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Clean Energy Investing: Yin and Yang, Bulls and Bears

Clint Wilder's picture

It's entirely possible for different people to look at the same situation and draw completely opposite conclusions. Case in point: A recent Page One story in USA Today examined the 2004 presidential election based on six factors that have accurately predicted the winner in the past, such as the incumbent's approval rating or the state of the U.S. economy. Three factors conclude that John Kerry will definitely win, while three others predict that George W. Bush will doubtlessly hold onto his office. I felt a similar cognitive dissonance at last month's Renewable Energy Finance Forum in New York, organized by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) and Euromoney Energy Events. More than 350 attendees heard luminaries from heavyweight financial firms and state governments discuss the outlook for investing in clean energy. A good news/bad news scenario prevailed inside conference venue the Metropolitan Club, a 110-year-old Fifth Avenue palace built for the likes of Vanderbilt, Whitney, and Morgan that New Energy Capital president Dan Reicher called "the clubhouse of American capitalism." While few doubt that renewable energy will be a huge growth market for investors, the predictions about when that will happen vary widely. Trying to get a handle on that at the conference was a constant yin-and-yang experience, or maybe Wall Street's version: the struggle between the bulls and the bears. Several speakers pointed to the continuing double-digit annual growth rates in most renewable technologies, a rare achievement in any industry. But others pointed out that public companies haven't delivered impressive returns. Winslow Management president Jackson Robinson noted that only 11 of 26 energy companies in his firm's portfolio are profitable, and that's stretching to include some progressive-technology players that aren't really in the renewables space, like American Power Conversion. Robinson speculated that the best growth prospects may be in companies like General Electric "with real businesses and real revenues that support what they do in renewables." One thing is obvious: the financiers are waiting for clear signals from policymakers, and they're not getting them. There's plenty of good news at the state level. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson arrived fresh from the previous week's Western Governors Association meeting, where governors collectively and unanimously supported a call for 30,000 MW of new renewables in their states by 2015. And Rhode Island's state assembly just unanimously approved a 15% renewable portfolio standard by 2020. But wind power investment continues to be hamstrung by the start-stop-start nature of the federal production tax credit, which needs to be renewed by Congress every two to three years and is hung up once again. And hydrogen? Despite the federal $1.2 billion funding program, the H-word was not uttered from the conference podium until halfway through the second day. California's GreenWave investment initiative, probably the year's major story in clean-tech investing, typifies the good-and-bad situation. The state's two largest pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, have pledged to invest nearly $500 million between them in clean energy, environmental technologies, and green businesses. The bad news is that the first investments are at least six to 12 months away. "We do move at kind of a tortoise pace," said CalPERS board president Sean Harrigan. It was legendary German solar energy pioneer Hermann Scheer who delivered the conference's best reason for optimism. "Except for biomass, all the costs of the renewable energies are for the technology only, not the resource," he said. "And technology prices always come down over time. So renewables will only get cheaper, while conventional energy, as the resources get scarcer, will only get more expensive." The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is an inevitable one; the only question is timing. To investors and businesspeople, of course, timing is everything. And the people making the big investment bets will have a lot of influence on how fast it happens. "Policy is hope, but it doesn't make it happen," said ACORE president Mike Eckhart. "Finance makes it happen." Renewable portfolio standards are a good case in point. They're great, but will they have enough teeth - and financial incentives - to lure enough investors and big industry players to achieve them? Said Bruce Braine, VP of strategic policy analysis at American Electric Power, the nation's largest electric utility: "We prefer carrots to sticks." When the renewable energy investment momentum really gets going, it shows every sign of being a juggernaut. As the ACORE conference showed, it's not quite there yet. One thing that's needed to get that juggernaut rolling is a little more risk tolerance -- and a little more positive thinking. "Project finance weeds out the naysayers in the first deal that takes a year and a half to get done," said Carter Ward, VP of $2.5 billion energy investment firm ArcLight Capital Partners. "In energy, you have to be an optimist." Clint Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.