China gets a hold on its economic turbulence
For five years now in our annual predictions, both here at Kachan and when I was a managing director of the Cleantech Group, we foretold the rise of China as cleantech juggernaut. Yet, now with China having become the largest market for and leading vendor of cleantech products and services by all metrics that matter, and now receiving a larger percentage of global cleantech venture capital than at any point in history, there have been recent warning signs. New data just in (for instance, falling Chinese property prices and sluggish export growth because of faltering first world economies, not to mention the first decline in clean energy project financing in China since 2010 as wind project financing declined 14% in the third quarter of 2011 on fears of over-expansion) suggests the Chinese economic engine is slowing. On the face of it, that might look bad for cleantech. But we put a lot of faith in China’s central government and the seriousness with which it views this sector as strategic. Even now, the country has just gone on the record forecasting creating 9 million new green jobs in the next 5 years. Nine million! And China has a good track record in executing its 5-year plans.
Rise in oil prices
Cleantech is a much wider category than energy. But for many, renewable energy is its cornerstone. And while there’s no question about the long-term markets for renewables, the biggest factor affecting their short-term commercial viability is the price of fossil-based energy. The good news: indications are that oil prices are headed upwards in 2012, which should be expected to help make renewables more economic. Naysayers maintain that a poor global economy will destroy demand for energy, keeping the price of oil artificially low. For much of 2011, the price of oil was relatively low. But we argue the price per barrel will continue its inexorable rise in 2012 given continued growth in the size of the global market for oil, driven by market expansion in the developing world. Further adding to the expected oil price increase is a little-known fact: there’s been a decline in the quality of oil the world is seeing on average. And the poorer the quality of the oil, the more it costs to refine it into the products we require. Oil prices are headed up.
Corporations’ even stronger leadership role
Corporate venturing was up in 2011, possibly setting new record highs, according to the data providers (4Q data not in yet.) Cleantech corporate mergers and acquisitions globally were up in 2011, again possibly setting new record highs, according to the data. The world’s largest companies assumed the leadership we and others predicted they would last year at this time—and indications are they will continue to do so in 2012, with balance sheets still strong.
Solar innovation as a perennial driver
Investment into good old solar innovation and projects is still strong, and has remained so for years, while other clean technologies have risen and fallen in and out of investment fashion. And that’s despitemost solar companies being in the red and having billions of dollars in market capitalization disappear over the last year. As some solar companies will continue to close up shop in 2012, look for investment into solar innovation to remain strong in 2012 as the quest for lower costs and higher efficiencies continues.
Persistence of the fundamental drivers of cleantech
The sheer sizes of the addressable markets many cleantech companies target, and the possibilities for massive associated returns, will continue to draw investors to the sector. Why? The world is still running out of the raw materials it needs. Some countries value their energy independence. More than ever, economies need to do more with less. Oh, and there’s that climate thing.
On the other hand: What worries us about the prospects for growth in cleantech investment in 2012
Investor fundraising climate tightening
Today, limited partners (i.e. “LPs” – the organizations and/or wealthy individuals that fund venture capital companies) are still bankrolling cleantech worldwide; in its 3Q 2011 Investment Monitor for clients, the Cleantech Group details 34 dedicated cleantech and sustainability-focused funds receiving billions in capital commitments internationally in the third quarter of 2011 alone. But we expect a slowdown in venture fundraising in 2012. Blame Solyndra for negative American LP sentiment. Or blame the lack of rock star returns in cleantech of late. But there are more indications than ever that some LPs are becoming increasingly reluctant to fund cleantech. They’ve been grousing about cleantech for years. But the politicizing of the Solyndra bankruptcy has amped the rhetoric higher than ever, and will foster a self-fulfilling prophesy in 2012, particularly in America, we believe.
Waning policy support in the developed world
Expected conflicting government policy signals to continue in 2012. Don’t expect cleantech-friendly U.S. policy leadership in 2012, an election year. We wouldn’t be surprised if the ghost of Solyndra and other U.S. Department of Energy stimulus grants and loan guarantees continued to haunt American cleantech through the whole of 2012, making any overt U.S. government support of clean or green industry unlikely. While cleantech is far from solely an American phenomenon, there’s no mistaking that the (now expired) American national loan guarantee program helped loosen private cleantech capital in an immediately post-2008 shell-shocked economy. However, continued uncertainty over the future of the U.S. Treasury grants program and production tax credits is holding the U.S. back. Policy support suffers elsewhere in the developed world. For instance, in the UK, investor confidence was recently dealt a blow by a dramatic drop in solar feed-in-tariff (FIT) rates, and the erosion of renewable policy support in Germany and Spain is well known.
Lag time of negative sentiment – Even if the sky indeed started falling in cleantech (and we don’t believe it yet has), it would take a few quarters to show in venture or project investment numbers. Remember, deals can take quarters to consummate. Transactions being counted now may have been initiated a year ago. Fear takes several quarters to manifest. Which is why we believe today’s uncertainty will start to show in 2012’s performance.
