Cleantech, Renewable Energy, Smart Grid and other Fish Food

The ARRA stimulus bill targeted $36.7 billion in spending for energy investments, with solar, wind, and the smart grid as the major focus for spending while biofuels, energy storage and carbon capture and sequestration projects saw targeted financing.  This Federal money certainly stimulated the venture capital sector that saw it as a once in a lifetime cleantech binge.

Analysts said there were 356 deals in 2009 including 110 Series A and seed round start up deals, compared to 350 deals in 2008 and 222 deals in 2007 with a 2009 total capital invested of $4.85 billion down from $7.6 billion in 2008—the record year.  Venture capitalists continue to bet heavily on cleantech and renewable energy with solar power investment of $1.4 billion in 84 deals according to GTM Research continuing its four year lead in the category.  Biofuels saw $976 million in investment perhaps responding to the big bet made in the sector by XOM. [1]

The sleeper in the race was water with 33 deals totaling $130 million.  Water and energy have always been integrally linked but the best way to profit in the water business is to provide the technology, advanced process services and equipment to increase supply, reduce waste and improve the efficient and cost effective treatment of water.

The Great Cleantech Flip Ahead?

The market also saw an uptick in capital investment from outside the United States and that combined with the stimulus and VC spending binge suggests rising demand for cleantech opportunities might mean a rush of IPOs in 2010 to cash in big time before the inevitable consolidation process eats some of the best opportunities.  Timing seems right for increased deal activity in 2010 because Federal stimulus money is drying up and prospects for more gravy out of Washington are greatly diminished over worries about the deficit.

The VC trade press says investors are looking for opportunities in smart grid infrastructure perhaps hoping to pick up products and capabilities that can “tuck under” to make more complete and thus valuable solutions.  The bigger fish are also looking opportunistically to eat the smaller fish in the consolidation process.  Any anyone who did NOT get ‘stimulated’ or got VC capital infusion and now is threatened by those that did turning them into ‘fish food’ in the consolidation process now underway.

Global Competition is Good

The other factor at work is that as the markets improve we need for more deal flow to put capital to work, consolidate market share, and position for the next boom.  This is a global competition with the US, EU and China as healthy rivals for this investment.

Fish Stew with Sour Wine in EU

The EU today is the weakest of the three global rivals with problems in Euro zone in Greece, Spain and others. Germany and France are working to address the economic problem but it is a distraction, adds uncertainty, and will require bailouts to prevent more damage.  UK investors seem more attracted to the US markets than Europe leaving the problem to Germany with France along for the ride. Renewable energy in EU took big hits with the failure of feed-in-tariffs in Spain and then Germany two of the largest markets causing equipment prices to tumble worldwide as vendors dumped excess solar panels and China slurped up FiT subsidies from existing contracts.

China Demand for Growth is High but  Sustainable Growth Means Coming to America.

Strange as it seems from the political sparring between the Obama Administration and China over issues like arms sales to Taiwan and chicken parts, Iran nukes and North Korea sanctions issues, these two rivals seem linked at the hip even if the lips are bantering.  Rivalry results in tiffs like this but the core relationship between the US and China is too interdependent for either to do something stupid.

China needs American markets to export its goods and sustain its growth.  It buys US dollars and increasingly invests capital in US assets and businesses to further diversify its portfolio and reap the benefits from the most stable world economy returning to growth.  Besides, China needs something only America can provide—technology and brainpower to deploy it.

The US needs China to finance our deficit and recovery by continuing to buy dollars and increasingly invest in American business to allow the US Government to dig out of its deficit hole.  The US also needs China to drive down the cost of goods sold and especially to drive down the cost of renewable energy equipment such as solar panels and wind turbines to grid parity prices with natural gas.  Unless this happens, renewable energy is not sustainable or affordable long term.

If the global rivalry is managed and healthy both China and the US can win big time.  If they permit other issues to distract them from their strategic relationship both lose potentially big time.

The US is the World’s Best Hope for Recovery

Like it or not, the US is still the world’s most influential superpower even when its economy is weak.  We likely will survive the Obama Administration stumbles with a big debt but that can be fixed over time with a robust recovery.  That must be our single minded focus—putting Americans back to work and leveraging their ingenuity to drive markets, technology, innovation and growth around the world.

Grid lock in Washington DC is a wonderful thing.

It constrains the worst aspirations of both political parties.  Recent elections in the US have humbled the Democrats, but the Republicans make a huge mistake if they see the Democrats stumble as their gain.  Voters are surly and have a ‘pox on both your houses’ attitude that will require human political sacrifice to purge.  And November 2010 is shaping up to be a time of wholesale political sacrifices threatening all incumbents.  This sends our beltway bandits running for cover, but voters smell blood and will not be denied.  There are risks in electing a new Congressional majority of people with little elected office experience, but the genius of America has always been our ability to reinvent ourselves when we needed it most.  America is in the early stages of that process of renewal which will play out in 2012 in the next presidential election.

The Return of Prudence in Energy Costs Looms

Meanwhile we have market and economics work to do.  On the energy front we have seen explosive growth of clean and renewable energy from wind and solar.  We have been over stimulated in smart grid investment—ahead of its full potential—so we are likely to see a consolidation of players, firming of interoperability standards, and then a pause while the political issues that will determine the next wave are decided.  The issues are mixed for the energy markets.

Renewable portfolio standards have created incentives for wind and solar growth but rising utility rates to pay higher than market costs for renewables are starting to hit the fan and ratepayers do not like it.  In addition, we lack the electric transmission capacity to bring all this new renewable energy to market and we lack the political will to speed up the environmental review and transmission construction to make it work.  NIMBY could crater the renewable energy market in the US over transmission line siting and construction.

COP15 meltdown and the collapse of credibility for climate science research have stalled emissions reductions advances.  We do not know if this is temporary or fatal. The market for carbon credits is sinking like a rock in both EU and US with emissions allowances now selling for as little as $2 per tonne.  At those prices there is no incentive to invest in more expensive solutions—just pay the penalty and let the government worry about it.

Smart meters are being installed as an accelerated pace but largely sit unused and un-useful without the changes in policy like real-time pricing or dynamic pricing as it is now being called to give customers the incentives to make smart energy decisions.  Utilities face a tsunami of meter data heading their way with limited capability to do anything with it.  Customers really don’t want all that information and as long as we continue to have rates based upon average prices and regulatory lag in rate cases—we just keep on living our lives.

So what?

So all of this geopolitics, venture capital investment, and policy hassle is going to converge in a giant pause as we await the next election and torment our politicians.  Ratepayers will increasingly complain more loudly about rising utility bills and regulators will rediscover “prudence” looking for a way to slow down rate increases and save their skin.

Meanwhile, investors who want to cash out have two choices: sell out to now to strategic buyers looking for good deals and get your money out of cleantech, renewable energy and smart grid while the getting is good.  Or, if you feel lucky, wait for a good window in an improving economy and try the IPO route to cash in big time.

The problem with the latter strategy is that window of opportunity may not arrive in time and the global competition is going to keep moving.  Sit and wait to cash out and you may miss the next big wave after cleantech or the hassles over rates and policy may hurt your flip.

My prediction: Prepare for the big fish food feast ahead where flip, consolidation, and a new focus on riding the next wave will be on the menu.  What is that next wave?  Well, think about it, you really don’t need any of this cleantech, smart grid or renewable hassle if you control the communications networks to make all of that as well as streaming TV, home area networks and the more fun side of life work faster, better, cheaper do you.  Now we’ll pay big money for entertainment and faster, wireless communications on new iPad toys.  Energy—its a big hassle.

Can I get the sports package with that?  To go, please.