment on a global scale … that’s not a graceful decline, but a call to help create a new age as exciting as any that went before.

Turning Oil Into Salt: Energy Independence Through Fuel Choice
by Anne Korin, Gal Luft

This slim volume is the clearest and most direct analysis I’ve yet seen of oil’s position as a strategic commodity, and the potential for open fuel standards to enable a market-based pathway to transportation fuel choice. Especially notable for its independent perspective … we hear so much about the need for ‘drop in’ petroleum equivalents and the ‘ethanol blend wall’, but not nearly enough about other approaches that might emulate the open interface model that has driven the phenomenal growth of the internet. Absolutely required reading for anyone interested in clean energy, the potential contribution of biofuels to achieving energy security, and the practical steps that we need to take to move down the path.

Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate
by Stephen H. Schneider, Tim Flannery

If you care about the big picture of climate change that’s driving the urgency behind global environmental agreements and the commercialization of greentech, then Schneider’s ‘Science as a Contact Sport’ is must reading. The book achieves two objectives in an engaging and forceful manner. First it is a great introduction to the science of climate change, presented through Schneider’s personal experience as a key participant in its development. And second, it provides much-needed insight into how the issue has played out in the US legislature and the global media, again from an up-close and personal point of view. Democracy and government are both messy systems, but still are forums where the environmental and greentech communities must ultimately triumph, and Schneider’s personal experience should be of value to everyone engaged in the battle. Some elements of Schneider’s message echo Al Gore’s discussion in ‘The Assault on Reason,’ but are presented in a clearer, more direct, and better operationalized manner. Highly recommended!

Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider
by John Hofmeister

Hofmeister writes with refreshing directness and lack of pretense about two key ideas: the disconnect between “political time” and “energy time” that drives legislative dysfunction in energy and environmental planning; and his own proposal for an independent Federal Energy Resources Board to fix it. Most of the book is a walkthrough of the current US energy business and infrastructure … the “straight talk from an energy insider” part. He convincingly lays out an array of problems with the approaches advocated by just about everyone, from left-wing environmentalists, to right-wing “infotainers”, to the energy and utility power industry itself … with special scorn for the disastrous and long-running failure of our elected officials of all stripes to address our energy needs in a serious manner. The book provides a prescient and unnerving in-depth background to current newspaper reporting on the BP spill disaster in the Gulf (it went to press just before the explosion and blowout). Hofmeister is on less firm footing, however, when he switches to his proposal for an independent energy regulatory agency modeled on the Federal Reserve. While he surely gets an ‘A’ for boldness and for thinking outside the box, how this is supposed to work and how we are supposed to get there in advance of a national energy disaster akin to the Great Depression, are both left up to “grassroots pressure.” All I can say is that I hope his non-profit, Citizens for Affordable, is successful at pushing his ideas onto the national stage, and helping to build a consensus focus on practical solutions. Highly recommended … wherever you stand on these complex issues, Hofmeister will push your buttons and make you think about what a real solution might look like.

California’s Cleantech War – Prop 23

According to pick your favorite cleantech and carbon media outlet, California is at war. 

AB 32 is California’s carbon cap and trade law.   The law is most the way ready to implement, with the rulemaking in process now.  It’s aimed squarely at two goals, one, reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions, and two, since such a reduction is largely symbolic without the rest of the world participating as well (CO2 is the only environmental pollutant that really doesn’t care where in the world it goes in or comes out, so is a truly global pollutant requiring a global response) continue California’s trend of environmental policy leadership, and be the beacon on the hill.

As it currently stands, AB 32 rules (as with most of these things the devil’s in the details, and the 2008 law takes a long time to work out the details) are supposed to be ready to go at the end of this year, and implemented in 2012.

Proposition 23 is an initiative on the ballot designed to indefinitely delay implementation of AB 32.  And for the record, if you don’t click that link at least read the Legislative Analyst’s analysis, I suggest you skip the vote.

The actual impact according to the California voter information guide would be to suspend part of the measures in the Scoping Plan (California’s overall GHG Plan), targeting about half of the emissions in the Scoping Plan:

“Various Climate Change Regulatory Activities Would Be Suspended. This proposition would result in the suspension of a number of measures in the Scoping Plan for which regulations either have been adopted or are proposed for adoption. Specifically, this proposition would likely suspend:

  • The proposed cap–and–trade regulation discussed above.
  • The “low carbon fuel standard” regulation that requires providers of transportation fuel in California (such as refiners and importers) to change the mix of fuels to lower GHG emissions.
  • The proposed ARB regulation that is intended to require privately and publicly owned utilities and others who sell electricity to obtain at least 33 percent of their supply from “renewable” sources, such as solar or wind power, by 2020. (The current requirement that 20 percent of the electricity obtained by privately owned utilities come from renewable sources by 2010 would not be suspended by this proposition.)
  • The fee to recover state agency costs of administering AB 32.

