With solar prices plunging amid talk of an oversupply, project financing becoming hard to get and expensive, and few U.S. initial public offerings, it’s no wonder that solar investment dropped off at the end of 2008 and in the first half of 2009. But intrepid investors have started streaming new money back into the sector in the last year.
Venture-capital (VC) investments rose steadily in each of the last three quarters to reach a total of $871 million globally in Q2 2010, according to the Cleantech Group. That’s less than the whopping $1.2 billion in solar venture-capital investments the group tracked in Q3 2008, but it’s more than any other quarter since the group began tracking cleantech investments in 1999.
The diehard investors that Photovoltaics World selected to highlight here have supported solar in spite of the risks, each participating in many deals for a variety of different photovoltaic companies in the last five years and backing at least one — and in some cases, far more than one — PV startup in the last year. While each of these investors’ solar portfolios likely includes both winners and losers, we wanted to celebrate the highly active investors around the globe who have played a critical role in creating the industry we have today and who have shown huge potential — and commitment — to finding, shaping, and growing the solar leaders of tomorrow.
“The individuals highlighted here have been key to enabling the sector’s growth from infancy to adolescence and now into maturity,” says David Hague, a senior solar analyst with the Cleantech Group. “I really respect the venture community for mentoring and preparing their portfolio companies to enter the marketplace and engage with the banking and project finance community. This is the final step to commercialization and market acceptance.”
In a risk-averse and capital-constrained economy, it’s become more obvious than ever that making a difference requires not only a good idea and good people, but also plenty of cold, hard cash. Together, these investor champions of PV have directed hundreds of millions of dollars to the solar industry and have helped to create billions of dollars of value. Without these investors participating in all different areas of investment, from early-stage capital to growth capital to financing for manufacturing plants and for solar installations, the industry as we know it wouldn’t exist today.
From even a casual glance at Good Energies’ portfolio page, it’s obvious where the investment firm’s priorities lie. Solar is listed at the very top, followed by a whopping 14 portfolio companies in the category. And that’s not surprising given that its founder and chairman, Marcel Brenninkmeijer, was an early investor in REC and Q-Cells, two of the world’s largest photovoltaic companies. Read more about REC and Q-Cells in the article “Champion photovoltaic companies and labs.“
Brenninkmeijer made the No. 4 spot on The Sunday Times’ green rich list in 2009 with an estimated net worth of £19 billion (approximately $29.57 billion). A member of the Dutch family that owns the COFRA Group, best known for its clothing retailer, C&A, Brenninkmeijer founded Good Energies for the group in 2001. Good Energies invests COFRA funds specifically in clean energy and manages its renewable-energy portfolio. According to the Cleantech Group, Good Energies took part in at least 13 solar deals in the last five years, together worth more than $375.4 million.
Among others, the group led rounds for 6N Silicon, which purifies metallurgical silicon into solar-grade silicon; monocrystalline-silicon-wafer maker NorSun; and Agile Energy, a utility-scale PV-project developer, according to various press releases. Good Energies also co-led rounds for organic-thin-film developer Konarka; solar installer and distributor Solarcentury; and CSG Solar, which makes thin-film silicon panels on glass and is no longer listed as a portfolio company on Good Energies’ website. In 2009, the investment firm also founded Endurance Energies, a wholly owned subsidiary that finances and develops large-scale PV projects.
Brenninkmeijer is a supervisory board member of Q-Cells, which remains on Good Energies list of portfolio companies. Other photovoltaic companies on the list, as of Sept. 14, include Calisolar, a metallurgical-silicon-cell manufacturer that bought 6N Silicon in February; microinverter startup Enecsys; XjetSolar, which is developing an inkjet-based deposition system for solar cells; Resolar, a developer of “medium-large” PV projects in Italy and the Mediterranean; and Enviromena, a developer of solar projects in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
The company has apparently exited from its investments in REC, which scored a very successful IPO in 2005; Trina Solar, which went public in 2006; Concentrix Solar, which Good Energies backed as its first investor in 2006 and which was bought by the Soitec Group last year. In August, Good Energies also announced it had sold its 35 percent stake in Solarfun Power, a Chinese manufacturer of silicon ingots, wafers, cells and panels, although the company remains listed as a portfolio company.
