In general, the cleantech sector is maturing, with more rigor and focus on grounded business plans, carried out by more seasoned executives, who have gradually replaced the original innovators, says Jeff Lipton, managing director of CleanTech Investment Banking at Jefferies Group.That could have helped hydrogen and fuel cells companies with their beguiling potential of virtually limitless power. Fascination with the science was not always matched by a sober acknowledgement of the remaining technological challenges – not to mention the complete absence of industry infrastructure. Ballard Power Systems, Plug Power and Fuel Cell Energy are the poster children of that heedlessness. Honda continues to test its fuel cell ... but on cars that cost up to $1 million each.
The same euphoria got some biofuel companies in trouble. The share prices of handful of these companies are now below their debut price and numerous construction projects have been put on hold.
On October 1, VeraSun Energy, one of the nation’s largest ethanol producers, announced it was suspending construction of its 110 million-gallon-per-year ethanol biorefinery in Reynolds, Indiana, because of a fall in ethanol prices of nearly 50 cents a per gallon in the previous two months. The delay came less than six months after the firm first announced plans to build. “You’re going to see a wave of consolidation in the next 12 months or so,” says Jeffries’ Lipton.
Besides dependence on significant subsidies there are worries about long-term overcapacity, as well as the feedstock problem of corn prices pushed skyward, which sabotage project economic viability, and entangle firms in a politicized ‘food versus food’ debate.
“Could you have irrational exuberance in a subsector of these sectors, sure, no doubt, it could happen,” says Ron Pernick, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, which came out June. “Could you have irrational exuberance in all sectors, I don’t think so.”
Retail Investors Take Note
Retail investors are partially shielded by the discipline imposed by the capital markets. “The public capital markets appropriately are only funding those deals where a lot of the technology risk has come out of the process,” explains Joseph Muscat, Americas director of Ernst & Young’s cleantech advisory services.
Even after they are listed these stocks can still experience considerable volatility, because of fluctuating oil prices and fickle government support policies, which have periodically whiplashed early U.S. green energy investors for years.
Retail investors interested in this sector have at least half a dozen exchange-traded funds. (Learn more about green ETFs.)
“This is a reasonably young market sector - some of technology is going to succeed and others will not reach the projected level of adoption to make it commercial scalable – that’s why it’s a venture play,”