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Archive for the ‘enviro capitalism’ Category

photo: BrightSource Energy

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Some good news on the environmental front for a change: Global investment in green technology in the first quarter of the year spiked 52 percent compared to the previous quarter, to $2.57 billion. That’s according to a report released Tuesday by the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco research and consulting firm.

The increase represents a 13 percent jump over the first quarter of 2010, and indicates that investors’ appetite for renewable energy, electric cars, and other green technologies continues to rebound from the recession.

But the numbers aren’t exactly good news for entrepreneurs toiling away in their garages on the next new thing. The first quarter results show that investors are focusing on existing portfolios rather than financing a lot of new startups. In fact, 93 percent of that $2.57 billion represented so-called follow-on investments.

“In the first few months of the new year there have been a rash of large later-stage deals which have propelled 1Q11 to the second highest quarter ever for clean tech VC investment,” Sheeraz Haji, the Cleantech Group’s chief executive, said in a statement. “It’s encouraging to see some big private equity firms entering the space.”

So who got the money?

Solar companies were the big winners, taking in $641 million in 26 deals, according to the Cleantech Group. About a third of that went to a single startup, BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., solar thermal power plant builder. And venture capitalists seem to have a renewed appetite for cutting-edge thin-film photovoltaic technology, an area they poured a couple of billion dollars into back during the green tech boom. One such startup, MiaSolé, scored $106 million in the first quarter.

Electric cars also proved popular among investors as the new year got underway. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a super sleek plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, took in $150 million. At the other end of the electric spectrum, Coda Automotive, another SoCal startup, took in $76 million for its middle-of-the-road four-door.

Biofuels are back as well, taking in $148 million. The largest share, $75 million, went to a California company called Fulcrum Bioenergy, which is developing a process to turn municipal waste into ethanol.

North America still accounts for the lion’s share of investment — 85 percent in the first quarter, a 43 percent rise from the same period last year. And Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers did the most deals — nine.

But in a sign that corporate America is increasingly seeing green tech as a good bet, GE Energy Financial Services took third place for the number of deals done.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Friday, I write about a report showing venture capital investment in green technology companies nose-dived in the third quarter of 2010, with California taking a big hit:

Has the green tech recovery stalled?

Global venture capital investment in green technology companies fell 30 percent, to $1.53 billion, in the third quarter of 2010, according to a preliminary report issued Friday by the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco-based research and consulting firm.

The amount invested in North America, Europe, China, India and Israel in the third quarter is also 11 percent below the year-ago quarter, when investment tanked amid the recession.

The numbers are striking, given that investment in green-tech startups soared in the first half of this year, surpassing records set in 2008 at the height of the clean technology boom.

“Much like we see globally, I think businesses and investors are grappling a little bit with a recovery that hasn’t yet taken off, and I think people are trying to figure out how quickly will the growth occur,” Sheeraz Haji, president of the Cleantech Group, said during a conference call Friday. “I think we’re seeing a little bit of the same in clean tech.”

California, an epicenter of green technology innovation, suffered a precipitous decline, with investment falling 61 percent.

Mr. Haji questioned whether uncertainty over the fate of California’s global warming law, known as A.B. 32, played a role in the falloff in investment. A measure on the November ballot, Proposition 23, would suspend A.B. 32 until the state unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters.

“We can’t help but wonder that uncertainty around Prop 23 has impacted that,” he said, cautioning that it is difficult to draw hard conclusions based on one quarter’s data. “

The global warming law requires California to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Mr. Haji noted that venture investment soared after the law’s enactment in 2006 as investors poured money into solar startups and companies developing energy efficiency services and electric cars.

Even so, investors put $452 million into California companies in the third quarter, versus $126 million for second-place Texas.

While the rest of North America experienced a rise in investment in the third quarter, California’s poor performance led to a 42 percent decline for the region as a whole.

Not so with Asia. For instance, investment in China jumped to $153 million in the third quarter from $30 million in the second quarter of 2010.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The anemic economic recovery may have hit the dog days of summer with consumer spending and factory orders slowing, but the new energy economy continues to surge, according to a report released Tuesday by Ernst & Young.

Venture capital (VC) investment in renewable energy, electric cars, energy efficiency, and other green technology jumped to $1.5 billion in the United States in the second quarter of 2010, a nearly 64 percent spike over the second quarter of last year. Green tech investment now has returned to the record levels of the third quarter of 2008, before the global economic collapse shut down the VC’s ATM.