All together, that brings the total number of photovoltaic-related companies that Good Energies has backed, since 2004, to a whopping 16. And the company’s — and Brenninkmeijer’s — support of solar extends beyond those investments. The Good Energies Foundation has made a number of solar-related philanthropic donations as well.
It has funded the blueEnergy Group, a nonprofit bringing electricity, via small wind and solar power, to remote villages in eastern Nicaragua, Stiftung Energie, a German nonprofit bringing solar electricity and other products — including solar-powered health posts for vaccinations, solar lanterns and solar-powered water pumps — to remote areas in Ethiopia, and the Solar Aid Foundation, which is providing solar-powered lighting to poor communities with no electricity in Tanzania. In addition, the foundation sponsored the World Bank’s Lighting Africa competition to develop low-cost renewable-energy lighting for sub-Saharan Africa in 2008, and was the primary donor for a Clinton Global Initiative project — pledged by Brenninkmeijer — to bring solar electricity to African villages in 2006.
Hailing from Norway, Bjorge Gretland has scouted for solar investments at home and the United States and bet on technologies ranging from wafers to modules — and crystalline silicon, thin film, and concentrating photovoltaics — all through the firm he founded, Convexa.
You will recognize the names of the startups. There’s Innovalight, which has developed a silicon ink that could squeeze more efficiency from crystalline silicon solar cells. The Sunnyvale, Calif., company has won fans and customers, among them Yingli Green Energy and JA Solar. Another startup, SoloPower in San Jose, Calif., has dived into the building-integrated photovoltaic market with the recent launch of flexible copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) modules. The modules forgo the use of glass, making them light weight, which will appeal to project developers that want to shave installation costs and to roofing companies that want a slice of the solar market.
Overall, Convexa has invested in eight companies in the solar space, including Soliant Energy, Confluence Solar, NorSun, Stellaris, Metallkraft and Silicon Genesis. Convexa led five deals worth a total of 114.7 million for Silicon Genesis, Soliant, Innovalight, SoloPower and Confluence Solar. Convexa also co-led a $6 million round for Stellaris, and participated in a NOK 665 million ($107.42 million) for NorSun in 2006.
– Ucilia Wang
David Gelbaum has long avoided the limelight, but his influence as an investor has hardly escaped notice. The New York Times called him a “Sun King” in a story back in May and Bill Gross, founder and CEO of both successful startup incubator IdeaLab and solar-thermal company eSolar, in which Gelbaum has invested, says Gelbaum’s “impact on green technology is huge.” Still, by all reports, Gelbaum, one of the biggest yet least-known investors in green technology and environmental philanthropy, remains a modest man sometimes mistaken for the gardener or a math professor.
While he’s lost money on his 40 to 50 cleantech investments, which he attributes to the current credit crunch, he’s the very definition of patient money with a long view. “I still don’t know which technology will end up winning, but I believe we’re on the cusp of a revolution in how energy is generated and distributed,” he told the Times. “I’ve gone long on solar as I’m expecting that’s where my big win will be.”
Known as a gifted mathematician, Gelbaum has been investing in a variety of cleantech startups since 2002 through his fund, the Quercus Trust. In 2006 he started getting into solar in a big way, and in 2010 he became CEO and chairman at Fort Worth, Texas-based Entech Solar, which designs, makes and installs solar-energy systems.
“I had some understanding of solar, so I looked at that. It looked really promising, particularly when I realized we were close to solar being at economic parity with fossils,” he told GigaOm in a rare interview after taking the reins at Entech.
He’s backed a number of low-cost photovoltaic technologies, focusing on cutting capital costs as competition with China heats up. Aside from Entech, his PV investments include thin-film companies First Solar, Sencera International and Solar Enertech; crystalline-silicon solar-panel manufacturers Snooper and Suniva; concentrating PV companies SolFocus, Cyrium Technologies and Cool Earth Solar, which is developing 10- to 30-Mw power plants based on inflatable solar receivers; and Lightwave Power, which is developing new nanotech and microtech structures for solar products.