VCs still circling their wagons
In 2007, before the financial crash, the percentage of early stage venture investments into new cleantech companies was roughly the same as later-stage venture investments into established companies. Since the crash of 2008, deals have remained skewed—both by number and size of deals—towards later stage companies, illustrating investors’ preference to keep existing investments alive than take risks on new companies. While the exact ratio varies quarter to quarter, and from data provider to data provider, there have been generally fewer early stage companies getting funded. That’s hampering cleantech innovation. We expect the trend to continue into 2012.
Perennial concern about exits and IRR
Despite the size of its massive addressable markets and near-record amounts of capital entering the space today, on the whole, cleantech investors are still seeking the returns that many of their web and social media tech brethren enjoy. Even now, 10 years into this theme that we started calling cleantech in 2002. That’s not for lack of exits; 2010 saw the largest number of cleantech IPOs on record (93 companies raised a combined $16.3 billion) and 2011 has already had 35 without the last quarter reporting. And cleantech M&A activity in 2011 was strong and significantly higher than last year. No, the concern is for lack of multiples. For instance, 8 of the 14 IPOs of the third quarter of 2011 were trading below their offering price as of the publication of the Cleantech Group’s 3Q 2011 Investment Monitor. Don’t let anyone tell you exits aren’t happening in cleantech. They’re just underwhelming. And/or they’re happening in China.
Macro-economic turbulence, collapse, or at least, reform – They’re the elephants in the room: The Occupy movement. Arab Spring. Peak Oil. The continued and growing mismatch between overall global energy supply and demand and food supply and demand. Ever-increasing debt and trade deficits. Currency revaluation or political/military developments. Any or all of these could spur another massive global economic “stair-step” downwards of the scale we saw in 2008, or worse. Concern about all of these points and the impact they’d have on the cleantech sector weighs heavy on us here.
Venture dip made up for by rise in corporate involvement
The world’s largest corporations woke up to opportunities in cleantech in 2011, making for record levels of M&A, corporate venturing and strategic investments. General Electric bought lighting and smart grid companies. Schneider Electric bought some 10 companies across the cleantech spectrum. Corporate venturing activity was high, as were minority-stake investments. In just the third quarter alone, ZF Friedrichshafen invested $187 million in wind turbine gearbox and component maker Hansen Transmissions of Belgium, Stemcor invested $137 million into waste company CMA in Australia, and BP invested $71 million into biofuel company Tropical BioEnergia in Brazil. And there were dozens more minority stake transactions like these throughout the year.
Look for even more cash-laden companies to continue to buy their way into clean technology markets in 2012, supplementing the role of traditional private equity and evidencing a maturation of the cleantech sector.
Storage investment to retreat
Significant capital has gone into energy storage in recent quarters. In 3Q11, storage received $514 million in 19 venture deals worldwide, more than any other cleantech category. Will storage remain a leading cleantech investment theme in 2012? We’re betting no. Here’s why.
Storage recently made headlines as the subsector that received the most global cleantech venture investment in the third quarter of 2011, the last quarter for which numbers are available. An analysis of the numbers, however, shows the quarter was artificially inflated by large investments into stationary fuel cell makers Bloom Energy and ClearEdge Power. Do we at Kachan expect more investments of that magnitude into competing companies? No. Why? Even if you believe analysts that assert that stationary fuel cells for combined heat and power are actually ramping up to serious volumes (oldtimers have seen this market perpetually five years away for 15 years, now), just look how crowded the space currently is. Bloom and ClearEdge are competing with UTC Power, FuelCell Energy, Altergy, Relion, Idatech, Panasonic, Ceramic Fuel Cells and Ceres Power … just some of the better-known 60 or so companies vying for this tiny market today. And many are still selling at zero or negative gross margins.
But the main reason we’re not bullish on storage: Smoothing the intermittency of renewable solar and wind power might turn out to be less important soon. Sure, nary a week goes by without announcements of promising new storage tech breakthroughs or new public support for grid storage (e.g. see these three latest grid storage projects just announced in the U.S., detailed halfway down the page.) But we believe that utility-scale renewable power storage might be obviated if utilities embrace other ways to generate clean baseload power.
In 2012 or soon thereafter, we expect those clean baseload options will start to include new safer forms of nuclear power (don’t believe us? Read Kachan’s report Emerging Nuclear Innovations—U.S. readers, don’t worry: nuclear innovation won’t apply to you.) Or NCSS/IGCC turbines powered by renewable natural gas delivered through today’s gas distribution pipelines (see The Bio Natural Gas Opportunity). Or even geothermal (gasp!) or marine power (see below). All of these promise to be less expensive than solar and wind when you factor in the expense of storage systems required—incl. electrochemical, compressed air, hydrogen, flywheel, pumped water, thermal, vehicle-to-grid or other—if solar and wind are to be relied on 24/7.
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