Back to top

Clean Energy: A Whole New Ballgame

Clint Wilder's picture

Someone once tried to dismiss the notion that "momentum" exists in baseball, scoffing that "Momentum is only as good as tomorrow's starting pitcher." But the 2004 Boston Red Sox, in addition to exorcising the fabled 86-year Curse of the Bambino, disproved that bit of conventional wisdom. After falling behind 3-0 to their archrival Yankees, they won an unprecedented eight postseason games in a row. If that doesn't define momentum, I don't know what does. As goes the Red Sox, so go renewables. October was a very good month for momentum for clean energy. Topping the list was GE Energy's announcement that it has signed contracts to deliver 750 megawatts of wind turbines for U.S. wind power projects, and has commitments for another 750 MW. It's a clear example of pent-up demand quickly turned into action, thanks to the long-awaited extension of the federal production tax credit, finally approved by Congress in September. The PTC approval spurring new wind turbine orders is not a surprise, but the speed and size of GE's announcement is encouraging, particularly at a time of great uncertainty in politics, the economy, and energy markets. But that hasn't stopped U.S. wind energy developers and investors from preparing to kick the industry back into high gear after its moribund, mostly-PTC-less 2004. The confirmed contracts for GE Energy turbines alone represent a 56% increase over the 480 MW of wind expected to be installed in the U.S. this year. GE's combined total of 1,500 MW in new contracts and commitments, totaling $1.3 billion in revenue, is near the total of 1,696 MW installed in the U.S. wind power industry's record-setting year of 2001 and 1,687 MW in 2003. In late October, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) predicted that new U.S. installations next year may exceed 2,500 MW - no matter who occupies the Oval Office. Much more critical to wind industry investors than politics is the comparative price of fossil fuel-fired power, with natural gas, the fuel source for 18% of U.S. electricity generation, being the most volatile. With the PTC back in place, current natural gas price trends clearly favor the momentum of wind power development. In high-wind areas such as the Midwest and the Great Plains, AWEA says wind power is the cheapest new electricity resource when natural gas goes for $3.50 per thousand cubic feet or higher. In October, the price of natural gas hit double that amount -- $7.00 -- on the mercantile exchange in New York. And it wasn't because the Yankees lost. There's no telling whether the Red Sox will be able to carry their October momentum into the 2005 season. But in clean energy investing, there are encouraging signs that overall industry momentum, not just wind power, should be strong next year. A new study from Cleantech Venture Network reports for the first time that over the past decade, returns from investments in clean-tech companies slightly exceeded the average returns in venture capital overall, 29% to 26%. While the increasing growth of clean-tech investments as a percentage of total VC activity has been steadily tracked, CTVN's report is one of the first to quantify the strong level of successful investment exits in this space. That's a great sign to fuel even more clean-tech investing in the coming months. The largest publicly-announced forthcoming investment in clean tech, $1.5 billion from two California state pension funds, also moved ahead in October. The California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) held the first meeting of its clean-tech advisory board, which includes Russell Pullan of the U.K.-based Carbon Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs co-founder Bob Epstein. The board will advise CalSTRS on investments in the so-called Green Wave initiative, the largest-ever move of pension fund dollars into clean tech and other environmentally sound companies and projects. Government initiatives move slowly, and this is no exception; the board won't meet again until March. But Green Wave is underway, another piece of good industry momentum. And once a good thing gets going, it can start building on itself and become very hard to stop. Just ask the 2004 Red Sox. Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.