This has been a challenging decade for cleantech companies seeking funding. Cleantech investing fell out of favor even further in 2012, plunging by about 30 percent compared to 2011, according to various industry groups. Despite their interest in clean technologies and clean energy, investors have been pulling back from risky investments in young cleantech start-ups.
There are several reasons for the plunge in enthusiasm, including recent failures of some clean energy companies, such as Solyndra, Evergreen Solar, Beacon Power, and A123 Systems. Another reason for investor concern is the apparent lack of exits, which prevents investors from earning the returns that they expect when funding start-ups. Very few cleantech companies were bought out or went public in the last few years. As a result, only investors with passion, cash, and patience are willing to fund technologies that often require higher expenditures and longer adoption and commercialization time frames than those in other sectors.
Several companies from China have invested in U.S. cleantech companies in 2012. For instance, Wanxiang Group invested $420 million in GreatPoint Energy Inc., a developer of a coal-to-natural-gas technology. Zhongding Power, one of the largest automotive component conglomerates in China, signed an agreement with EcoMotors and is planning to invest more than $200 million in the construction of a clean combustion engine plant in Anhui Province.
Some U.S. venture capital and private equity firms remain active, but focus on more mature industries and companies, which are not involved in the redistribution of a new commodity, such as wind or solar energy. For example, several firms were involved in last year’s $18.2 million funding round for Next Step Living Inc., a home-energy efficiency firm in Boston.
Going forward, investors will continue to prefer business model innovation over the technical innovation and will veer toward smaller deals and more mature companies. According to several investors from Flagship Ventures and Esplanade Capital, besides energy efficiency and cleanweb, some technologies of interest will include renewable chemicals, agricultural and animal sustainability, gas to liquids, and green banking. Start-ups looking for funding have several options at their disposal. They can look harder for interested investors in the U.S., seek help from quasi-public organizations, including Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, search for investors in countries like China, or form strategic partnerships with large domestic Corporates.
Many in the U.S. took sides on whether U.S. President should approve a 3,400-mile pipeline that will bring crude oil extracted from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico refineries. Last week, it seemed that the proposed project came closer to approval, after the U.S. State Department came out with a detailed 2,000 page analysis that found that the construction of Keystone XL is unlikely to have a significant environmental impact. The report's findings re-focused public attention on the issue.
Those who oppose the approval of the pipeline have many arguments at their disposal. The pipeline, which will pass through several American states, is believed by many to result in environmental degradation while also causing the release of tons of carbon into the air. Besides the environmental risks, they point at the findings that this project will not result in significant job creation. Despite TransCanada's study commissioned in 2010 illustrating that Keystone XL will help create hundreds of thousands of jobs, the recent Department of State's findings show that about 4,000 temporary construction jobs and only 35 permanent jobs will be created. The energy security argument has been weakened by the steadily increasing oil production in the country and lower oil prices. The focus is now on the current administration's commitment to the clean energy future and to combating climate change. Domestically and abroad, many believe that the rejection of Keystone XL is important because it will send a clear message that the United States is serious about climate change.
Whether or not the pipeline project is approved in the U.S., the Canadian tar sands industry will continue to expand its operations and export opportunities. Canadian energy companies are already looking for ways to diversity and have proposed pipelines to other markets. For instance, Chinese companies have invested billions of dollars in the Canadian tar sands industry with exports to Asia in mind. At the same time, Canada has been working on improving its energy industry's image and demonstrating its commitment to environmental responsibility. From 1990 to 2010, Canadian energy industry's greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil sands crude decreased by 26%. The industry has also improved its clean up and water use methods.
Tar sands will continue to be developed. If not to the U.S., crude from tar sands will be exported elsewhere around the world. The current debate over the project can be seen as a matter of balancing environmental and economic concerns in the United States. Whether the final decision will be based on practical or more symbolic reasons remains to be seen.