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.
While the world is rethinking nuclear energy as an affordable and reliable source of power, following Japan's post-tsunami nuclear crisis, some developing countries are increasing their focus on nuclear energy development and investments.
After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011, many developed countries either made a decision to scale back their existing share of nuclear power or rejected proposals to build new reactors. Japan announced that it plans to close down all of its nuclear plants by 2030. This decision remains controversial, as nuclear industry in Japan has been producing 30% of the country's electricity. Many believe that some nuclear plants may remain operational, despite reductions.
Similarly, following the disaster, Germany renewed its focus on the nuclear phase-out issue that has been high on its political agenda in recent decades. The country came out with a decision to phase out completely nuclear technology by 2022, hoping to increase reliance on its competitive edge in the renewable energy sector.
Even in France, which remains a major player in the development of nuclear technologies and where the nuclear power industry has been historically very strong, President Francois Hollande has pledged to reduce the share of nuclear power generation from 75% to 50% by 2025. The shift of the developed countries' focus away from nuclear power manifests itself in lack of funding to support large projects, although European, Japanese, and U.S. researchers have research advances to be noted.
At the same time, some developing countries are going full speed toward their goal of increasing their domestic power supply via nuclear, which they see as reliable and clean power, and becoming global exporters of technologies. They are heavily investing in nuclear technology and plan a lot of new builds. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, “70 percent of new reactor construction is taking place in China, Russia, India, and Korea."
China, for example, after lifting its nuclear moratorium, has undertaken a broad R&D effort to have fast reactors comprise about one-fifth of its nuclear capacity by 2030. The country's future construction and export plans are very ambitious, with 17 nuclear power plants in operation and 29 under construction, representing 40% of the world's total number of reactors under construction, significantly ahead of Russia, India, and South Korea. Provided China is successful in its efforts, it has the potential to become a leader in the nuclear power industry.
At the end of 2012, the Russian government renewed its commitment to developing Russia's nuclear industry, announcing that its R&D programs will be accelerated and it will increase its spending. Russia's long-term strategy is to move to inherently safe nuclear plants using fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle and MOX fuel with the hope that nuclear power will provide 23% of the country's energy mix by 2030. While Russia is building new plants at home, exports are among its key economic objectives. The State Nuclear Corporation, Rosatom, has many foreign contracts for the supply of nuclear fuel and uranium enrichment services, while Atomstroyexport has been competing for and winning contracts to build affordable reactors around the world. Unsurprisingly, Russia has been focused on nuclear cooperation and investments in its near abroad. For instance, it is lending $9B to its neighbor Belarus for a construction of a Russian designed nuclear plant and has been collaborating with Ukraine on nuclear initiatives.