In addition to all his PV investments, Gelbaum also has bet on companies that will help distribute solar and other renewables, as well as companies developing smart-grid software and energy storage for large, centralized solar farms. “I think most of my investments have huge promise, and many of them are intertwined. Solar can’t go forward without the smart grid,” he told GigaOm. “They all have huge upsides.”
And Gelbaum has probably donated as much to environmental causes as he’s invested in cleantech — about a half billion dollars each. He’s supported environmental causes since the 1970s and is the Sierra Club’s largest individual benefactor. He has given even more to his Wildlands Conservancy, which has bought more than 587,000 acres of the Mojave Desert and 1,200 acres total in California for preservation. The conservancy also promotes distributed generation of energy.
As founder and managing director of Tsing Capital, Don Ye is among a small group of investors who have made the right bets and seen his portfolio companies, such as LDK Solar and China Sunergy, exit with successful IPOs.
Ye got into the game early. He founded Beijing-based Tsing in 2001, well before other venture capitalists rushed to invest in solar and other cleantech sectors. He has received recognition for his investment acumen over the years. BusinessWeek named him to the list of “China’s Most Powerful People” in 2009, and Forbes picked him for its 2009 list of the top 50 venture capitalists in China.
Tsing backed LDK Solar, which began as a silicon wafer maker and now also makes modules, as well as China Sunergy, a silicon cell maker. LDK Solar went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2007 and raised $469 million. China Sunergy debuted on the NASDAQ in 2007 and raised $93.5 million. “We made 5-10x on those companies,” he told the China Economic Review in 2007. “In other words, the [returns] were over 1,000%, so it looks good.”
In the last five years, Tsing’s China Environment Fund has participated in at least five solar deals worth a total of $148.5 million, according to the Cleantech Group. Those deals include ET Solar’s $19 million round in 2008, which was led by China Environment Fund, followed by a second round of $31 million for ET Solar the same year; as well as a $28 million fund raising for CEEG Nanjing New Energy (now owned by China Sunergy) and two rounds, of $22.5 million and $48 million, for LDK Solar, all in 2006. ET Solar makes silicon wafers, modules and trackers.
The China Environment Fund also this year invested an undisclosed amount in Sunpreme, a startup developing solar cells using refined metallurgical-grade silicon, and Ye sits on the Sunpreme board of directors. Tsing is the venture capital arm of Tsinghua Holdings, which is owned by Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Forest Baskett, a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, may be shepherding more clean technology startups than any other venture capitalist. He sits on four solar company boards and is an associate at a fifth. And that’s just his solar portfolio — he sits on a whopping 20 board seats overall.
He brings both rich industry experience (he was the chief technology officer and senior vice president of research and development at Silicon Graphics, the director of Digital Equipment Corp.’s Western Research Lab, and spent two years at Los Alamos National Laboratory) and academic chops (he was a professor of computer science and electrical engineering for more than a decade at Stanford University) to the boardrooms of:
- AstroWatt, an early-stage photovoltaic startup that’s developing a proprietary technology for producing affordable solar cells, based on ultra-thin crystalline silicon substrates that can be processed using current PV manufacturing tools;
- Bandgap Engineering, Inc., which is developing inexpensive methods for nano-structuring silicon for use in high-efficiency PV systems and high-capacity lithium-ion batteries;
- Solar Junction Corporation, which is developing high-efficiency multi-junction solar cells intended to make concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) cost-effective; and
- Solar Storage Company, which was started by two Australian transplants and is developing enterprise-scale solar power, with a new storage approach for concentrating-solar-thermal (CST) power plants using steam engines.
Baskett also assists at Alta Devices, a three-year-old solar cell manufacturer founded by solar experts Harry Atwater of Cal Tech and Eli Yablonovitch of U.C. Berkeley. Alta Devices has attracted notice for its 35 patent filings and reports that it’s well on the way to achieving its goal of “the world’s highest efficiency/lowest cost solar modules.”
