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Archive for the ‘green financing’ Category

photo: GE

In my Green State column on Grist on Thursday, I write about General Electric’s $200 million contest to find ideas and technologies to accelerate deployment of the smart grid:

Got a killer smart grid idea? General Electric has $200 million to spend.

Jeff Immelt, chief executive of the industrial conglomerate, flew into San Francisco to announce on Tuesday that GE was hooking up with prominent venture capital firms from Silicon Valley, the East Coast, and Europe to offer a supersized version of the X Prize for innovation. (GE and the participating venture capitalists are each contributing $100 million to the challenge.)

“We really believe this digital energy space is going to move fast and big as an economic proposition,” Immelt said before a hundred or so of Silicon Valley’s green tech elite who gathered for a lavish press event at the neo-classical Bently Reserve building in downtown San Francisco. “It also lays the groundwork for everything that needs to be done in an energy future, from nuclear to renewables.”

“GE can offer 50 to 60 percent of the solutions,” he added. “But the only way we can grow is by partnering with the venture community.”

And you too, Grist reader. GE will essentially crowdsource ideas, business plans, and potential startup acquisitions at a new site called Ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid. (“Ecomagination” is how GE brands its various environmental and green technology ventures and initiatives.)

Between now and September 30 you can submit ideas and vote on the best ones — the one scoring the most reader votes, and GE’s approval, wins $50,000. The company and its venture partners will award five other entries $100,000 each, which could lead to further equity investment.

A day into the smart grid challenge, ideas submitted from around the world range from wind farms on the Great Lakes to a proposal to “harness the energy from the Earth’s rotation.”

Now it’s doubtful that any startup entrepreneur worth her seed funding will risk floating  a potential multimillion-dollar idea for all to see. But GE’s partnership with venture capital firms such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital Partners — not to mention its use of social media to troll for innovative ideas — speaks to the challenges of building a smart grid.

First we need to define what a smart grid is. Comparing it to the Internet is a favored analogy. The current power transmission system is patchwork of early-to-mid 20th century technology that sends electricity from power plants to homes, offices, and factories. It’s essentially a one-way, analog system.

What Immelt calls “digital energy” will transform the power grid into a two-way, interactive system through the use of software, sensors, and other devices that allow utilities and grid operators to control and monitor energy use from the household level up, as well as get real-time data on electricity demand and supply. The various parts of the grid — transformers, substations, power lines — will communicate digitally, alerting operators, for instance, when a component has failed.

The ability to collect and analyze such grid data is crucial for the mass expansion of renewable energy. Most forms of green energy — solar and wind, for instance — are intermittent and increasingly decentralized; there are more than 31,000 rooftop solar installations in California alone.

To maximize renewable energy production and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, utilities and grid operators must be able to balance electricity being fed into the grid from tens of thousands of such sources along with energy from centralized fossil fuel power stations.

And in the coming years, utilities will need to know the location and charging status of tens of thousands of electric cars, each one automobile battery both a consumer and a potential provider of electricity. (If 100,000 cars plug in at 9 p.m. in California just as wind farms hit peak production, a utility will want to use that emission-free electricity to charge up emission-free vehicles rather than rely on, say, natural gas-fired power plants.)

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Sungevity

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

On Tuesday, the Federal Housing Finance Agency effectively shut down an innovative green financing program called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, by restricting the ability of homeowners to take out loans to install solar panels and make other energy efficiency improvements.

Now the United States Treasury Department has piled on. A new Treasury directive tells the nation’s banks how to enforce the FHFA rules. The move could pose new problems for homeowners who have PACE loans, and complicate efforts to get the program back on track.

Homeowners repay PACE loans through an annual assessment on their property taxes. On Tuesday, the Treasury Department told banks that if a homeowner has a home equity line of credit, the amount of money available should be lowered to account for the loan liability. The Treasury also said homeowners could be required to put their PACE payments in an escrow account.

After Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government chartered mortgage finance giants, raised concerns about PACE in May, some lenders declined to refinance mortgages that carried PACE liens.

Owners of commercial properties who hold PACE loans may need to put up additional collateral to back up the loan, according to the Treasury Department letter.

Cisco DeVries, president of Renewable Funding, an Oakland, Calif., company that designs and administers PACE programs for local governments, said he wants to make sure PACE loans for commercial owners won’t be curtailed.