Much Regulation in the Scoping Plan Would Likely Continue. Many current activities related to addressing climate change and reducing GHG emissions would probably not be suspended by this proposition. That is because certain Scoping Plan regulations implement laws other than AB 32. The regulations that would likely move forward, for example, include:

  • New vehicle emission standards for cars and smaller trucks.
  • A program to encourage homeowners to install solar panels on their roofs.
  • Land–use policies to promote less reliance on vehicle use.
  • Building and appliance energy efficiency requirements.”

Because it is expected to scrap CARB’s proposed expansion of the California RPS to 33% of power from renewable sources up from the current goals of 20% (we’re not there yet), and the removal of the planned Low Carbon Fuel Standard, the entire cleantech sector is up in arms. 

Contrary to popular opinion, a Yes on Prop 23 probably won’t gut the cleantech sector – since cleantech is global and California’s cleantech companies are driven by programs well beyond its borders, since all the major programs Prop 23 affects haven’t actually been enacted yet and several key programs would be untouched (as well that the LCFS probably gets served by things other than cleantech biofuels anyway at least in the first years).  But it would cut into the future growth of renewables in the state a few years down the road, esp wind and large scale solar.

What it would definitely do is kill the nascent push in the US towards real cap and trade just a month ahead of the next round of international climate change negotiations in Cancun.  Quite frankly if California can’t deliver on its own cap and trade law, who else can?

And it would send a signal to the world that California voters are not quite as ready to be the beacon on the hill for environmental issues as they once were.

Will it hurt the economy and kill jobs if we don’t pass it and AB 32 continues?  Unfortunately it depends, with the pain more certain and likely nearer term, and the huge economic benefits more uncertain and likely longer term – though quite substantial in possibilities.  Yes, in the short term and medium term LCFS and 33% RPS and cap and trade will push up power prices and fuel prices in California, hurting consumers, and pushing some production out of the state (if other states and countries don’t continue to match the increased regulation).  That’s why it’s called alternative energy – it’s still more expensive.  But yes, it will probably simultaneously catalyze more venture capital investment (VC services is a big export for us), carbon markets investment (I know about two dozen companies that moved into California specifically because of AB 32 and its first mover advantage in US cap and trade and I helped bring 2 of them in myself), and certainly add some manufacturing and construction jobs in the cleantech sector. 

Net net, higher energy and manufacturing costs in California and an effective renewable and carbon quota mean economic losses in comparative advantage and to consumers in California.  But how much depends on exactly how good a job it does of catalyzing jobs in California for export or replacing business that we currently import to offset that.  And it is very, very hard to underestimate how good California’s environmental leadership has been at catalyzing US and global change.  Meaning the that comparative advantage loss may be short-lived (higher power prices from more low carbon renewables don’t cost California many jobs if its competitors adopt effective carbon prices as well), and if a new export industry and venture capital emerges to be a world leader (which basically pulls dollars from all around the world into Silicon Valley) it means more new California jobs gained than those lost from the comparative advantage shift, then all is good.

Unfortunately, some of that depends on how well CARB actually designs the final rules, and my big fear for California on AB 32 stems from how badly the state screwed up its last major energy deal – power deregulation.  Keep in mind Texas got that one right, and California’s was a fiasco (then as now blamed on the Texans – but I can buy 100% wind power for 11.4 cents a Kwh flat rate in Texas).

So, vote yes, and kill AB 32, and carbon leadership, and ding the rest of the cleantech sector, and you’ll probably never feel the impact in you pocket book (or realize it if you do).  But if you vote yes, you lose all moral right to claim cleantech and environmental leadership for the state.

Or vote no, and keep the state headed in the direction its going – leadership in renewables and carbon, and signal to the world that you care.  More than that, you tell yourself you believe that policy enabled innovation can change your fortune for the better, and outweigh the investment.  That’s technology and venture capital, and that’s what California does best. 