You need either a strong stomach or the courage of your convictions to invest in solar this year. Just ask Thiemo Lang, senior portfolio manager of the $608 million SAM Smart Energy Fund. He’s gone from 83% gains in 2009 to a negative 17% return this year as of the end of August.
Yet when other investors started getting out of solar last year, Lang continued to believe in PV and stocked up, bringing his stakes in three PV companies to the second, fourth, and fifth spots in the fund’s top 10 holdings. His top PV stock is Canadian Solar Inc., followed by Trina Solar Ltd. and Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Others include JA Solar Holdings Co., E-Ton Solar Tech Co. and Gintech Energy Corp.
Lang knows the energy market inside out. Degrees in electronics and optics/photonics led to work as a Siemens AG development engineer, then as a technology analyst and later a fund manager. His career has flourished with the growing interest in renewable energy and sustainability.
Prior to taking his present position, Lang conceived and launched the Activest Lux NanoTech fund for HypoVereinsbank in Munich, and later managed the Infology fund, which focused on new-material and energy-technology companies, for Lombard Odier Darier Hentsch. Lang has managed the SAM Smart Energy Fund since 2007. SAM Sustainable Asset Management AG is part of the Robeco Group, itself owned by Rabobank Groep.
Morningstar gives SAM Smart Energy Fund a three-star, Superior rating. Its spectacular performance last year earned it the top spot on the Bloomberg New Energy Finance ranking of clean-energy funds last March.
The fund’s performance this year can be blamed on a capacity glut amidst a languishing economy that hit solar panel prices hard, and the fact that many investors dumped solar shares after world leaders failed to achieve any consensus in Copenhagen last December on steps to reduce global carbon emissions.
Canadian Solar shares are down about 55% year-to-date, Yingli Green Energy is down about 24% and Trina Solar is up just 4.8%.
“These companies have been hit quite hard, but we’re sticking to our position and increasing it,” the German native told Bloomberg in March. “The strong correction we’ve seen at the beginning of the year is overdone.”
Even though the solar stocks haven’t performed well this year, Lang is betting they will soon regain their upward trajectory. In the meantime, he’s been able to mitigate the losses by balancing out his solar holdings with dividend-paying utilities such as Energy Company of Minas Gerais, Brazil, currently his top holding; Tokyo Gas Co., up about 20 percent this year; and Osaka Gas Co., up about 5 percent. (All stock performances are as of Sept. 14.)
Lang expressed hope in March that 2010 would bring better returns for investors. Judging from the performance of some of his top holdings in the past 3 months, he’s on track to get his wish. Trina Solar shares are up about 58% in that period, Yingli is up 18%, and Canadian Solar’s performance is up 24% in the past 3 months. JA Solar is a bright spot, up 26% in the year to date and up about 53% in the past 3 months.
In a March 2010 presentation to The Association for Sustainable & Responsible Investment in Asia, Lang laid out his long-term views on investing in solar.
Considering the world’s ever-growing appetite for energy amidst the challenge of climate change, the pressing need to “de-carbonize” the world energy supply requires much greater investment than the market currently anticipates. In addition, aging, leaky infrastructure in the U.S. and growing populations elsewhere that aspire to a better standard of living mean that investment in all aspects of energy generation, transmission and storage are needed.
In short, it’s what Lang calls “history’s greatest energy challenge: More energy, less carbon dioxide.”
Chris Moran is a busy man. As corporate vice president and general manager of Applied Ventures, the VC arm of Applied Materials, he’s responsible for the company’s investments in semiconductor and solar-energy companies. As of December 2009, 54% of Applied Ventures’ investments were in clean tech.
Since 2006, Applied Ventures has participated in at least six rounds of funding that raised a total of more than $130 million for EnPhase Energy, whose microconverters boost energy harvest and simplify design and installation of solar panels; Semprius, which makes concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) modules; Wakonda Technologies, a Boston-based maker of solar PV technology; BT Imaging, whose photoluminescence-based inspection tools for PV makers improve solar inspection and quality control; and Soltaicx, maker of high-quality, low-cost silicon wafers for the PV industry.