“We believe PACE commercial can go ahead as it has always required lender consent when a commercial mortgage is in place,” he wrote in an email. “We just want to make sure we don’t run into an unexpected problem as we move forward.”

Some municipalities sell bonds to finance energy-efficiency loans for homeowners. But they may find that harder to do under the Treasury Department directive, which warned banks to move cautiously when underwriting such bonds.

I reported in the The New York Times on Tuesday that the Federal Housing Finance Agency had rejected the Obama administration’s offer of a two-year guarantee against any PACE-related mortgage losses Fannie or Freddie might suffer.

Now in a move that PACE proponents say adds insult to injury, the Treasury Department is advising banks to get local governments to insure them against any losses from the program if homeowners default on their mortgages.

Among those not amused by the FHFA action was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The FHFA’s bureaucratic breakdown threatens one of California’s most promising new engines of job creation in this struggling economy,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “FHFA’s action threatens thousands of new sustainable jobs in California, especially in the hard-hit construction industry, while denying homeowners the opportunity to reduce monthly energy costs and add equity to their homes.”

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This post first appeared on Grist.

Green tech is back in the green.

Global venture capital investment in green technology companies reached $4.04 billion in the first half of 2010, exceeding – slightly — the record set in the boom year of 2008, according to a preliminary report released Thursday by the Cleantech Group and Deloitte.

Venture investment in the second quarter rose to $2.02 billion, up 43 percent from the year-ago quarter. Investments in the first half of the year spiked 65 percent from the same period in 2009.

“There’s been a very clear resurgence in solar activity and that is largely responsible for the strong quarter,” Richard Youngman, the Cleantech Group’s head of global research, said on a conference call Thursday.

Solar captured $811 million, or about 40 percent, of green technology investment in the second quarter, according to the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco-based consulting and research firm. It defines the global market as consisting of North America, China, India, Israel and Europe.

Solyndra, a Silicon Valley thin-film solar panel maker, scored a $175 million investment while solar power plant builder BrightSource Energy took in $150 million.

It’s no coincidence that both companies have been the beneficiaries of the Obama administration’s push for renewable energy. Solyndra received a $535 million loan guarantee to build a new factory in the San Francisco Bay Area (which the president visited in May) and BrightSource was granted a $1.37 billion loan guarantee to get its first solar thermal power plant online.

Despite the recession, corporate America poured a record $5.1 billion into green tech companies in the first half of 2010, a 325 percent increase from a year ago.

“The significant strengthening of corporate and utility investment into the cleantech sector, relative to 2009, is very encouraging, given the key role they will play in enabling broader adoption of clean technologies at scale,” Scott Smith, partner, Deloitte’s U.S. clean tech leader in the United States, said in a statement.

Youngman warned not to read too much into the success this week of Tesla Motor’s initial public offering. Though the Silicon Valley electric carmaker’s share price accelerated some 40.5 percent on opening day, he pointed out that high-profile IPOs from Solyndra and Goldwind, a Chinese wind turbine maker, were pulled recently.

In fact, head east if you want to get in on a booming IPO market –12 of the 19 green tech offerings in the second quarter came from Chinese companies and raised $1.73 billion, or 75 percent of the total IPO take, according to the Cleantech Group.

The flip side, of course, is that the anemic IPO market in the United States also is driving venture capital investment as green tech firms are forced to raise private money.

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image: SolFocus

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about the year-end green tech investing numbers for 2009:

In a flurry of dealmaking bolstered by government subsidies for renewable energy, venture capitalists invested $5.6 billion in green technology companies worldwide in 2009, according to a preliminary report released Wednesday by the Cleantech Group and Deloitte.

That represents a 33 percent drop over the $8.5 billion invested in 2008 — a reflection, the report said, of the global economic downturn. But the overall amount of venture capital fared much worse, retreating to 2003 levels, according to the report, whereas clean technology investments were on track to match 2007 levels.

“In 2009, clean-tech went from a niche category to become the dominant category in venture capital investing,” said Dallas Kachan, managing director of the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco market research and consulting firm. “Clean-tech continued to outpace software and biotech.”

The report’s preliminary survey showed that there were 557 deals in the clean technology space in 2009, compared to 567 deals in 2008 and 488 in 2007.