So where’s the money going? Between March and June, at least, investors hitched a ride with startups developing electric cars and the infrastructure to support them. Better Place, the Palo Alto company building electric vehicle charging networks around the world, snagged $350 million. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a sexy and pricy plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, scored $35 million, according to the report.

Solar remains a hot opportunity for venture capitalists, with nearly $439 million invested in the second quarter, a 183 percent increase from the year-ago quarter.

It’s no coincidence that the beneficiaries of investors’ largesse are also those startups that received federal loan guarantees to build big solar power plants. (Raising additional capital usually is a requirement for obtaining such federal loan guarantees.)

BrightSource Energy, for instance, secured a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build its first solar power plant, now undergoing licensing in California. It then quickly raised $180 million from investors.

VCs also continue to pour cash — nearly $200 million in the second quarter — into energy efficiency startups, which tend to be far less capital-intensive than renewable energy companies.

So it’s a good time to go pitch that great green tech idea you’ve been kicking around, right?

Not necessarily. Ernst & Young notes that nearly 59 percent of investment in the second quarter went to so-called later-stage startups that are well on their way to rolling out products.

In other words, venture capitalists seem to be more interested in priming the pipeline for initial public offerings or acquisitions that will produce a big pay day than in financing what green tech investor Vinod Khosla calls “science experiments.”

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photo: SunRun

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write about SunRun, a San Francisco solar leasing company that has scored a whopping $55 million round of equity funding:

SunRun, a San Francisco start-up that leases rooftop solar arrays to homeowners, said Tuesday it had raised $55 million from investors.

The equity investment led by Sequoia Capital, a prominent Silicon Valley venture firm, is one of the largest made in a solar leasing firm and a sign that companies are poised for a major expansion beyond the industry’s core market in California.

The investment follows a $100 million tax equity fund PG&E Corporation, the utility holding company, created last week to finance residential solar installations for SunRun customers. PG&E Corporation in January formed a $60 million financing pool for SolarCity, a Silicon Valley competitor to SunRun. SolarCity is also tapping $190 million in tax equity funds created over the past year for the company by U.S. Bancorp.

“If the $55 million is going to actual corporate expansion, it is one of the largest corporate fund-raisings we’ve seen for that purpose in this space,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “It speaks to the opportunity outside of California, in the Southwest and the Northeast.”

The investment is nearly double the $30 million SunRun had previously raised from Sequoia Capital, Accel Partners and Foundation Capital.

“We’re seeing early signs of an inflection point in the market where the cost of offering a solar solution is becoming cheaper than utility pricing,” said Warren Hogarth, a partner at Sequoia Capital, an early investor in Apple, Google and Yahoo. “We’re moving from people buying solar because it’s a nice thing to do to buying solar because it makes economic sense.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

Green Wombat has been in transition so I’m a bit behind on posting. In case you missed it, in the Sunday New York Times on May 9, I wrote a profile of David Gelbaum, one of the nation’s biggest — and until now — most reclusive green technology investors and environmental philanthropists:

AMID the $6 million homes perched on a beachfront cliff in this conservative Southern California enclave, the seven-year-old Honda Civic hybrid with the Obama bumper sticker is the giveaway.

It’s not the usual drive of choice for wealthy former hedge fund managers like David Gelbaum. Then again, there’s not much that is business as usual about Mr. Gelbaum, an intensely private person who happens to be one of the nation’s largest — and largely unknown — green technology investors and environmental philanthropists.

Mr. Gelbaum has invested $500 million in clean-tech companies since 2002 through his Quercus Trust, amassing a portfolio of some 40 businesses involved in nearly every aspect of the emerging green economy, be it renewable energy, the smart electric grid, sustainable agriculture, electric cars or biological remediation of oil spills. He has poured almost as much into environmental causes.

“I think his impact on green technology is huge,” says Bill Gross, the serial technology entrepreneur and founder of eSolar, a solar power start-up in which Mr. Gelbaum has invested. “He is supporting bolder and riskier bets, and he’s doing it from a different filter than a traditional venture capitalist, and I think that makes a wider opportunity for success.”

In this economic downturn, many venture capitalists have grown cautious about putting money into what Vinod Khosla, the prominent Silicon Valley green tech investor, calls “science experiments.” But Quercus Trust is still taking chances on blue-sky start-ups pursuing technological breakthroughs.

Working outside the clubby venture capital network, Mr. Gelbaum has, until recently, maintained an obsessively low profile. In Silicon Valley, he remains something of an unknown. Associates say his near-invisibility is owed to a genuine modesty and concerns over the security of his family because of his wealth. Recipients of his philanthropy, for instance, signed confidentiality agreements that forbade mention of his name.