Other solar investments include Iosil Energy, which increases yield and reduces cost of polysilicon production; Kotak Urja, India’s leading solar company in both PV and thermal heating systems; Terra-Barrier Films, whose products improve flex-PV; and Plextronics, which makes polymers and inks for printed solar technology. Two of Moran’s charges, Solaicx and SunEdison, which installs and finances solar-energy systems for commercial customers at no upfront cost, were bought by MEMC.
Vinod Mukani, longtime head of the solar-origination business in the Americas for Norddeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale, better known as Nord/LB, did so well for his employer that he was recently lured away by Deutsche Bank to work on equity, project finance and mergers and acquisitions. While at Nord/LB, teams led by Mukani and his European counterpart, Heiko Ludwig, arranged more than $340 million in solar transactions in three years for companies including SunEdison, Starwood Energy Group, First Solar and Tianwei Yingli New Energy Resources.
Thanks to $60 million in financing lead-arranged by Nord/LB, SunEdison and partner SkyPower are building two PV power plants in Ontario, each with capacities of 10 MW. That follows 19 MW of solar-power projects recently built by SunEdison and SkyPower in Ontario.
In January, Nord/LB also arranged construction financing for two 10-MW PV projects in Ontario for Starwood. The facilities were slated to come online in the third quarter of 2010 and are expected to provide power for up to 8,000 homes in Ontario. “The facilities will also reduce yearly carbon emissions by an amount equal to displacing 3,800 cars and light trucks each driving 12,000 miles per year, or to planting more than 16 million trees in Ontario’s forests,” according to Starwood’s press release.
Darren Van’t Hof
Darren Van’t Hof, director of renewable energy investments for U.S. Bancorp’s US Bank, is a champion of solar-lease financing. Through these leases, homeowners can get solar panels installed for “zero down,” in exchange for making monthly payments that usually amount to less that their previous utility bills. And that’s proven key to igniting the demand for solar installations at a time when many would-be buyers aren’t ready to pay the entire cost upfront — and when other banks have been dropping solar projects.
This year, for example, the bank set up a $24 million tax equity fund to finance solar installer and lease provider Sungevity’s solar projects. Sungevity has seen a surge in demand for residential solar systems since launching its 10-year lease program, selling more in one day than in the previous biggest month. In 2008, U.S. Bank was an equity investor in the Connecticut Solar Initiative to lease solar equipment to as many as 1,000 homes.
In addition, U.S. Bank is backing SolarCity for a total of $190 million in financing for commercial and residential solar projects for 2009 and 2010, including solar leases for the most recent $90 million tranche. And U.S. Bank also funds SunRun’s solar-lease program to the tune of at least $195 million. “We like the residential solar space and are convinced its growth will outpace commercial solar development in the coming years,” Van’t Hof said in a Sungevity press release.
U.S. Bank is partly financing a 2.4-MW rooftop project for Portland General Electric using thin-film solar panels. It’s teaming up with East West Bank to finance Borrego Solar System’s first power-purchase agreement, a $20 million, 2.8-MW solar-energy project for the San Diego Community College District. The project will install nine solar arrays at six locations, saving the school system more than $110,000 annually for 20 years. “We’re looking at everything that comes to us in terms of solar investments,” Van’t Hof told the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association’s HousingOnline.com.
Farzad Dibachi is one solar advocate who flies under the radar. Dibachi doesn’t show up in greentech conferences in Silicon Valley to expound his investment views or often get quoted in the press, although that might have something to do with his choice to decamp to New Mexico in 2006 after making a fortune in the software industry. The next year, Dibachi and his wife, Rhonda, co-founded the Noribachi Group, a private-equity firm that invests and incubates cleantech startups developing products such as solar-powered consumer electronics and lighting, as well as custom solar panels.
Dibachi aims to make solar technologies more affordable and accessible to consumers than what’s on the market today. In this April story in the New Mexico Business Weekly, Dibachi said, “All new high-technology progress starts at the industrial scale and comes down to the individual scale. That’s what we did with computer software companies in the 1990s, and it’s what we need to do with green technology now. Solar is still an industrial-scale technology that needs to be fashioned for use by end consumers.”