Solar companies secured $1.2 billion in 2009 — 21 percent of the total and the largest share of venture funding. The biggest deal of the year also went to a solar company, Silicon Valley’s Solyndra, which raised $198 million at the same time it secured a $535 million federal loan guarantee to build a solar module factory.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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2009 Solar Decathlon

photo: Stefano Paltera/DOE

In my new Green State column on Grist (I’m stealing the above headline from Grist executive editor Russ Walker), I take a look at the state of green tech venture investing gleaned from a recent seminar at the University of California, Berkeley:

Silicon Valley is by nature an optimistic place. After all, inventing the carbon-free future and making boatloads of money along the way is fun. And even though California is slouching toward apocalyptic collapse these days, there’s always another innovation wave to ride.

So it’s always interesting to get a more-or-less unvarnished assessment of the state of green tech, as happened last week when a group of regulators, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs gathered at the University of California, Berkeley’s business school. They were there for the Cleantech Institute, one of those pricey, closed-door seminars for executives and government officials. (I was present to “facilitate.”)

The good news: Speakers reported that investors are starting to turn on the taps again when it comes to funding green tech startups.

But don’t expect a return to the halcyon days of 2008 when $4 billion poured into all manner of green technology companies. In the wake of the “Great Recession,” VCs are reassessing their investment strategies as it becomes clear that the success of their portfolios will be influenced to a large degree by government policy and incentives.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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SolarCity_FirstSolarArray-_Coast

photo: SolarCity

When Wall Street collapsed last year so did  tax equity funds, the primary vehicle to finance renewable energy development.  But as I write in The New York Times today, investors are beginning to jump back into the game.

U.S. Bancorp has agreed to finance $100 million of solar installations in 2009 for California startup SolarCity. Investors are being lured in part by a federal stimulus package provision that lets them take a 30 percent investment tax credit for renewable energy projects as a cash grant:

The credit crunch has walloped the residential solar industry, making it hard for installers like SolarCity to tap investor funds to finance rooftop arrays for their customers.

But in a sign that the recessionary clouds are parting a bit, SolarCity on Tuesday said that U.S. Bancorp has agreed to finance $100 million worth of solar installations in 2009.

That’s double the money the bank committed to provide SolarCity in June when the original deal – but not the financial details – was announced.

SolarCity, based in the Silicon Valley suburb of Foster City, offers customers the option of leasing their rooftop panels and thus avoiding the five-figure cost of buying a solar system.

The company retains ownership of the solar array and thus qualifies for a 30 percent federal tax credit against its cost. Since most startups have no use for such tax credits, they give them to investors in exchange for financing installations.

Still, most such tax equity partnerships have collapsed along with the Wall Street banks that often funded them. In fact, U.S. Bancorp stepped in after Morgan Stanley pulled the plug on a financing arrangement with SolarCity earlier this year.

“For all of this year, tax equity has been the number one constraint in financing for the entire solar industry,” said Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s chief executive. “In the third quarter of last year there were about 20 active banks and insurance companies making tax equity investments. They all fell off a cliff and now there’s three or four.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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ausra-kimberlina

photo: Ausra

In my new Green State column on Grist, I sit down with legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla to talk about his approach to green tech. Khosla — who raised a record $1.1 billion for green tech investing earlier this month — believes that unless a technology can scale and be adopted in markets like China and India, it will not have a meaningful impact on climate change.

Getting an audience with Silicon Valley’s guru of green investing isn’t always easy.

If Vinod Khosla is not speaking at one of the innumerable, and apparently recession-proof, green business conferences that seem to happen every other week, he’s giving lectures at Google headquarters, writing white papers, or, of course, inking checks to green tech startups with the potential to disrupt multi trillion-dollar global industries like energy, automobiles and building materials.

He’s something of a Valley legend:  Co-founder of Sun Microsystems, then a longtime tech investor with marquee venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and now head of Khosla Ventures, which he started in 2004 to invest in green tech startups.

Khosla and his partners had been investing their own money, but earlier this month the firm announced it had raised $1.1 billion for two funds—one of which is the largest first-time fund in a decade. It was a rather staggering amount, given that clean-tech investing has plummeted from $4 billion in 2008 to $513 million so far this year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, as the “Great Recession” continues to take its toll.  Putting money into the two Khosla funds was the nation’s largest pension fund, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

It’s not the size of Khosla’s fund but what he intends to do with it that should command your attention. In short, he wants to take the green out of green investing and globalize the bottom line.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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