But please, vote for what *you* believe – not because the cleantech sector is screaming that you’re taking away their subsidy or because a couple of independent Texas oil companies are funding the no vote (they are, but to be fair, they provide a lot jobs and taxes to the state, California has not exactly gone out of its way play fair for them in the implementation of AB 32).  And don’t vote one way or the other just because you think it create or kill jobs – because which way the net outcome sways lies on our shoulders, too, from policy makers and CARB staff to the energy industry to the California consumer and business who will pay the final price and reap the final reward either way. 

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at cleantech merchant bank Jane Capital, has help found or has interests in businesses in carbon (as founding CEO of Carbonflow), solar, superconductors, and green products, and personally stands to lose a lot of money if Proposition 23 passes and AB 32 goes down.

De-Reg Do-Over

by Richard T. Stuebi

In the 1990’s, electricity deregulation was the next big thing. By separating generation and retailing from the natural monopoly wires businesses (transmission and distribution), competition could be spawned in wholesale and retail electricity markets, thereby unleashing long-repressed efficiencies and innovation in the production and sale of electricity products and services. Deregulation had previously produced major benefits in a number of other economic sectors, such as natural gas, telecommunications and airlines — why not electricity?

Seizing on such optimism, a number of states — including California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Ohio — took significant steps to “deregulate” their electricity sectors. I use quotes because, in many of these cases, important regulatory constraints remained in place.

In theory, deregulation ought to have aided the emergence of clean technologies in the electricity sector. Alas, as a general statement, such promising hopes have not come to pass.

Of all the states that implemented deregulation, only Texas, arguably, has achieved some degree of success with their electricity deregulation initiative. For the other states, the results of deregulation have been generally disappointing: a lack of true competition, the potential for collusion, few new entrants, little innovation, and (most visibly) increasing energy prices.

Now, not all of the ails experienced in these states can be traced to bad deregulation. For instance, increasing natural gas prices caused by secular shifts in its supply-demand balance would have inevitably led to higher electricity prices in many states, deregulation or not.

Nevertheless, hindsight is always 20-20, and in the case of electricity deregulation, the failure of deregulation has become pretty clear: many of the approaches that were pursued to create competitive marketplaces were fundamentally flawed.

In the past several years, regulators in many states around the country have been busily working to clean up the messes produced by wayward deregulation efforts. California was the first to attempt electricity deregulation in 1998 — and was the first to try to “stuff the genie back into the bottle” in 2002.

Just a few weeks ago, Illinois has been the latest to reverse course, with a broad electricity reform legislation that combines an aggressive renewable portfolio standard, a significant commitment to energy efficiency, and the creation of a state-run energy procurement authority to obtain competitive generation prices and enable low-cost financing of new generation capacity.

Now the road show (some would say “circus”) associated with deregulation clean-up moves to Ohio.

Ohio passed its deregulation bill in 1999, and for various reasons, it failed to produce any meaningful competition among generation suppliers or among retailers. When natural gas prices soared in 2004, wholesale electricity prices in Ohio also went skyward — even though the costs of Ohio generation didn’t rise materially, given that virtually all generation in Ohio is coal (87%) or nuclear (12%) based — because the neighboring power markets in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are generally set by natural gas generation. In short, Ohio customers faced far-higher electricity prices, but no competitive options. Other than Ohio’s utilities, who now operated unregulated monopolies, everyone was highly dissatisfied with deregulation.

Band-aids in the form of “rate stabilization plans” were quickly applied a few years ago, but these plans expire at the end of 2008. Thus, Ohio needs to take another bite at the apple, now, in order to set its post-2008 electricity market rules and structures.

The Strickland Administration is due to release its comprehensive plan for electricity by the end of August. Although under tight wraps, this plan is said to include (among other things) an advanced energy portfolio standard that will create a market for new renewable energy projects in Ohio. Hopefully, the portfolio standard will include a section for increasing energy efficiency requirements as well. In the likelihood of a carbon-constrained world — and given Ohio’s (1) inefficient consumption infrastructure and (2) undiversified generation mix — a portfolio standard seems more than just prudent, but essential.

In the meanwhile, many other parties are offering their proposals for how to move forward. FirstEnergy (NYSE: FE) recently filed a proposal with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in which it proposes a rolling set of auctions to acquire a variety of tranches of generation, including renewable energy, to supply its retail customers.

In Ohio, it’s bound to be a busy autumn for electricity regulation. Stay tuned. And, in support of cleantech, keep your fingers crossed that Ohio finally gets a portfolio standard, which 25 other states already have. If Ohio moves promptly, it still has a chance of being 3rd quartile!

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.