Dibachi, who holds the chief entrepreneur title at Noribachi, is particularly interested in the marriage between solar and LED lighting. Noribachi is incubating Visible Light Solar Technologies to explore that union. The startup launched its Qnuru brand in 2008 to market exterior solar LED lighting. Qnuru’s website said the word “Qnuru” is made up of a combination of the Swahili word for light and the letter “Q,” which scientists use to denote radiant energy.
Dibachi’s firm also launched a company called Regen to design solar-powered consumer electronics, such as iPhone and iPod chargers that pair solar with battery storage. Solar Distinction, another Noribachi-backed startup, formed in February to carry out research and development into the manufacturing, of “standard and custom solar panels.”
Before Noribachi, Dibachi co-founded Niku, a developer of project management software, and served as its CEO before the company went public on the Nasdaq in 2003 (and was bought by Computer Associates that same year). He also co-founded and helmed a software company, Diba, that Sun Microsystems bought in 1997. Before he became an entrepreneur, he was senior vice president of the new media division at Oracle.
When the technology is proven and the customers are signed, it’s time to call in the big guns of finance to help get projects done. Manufacturing solar equipment and getting solar-power projects in the ground are the most capital-intensive pieces of the industry, and the gap left by the financial crisis – and investors’ resulting risk aversion – has demonstrated just how critical that financing is.
Credit Suisse has remained active in solar financing during the recession. The investment bank boasts the top market share in solar transactions, with twice the “share of wallet” as its nearest competitor, according to its Website. While the company doesn’t break out its solar numbers specifically, it claims to be “the No. 1 renewable-energy franchise on Wall Street,” having racked up more than 70 renewables transactions, with a total value of more than $30 billion, since 2007.
As vice president of the investment bank’s global renewable energies effort, Sanjeev Chaurasia has played a significant role. Among many other transactions, he participated in First Solar’s $458 million initial public offering, Suntech Power’s $455 million IPO and REC’s $1.16 billion IPO, as well as multi-hundred-million-dollar secondary or follow-on offerings for SunPower, GT Solar, Yingli Green Energy, JA Solar, REC and First Solar and a $101 million private funding round for HelioVolt.
Martin Lagod, co-founded Firelake Capital Management in Palo Alto, Calif., gets to witness up close the evolution of a few of the best-known solar startups in Silicon Valley.
Lagod, who is responsible for his firm’s private company investments, is fond of thin-film technologies and has invested in Nanosolar, MiaSole, Solexant and ThinSilicon. Nanosolar and MiaSole are developers of copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) thin films, and the two companies have garnered plenty of time in the spotlight for the hundreds of millions of dollars they have raised and for missing some self-imposed deadlines to deliver market-ready products (it’s getting better, it seems). The latter is a common phenomenon. MiaSole began shipping modules last year and has announced a 600-MW contract with Juwi Solar. Nanosolar completed a big factory last year and started mass production, but got a new CEO earlier this year and has kept relatively quiet.
ThinSilicon, meanwhile, has made its exit. China Solar Power bought ThinSilicon last year for ThinSilicon’s novel amorphous-silicon (aSi) cell structure, although it declined to disclose the purchase price. China Solar Power said ThinSilicon’s technology could create modules that are more efficient than competing products.
Lagod also invested in Advent Solar, a developer of a technology to create electrodes on the back of crystalline-silicon solar cells instead of on the front, thus freeing up space on the front of the cells to absorb sunlight. Applied Materials bought Advent Solar last year, and while the amount of the sale was undisclosed, Lux Research analyst Ted Sullivan said then that the price was most likely too low to have brought investors a return.
And Lagod has put money in Plextronics, a printed-electronics developer that could apply its technology to making organic solar cells. He’s a director on the board of both Plextronics and MiaSole. Firelake also has invested in iPV and Sungevity.
Overall, Firelake has participated in at least 10 rounds of deals totaling $349.96 million. MiaSole was rumored to be have raised a round of $200 million or more in 2008, but the company never confirmed it.
Prior to starting Firelake, Lagod was CEO and co-founder of Solo Energy, a microturbine developer. Before that, he was an intellectual property attorney for 19 years and worked at Cooley Godward and Brown and Bain.