Mr. Gelbaum says he decided to break his long silence upon becoming chief executive in February of Entech Solar, one of his portfolio companies that is publicly traded. “This is what’s best for the company,” he says, pointing out that Entech benefits if he maintains a more public profile.

It is too early to predict whether Mr. Gelbaum’s big green bets will pay off. But he’s been capitalizing on two trends: the rapid decline in the price of photovoltaic power, and a focus on cutting capital costs as solar power competition with China intensifies.

His environmental philanthropy also gives him an influence beyond laboratories and boardrooms. He has given $200 million to the Sierra Club and $250 million to the Wildlands Conservancy, a land trust he co-founded that has acquired and preserved 1,200 square miles of land in California, including more than a half million acres of the Mojave Desert.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In an interview I did with green tech entrepreneur Bill Gross for Yale Environment 360, Gross talks about the future of solar energy, his relationship with Google, and how to avoid battles over building large solar farms in the deserts of the Southwest:

Bill Gross is not your typical solar energy entrepreneur. In a business dominated by Silicon Valley technologists and veterans of the fossil fuel industry, Gross is a Southern Californian who made his name in software. His Idealab startup incubator led to the creation of companies such as eToys, CitySearch, and GoTo.com. The latter pioneered search advertising — think Google — and was acquired by Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003.

That payday has allowed Gross to pursue his green dreams. (As a teenager, he started a company to sell plans for a parabolic solar dish he had designed.) Over the past decade, Gross has launched a slew of green tech startups, including solar power plant builder eSolar, electric car company Aptera, and Energy Innovations, which is developing advanced photovoltaic technology.

But it has been eSolar, backed by Google and other investors, that has been Idealab’s brightest light. In January, the company signed one of the world’s largest green-energy deals when it agreed to provide the technology to build solar farms in China that would generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity — at peak output the equivalent of two large nuclear power plants. And last week, eSolar licensed its technology to German industrial giant Ferrostaal to build solar power plants in Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa. Those deals followed eSolar partnerships in India and the U.S.

ESolar’s power plants deploy thousands of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a slender tower. The heat creates steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Last year, eSolar built its first project, a five-megawatt demonstration power plant, called Sierra, in the desert near Los Angeles.

This “power tower” technology is not new, but what sets the company apart is Gross’ use of sophisticated software and imaging technology to control the 176,000 mirrors that form a standard, 46-megawatt eSolar power plant. That computing firepower precisely positions the mirrors to create a virtual parabola that focuses the sun on the tower. That allows the company to place small, inexpensive mirrors close together, which dramatically reduces the land needed for the power plant and cuts manufacturing and installation costs.

“We use Moore’s law rather than more steel,” Gross likes to quip, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s maxim that computing power doubles every two years.

You can read the interview here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about the latest trend to come out of Southern California — sustainable surfing:

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif.

A few blocks from the beach, the pungent smell of polyester resin wafts from the surfboard factories that crowd an alley known as the surf ghetto in this Southern California town. Inside warrens of rooms painted ocean blue, young men wearing face masks shape slabs of snow-white polyurethane foam into surfboards, the cast-off chemical dust covering floors and filling trash barrels.

Despite its nature-boy image, the American surfing industry often relies on toxic manufacturing processes and generates tons of waste to make surfboards and other products. While surfers have long fought polluters that befoul beaches and oceans, the surfing industry — which has annual revenue of $7.2 billion, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturing Association, a trade group — is also focusing on cleaning up its own backyard.

“The dirtiest thing about surfing is under our feet — a conventional surfboard is 100 percent toxic,” said Frank Scura, a surfer and executive director of the Action Sports Environmental Coalition, an organization that promotes green retailing.

In San Clemente, a start-up company called Green Foam Blanks is out to change a half-century of surfboard-making tradition. Its founders, Joey Santley and Steve Cox, have created what is thought to be the world’s first recycled polyurethane blank — the foam core of a surfboard.

They collect polyurethane cuttings from surfboard factories and, using a proprietary process, mix the trimmings with virgin foam to create a blank that is 60 to 65 percent recycled waste. The goal is to reduce production of new foam, which is typically made with a carcinogenic compound called toluene diisocyanate, or TDI.

“Every day in Southern California, about 800 boards are being shaped and as much as 40 percent of each blank, which contains toxic materials, ends up being put into landfills,” said Mr. Santley, who is 44 and a veteran of the surfing industry.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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