Bioenergy, Geothermal, Hydropower, Solar, Wind Power

Clean Tech’s Mid-Year Report: Many Battles Ahead

In any given year, some days stand out as touchstones for an industry, and for clean tech. Tuesday, June 29 was one of them. As the seventh annual Renewable Energy Finance Forum (REFF)-Wall Street opened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Wall Street itself was beginning one of its worst days of the year. The Dow Jones average plunged 268 points, renewing fears that the U.S. economic recovery, in the words of Bank of America Merrill Lynch managing director Parker Weil, is still “perilous and weak.”

Yet among the day’s financial carnage, Tesla Motors’ much-hyped initial public offering began trading, and rose more than 40 percent to raise $226 million in the auto industry’s first IPO in more than half a century (since Ford in 1956). The contrast of Tesla’s rise with the market’s fall makes for a nice metaphor of clean tech being the economy’s best hope, but the overall picture is much more complicated than that.

The biggest story (or perhaps non-story) of June 29, however, unfolded about 200 miles south in Washington, D.C., where President Obama met with 23 key senators to discuss energy and climate legislation. The result: practically nothing, save for a possible scaling back of the Kerry-Lieberman bill’s proposed carbon cap to cover the utilities sector only. Not encouraging. The bottom line is to expect more and more legislative uncertainty from Capitol Hill, at a time when clean-tech companies and investors are crying out for certainty.

Perhaps most discouraging of all is the failure of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the Gulf oil spill, to galvanize our politicians (including the President) into real, game-changing legislative action of the kind that my colleague Ron Pernick eloquently called for in last month’s CE Views. Sure, there’s some bipartisan support for a halt to new offshore drilling and (with the exception of Texas Congressman Joe Barton and the like) getting tough on the oil companies, but the Deepwater Horizon tragedy is not translating into the forward-looking legislation – specifically putting a price on carbon – that would accelerate our new energy economy.

“Washington has seen a lot of ranting and raving,” said REFF panelist John Woolard, president and CEO of concentrating solar power company BrightSource Energy, “and yet we’re doing absolutely nothing to form a legitimate political response on energy policy.” Capitol Hill, it seems, has a force even stronger than a gushing BP oil well: a looming mid-term election.

As for clean-tech investors and credit markets, the mid-year consensus is “better than last year, but still an environment of caution,” said Nancy Floyd, founder and managing director of clean-tech venture capital pioneer Nth Power. Morgan Stanley vice chairman Jeffrey Holzschuh said Wall Street’s investment decisions for the past six months have begun with the question, “Is it a ‘risk on’ or ‘risk off’ week?” And of course, China looms large; the Chinese invested $33 billion in asset finance for new clean energy build outs in 2009, nearly double the $17.9 billion in the U.S., according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

While China and others forge ahead, the U.S. clean-tech industry is being forced to fight policy battles just to retain what it already has. The federal investment tax credit cash grant program, launched in 2009 to fund clean-energy projects with cash instead of tax credits during a time of minimal tax-credit appetite, will expire at year’s end without Congressional action. And an even more dire scenario looms in California, where the state’s landmark greenhouse-gas reduction law (known as AB 32) will be suspended if voters in November approve Proposition 23, a ballot measure largely funded by Texas oil companies Valero and Tesoro.

AB 32 established the policy certainty that’s helping to grow clean-energy companies and jobs in California, unquestionably the nation’s leading clean-tech economy; Prop. 23 would wipe that away. “This is a major threat to the entire clean-tech industry with national if not international implications,” said Nicholas Eisenberger, senior strategist at sustainability consultancy GreenOrder. Organizations like the Clean Economy Network are gearing up for this critical battle; if you care about the clean-tech future, get on board.

The clean-tech industry, mid-year 2010, is clearly not a place for the faint of heart. It’s brutally competitive on a global basis, challenging to finance, and from Washington D.C. to California, under seemingly constant assault from legislative inaction and worse. But it also continues to be innovative, full of entrepreneurial excitement, and for some, lucrative. Clean-tech veterans have never shied away from technology, finance or policy challenges, and now is a very important time to gear up for policy battles. If you like job creation, acting on global climate change, boosting U.S. economic competitiveness, preventing the next Deepwater Horizon – or all of the above – they are fights we need to win.

Wilder is Clean Edge’s senior editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at Clint_Wilder.