1: Cape Wind
The 420-megawatt Cape Wind project is big, but the expectations for it are even bigger. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who just last week announced approval for the project amidst some stiff opposition, expects the Nantucket Sound wind farm to do no less than prove the viability of offshore wind in America. Much remains to be done before the first turbine blades start to spin – bank financing and power purchase agreements must be finalized and the project must be built on time and within budget. But Cape Wind has already done a lot. The project’s developers have endured nine years of attempts to regulate offshore sites that played like a bureaucratic version of “Who’s on first?” before finally arriving at guidelines that future developers can follow. More importantly, the Obama administration has decided that the need for renewable energy trumps environmental and cultural concerns that threaten to block large projects. It’s an imperfect solution, to be sure, but it does move green energy forward.
2: President Barack Obama
As skilled a politician as he is, President Barack Obama has benefited from a whole heap of luck in his career. His presidential campaign, you may recall, reached orbit only after the economy crashed with a Republican at the helm. So, perhaps on a cosmic level, it was time for Obama to meet some truly rotten fortune. And he did – when he proposed opening up large swaths of the Atlantic and Gulf to offshore drilling just three weeks before BP’s deep-water rig sank off the coast of Louisiana, releasing 5,000 barrels of oil per day directly into the ocean. What does this disaster mean for Obama’s “pan-energy” strategy? It really depends – if we have to wait for three months for a second well to be drilled, Obama will face intense pressure from his base to back down on offshore drilling. If BP can block the leak soon, offshore drilling could remain politically viable. As Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said this week, “The Challenger accident was heartbreaking, but we went back to space.”
3: Senator Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.)
Is the South Carolina Republican holding the Rosetta Stone for the climate bill? Or is it just a big, dumb rock? Graham, the key member of the tri-partisan coalition that’s crafting the senate climate legislation, withdrew his support last month for the group’s bill because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-Nev.), wanted to move on immigration reform first. Graham complained that Reid was undercutting his bid to gain Republican support for the climate measure. Fair enough. But even if Graham gets his way, it isn’t clear that he’ll be able to persuade his colleagues to support the climate bill. So, why coddle him? Because Democrats have no choice. With so many members of their own caucus looking for concessions for industry and coal, this bill needs at least a few Republican supporters to make it through. Graham is the only one who can gauarantee this.
Codexis, the California biofuel developer, after raising more than $80 million from VC funds and strategic investors, turned to the public markets to secure its next batch of capital. While cleantech IPOs have generated quite a bit of buzz, the reality is that with most companies in the sector lacking secure revenues, investors are not lining up to buy stocks. Codexis, which makes a point of highlighting that it’s not solely dependent on the cleantech industry for its bottom line, had a tepid beginning on the NASDAQ, where its IPO was priced at $13, on the low end of its $13-to-$15 price range. On Tuesday, a little less than a week after its IPO, Codexis shares were trading slightly above their offering price, closing at $13.44. Lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems isn’t doing any better, closing Tuesday at $11.72, slightly above the $11.50 it issued shares for its IPO last fall.
5: Department of Energy Cleantech Manufacturing Funding
To ensure that the cleantech technology developed in U.S. labs actually ends up creating jobs, the Obama administration is leaving no stone unturned. Hence, last month the Department of Energy announced a $200 million program to support technologies that improves the manufacturing processes involved in making solar panels or even wind turbines. The goal is to cut production costs so that America’s green economy is actually “made in the U.S.A. ” and not off-shored to cheaper places. These days while the U.S. is churning out some of the most innovative clean energy technologies, a growing number of clean energy businesses are relocating manufacturing lines to China and other cheaper production centers. That’s what BP did last month when it closed its sole U.S. PV panel plant. EverGreen Solar is exporting its homegrown technology to China where it’s building a 500 megawatt production plant. In its quest for a green-collar economy, the Obama administration wants ensure that U.S. cleantech technology translate into American jobs.
6: First Solar
With key European cleantech markets tightening (Germany is set to cut its solar subsidies; Spain looking to do the same), thin-film PV panel maker First Solar is turning to its home market to grow sales. As such, last week the company announced it was acquiering solar power plant developer NextLight Renewable Power for $285 million. The acquisition significantly bolsters First Solar’s project pipeline, adding some 1,100 megawatts of utility-scale solar projects, mostly in the U.S. southwest. Analysts praised the deal for the positive impact it will have on First Solar’s medium-to-long term revenues. In its space these day First Solar is one of the few companies that can afford to literally buy market shares. As it looks to monetize its PV production, expect more such deals from the Tempe, Ariz., company.
7: The Cleantech Capitalists
Emboldened by long-term government support, venture capitalists have been investing large swaths of cash in cleantech companies. According to recent figures from the National Venture Capital Association, during the first quarter, venture capital and private equity funds invested $2.9 billion in renewable energy companies, compared to $1.7 billion in the last quarter and $1.6 billion in the first quarter of 2009. While the investment levels have not recovered from the peaks of a couple of years ago, cleantech is attracting a majority of VC and PE investment dollars these days — that’s over straight technology startups. Of concern though is that the pool of cash is far smaller than in years past and that’s a bad news for cash-hungry cleantech startups.
Amonix, the Seal Beach, Calif.-based maker of concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) solar power systems, closed a $129.4 million Series B funding deal led by Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. The value of the deal is a stark reminder of the steep capital requirements of clean energy companies, which can raise as much cash in a single round as a straight technology company does over multiple financing rounds. The question remains though, can venture capital firms keep up the pace? Right now investors are keeping their purses open because they are confident the government will remain a funding partner for the forseable future. Were government support to waver, venture funds would likely be less generous, making it harder for companies like Amonix secure investment capital.
9: Joe Romm, Center for American Progress
Blam! Kapow! Zowie! Joe Romm! This is meant as a compliment to Mr. Romm, whose new book about climate change politics and policy, Straight Up, reaffirms his status as the blogosphere’s punchiest voice on global warming. Romm, who describes himself as “America’s fiercest climate blogger,” takes on the right and climate skeptics with gusto. But he’s at his best when attacking wishy-washy centrists and pseudo-progressives. Straight Up’s indictment of “status-quo media” like The New York Times lays bare the inadequacies of traditional he-said-she-said media coverage when faced with a civilizational challenge like climate change. Perhaps more impressively, Romm wasn’t afraid to turn on President Obama after Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., withdrew his support for a climate bill in a political maneuver on immigration reform. Obama, Romm wrote, “cannot possibly be a successful president from a historical perspective if he doesn’t have a domestic climate bill.” Strong opinions, muscular writing.
10: Jan Van Dokkum, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Buyers
If you’re an ambitious cleantech startup looking for capital, remember this name: Jan Van Dokkum. He joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Buyers last month as a partner in charge of overseeing the firm’s growing cleantech portfolio. He comes to the Silicon Valley heavyweight with deep industry knowledge, having previously headed fuel cell developer UTC Power. The hiring underscores how important cleantech has become to Kleiner Perkins, which in a previous life built itself as a leading straight technology investor. As a partner, Van Dokkum will have a say on how the firm’s portfolio companies invest their venture dollars and grow into viable, money making businesses, something that only a few cleantech companies have been able to do so far.