Getting the U.S. Clean Energy on 'China Time'

Apr. 02, 2010 5:49 AM ETOIH, PBW, QCLN, SMOG, ERTH, PBD, CSUAY, DUK, JCI, WOLF8 Comments
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Green Chip Stocks

by Sam Hopkins

When I heard Obama's offshore oil drilling announcement Wednesday, I furrowed my brow a bit. Then, right away, I checked the Oil Services HOLDRS ETF (NYSE: OIH).

That index of companies, all of which bring crude oil up out of the earth, should benefit nicely from new fields in a stable geopolitical region... And sure enough, OIH gained about $2 overnight.

Then I compared OIH to the five top clean energy ETFs we follow here at Green Chip. After all, the White House's decision to open up coastal oil pockets to drilling for the first time in two decades is being pitched as a strategic move toward energy independence. Renewable resources factor into that scenario — big time.

I checked:

  • PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy (AMEX: PBW)
  • First Trust NASDAQ Clean Edge US (NASDAQ: QCLN)
  • Market Vectors Global Alternative Energy (NYSE: GEX)
  • PowerShares Cleantech Portfolio (AMEX: PZD)
  • PowerShares Global Clean Energy Portfolio (AMEX: PBD)

Despite the President's pledge to double the number of hybrid cars and trucks in the federal fleet, improve Defense Department energy efficiency, and stiffen vehicle mileage standards, OIH got double the pop of any of the green indexes I put it up against.

What's happening with our national energy priorities? And, most importantly for us, will the market respond to the green side of Obama's new energy approach as favorably as it has to "Drill, Barry, Drill"?

Millions of cleantech and alternative energy investors want to know what's next.

So Thursday morning, I headed down to D.C., where I found investment guidance in an unlikely place — the National Press Club.

Energy Independence in Our Lifetime

Arizona State University President Michael Crow chaired the morning's panel, which was put together by his school's energy research division and New America Foundation policy institute.

Their theme: "Is Energy Independence Possible in Our Lifetime?"

Crow kicked off with a half-joking answer: "There is some chance that once we're all gone, everything will be fine." It was dark humor that pointed to generational change the whole panel hopes is coming. However, a lifetime isn't an acceptable payback period for most investors.

Among those who chuckled at Michael Crow's icebreaker were some of the brightest minds in American energy, like cleantech venture capitalist Sunil Paul and Advanced Research Project Agency Energy (ARPA-E) head Arun Majumdar. Dr. Majumdar moved to the U.S. from India because this country has the best research and development infrastructure in the world.

Yet, even though he says we are at a "Sputnik-like moment" in history, the lead in key energy R&D areas has been relinquished to countries where the need for clean growth is felt more urgently. Consider Lithium-ion batteries: That technology was developed in the U.S., but Americans now make only 1% of those power packs sold worldwide. Companies from China, meanwhile, are drawing dollars from Yankees like Warren Buffett.

That's a real shame that reflects the reality of government and industrial will in the U.S. up to today.

Billions of greenbacks flow in that direction these days, because in China and India growth through clean energy is an imperative, not an option. Per capita energy consumption in those rapidly developing economies is rising, as is the number of energy consumers drawing from the grid for the first time.

Gary Dirks, the former head of BP in China chimed in right away. "Scale is both an opportunity and a barrier" to advancing clean energy. That's our challenge in a nutshell: getting renewables to a level where they can serve everyone's needs while being cheap, reliable, and clean.

And that challenge is being met in China today.

Out in China's hinterlands, Dirks is seeing the future of that country's national energy supply playing out right now. "They're really good at doing large-scale demonstration projects," and in many cases, the companies Beijing uses to introduce game-changing alternatives to the Middle Kingdom are investor darlings.

Consider China Shenhua Energy (OTCPK:CSUAY), a coal company whose shares are up 87% over the past year. Shenhua isn't just a demand play on China's new electricity consumer class; it's a carbon capture and storage investment because of pilot projects it's been chosen to run.

If you know one thing about China, you know that development there is lightning-quick. Whether they're getting the power for astronomical GDP growth from clean sources or traditional, sooty ones, the Chinese are clearly operating at a different pace.

Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) CEO Jim Rogers calls it "China time."

Getting America's Energy Transition on "China Time"

Jim Rogers and his insights as the head of a traditional energy company provided the most food for thought.

"We can reduce our emissions by close to 70%, stimulate our economy, create energy independence and have cleaner air at the end of the day," Rogers said in his distinctive Alabama twang. Rogers has as much credibility as anyone in the energy industry when it comes to vision.

He's been a CEO of electric utility companies for over two decades, so he knows about the scale challenges Gary Dirks highlighted. Jim Rogers' job is to deliver marketable change to consumers and return value to his shareholders. Even though Duke deals in coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric power, change is fine by Jim.

As the chief executive points out, it's been a hundred years since electrification swept the nation and made possible every kernel of American economic activity and global leadership in the past century. Those who pushed for a massive rollout of electrical infrastructure in those days couldn't see what was coming, but they had vision.

Then consider DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which came into being as a response to the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1958. Ten years later, DARPA launched the information systems that would become the Internet.

Again, no one knew that unleashing Cold War computer technology would change the way the world works the way the Internet has, but the government fertilized the soil for success and hoped to see something grow.

Jim Rogers says he'll bank on renewable energy and the transition from analog to digital-based power systems. It's the difference between wax cylinders and MP3s, and Duke Energy's head honcho is ready to embrace it. "I'm prepared to retire and replace every plant in 40 years," Rogers beamed, and I believe him.

He's thinking on China time and planning how his company can stay ahead in a rapid development race; using smart-grid data systems to get the most power to customers when they need it; using technology from companies that can help prevent outages and bring more clean energy resources online.

Back on Carolina time, Duke is giving coupons for energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs to consumers in North and South Carolina.

"If all 1.3 million customers who receive the coupons redeem them and replace existing incandescent bulbs with the new CFLs, the amount of electricity saved over the lifetime of the bulbs would be enough to power more than 36,000 homes," the company said in a press release Thursday.

So Duke is following the order of operations that every clean energy proponent knows is necessary — all the new, clean resources we develop won't be worth it if energy intensity can't be controlled.

And this brings us back to Obama's March 31 announcement: National energy policy is now being crafted in terms of what we have, how we use it, and what the national energy economy will look like if excuses become action.

As the President put it: "From China to Germany, these nations recognize that the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the country that leads the global economy."

Damn straight.

Our Clean Energy ETF Winner from Obama's New Energy Plan

Out of all the ETFs I highlighted above, the PowerShares Cleantech Portfolio is doing the best job of capitalizing on the trajectory of worldwide energy changes.

It's up 61% since early spring 2009, riding companies like Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI) that aren't pegged to one renewable fuel source or another.

North Carolina's Cree, Inc. (NASDAQ: CREE) is a top holding in PZD, letting you light up your portfolio with highly efficient light emitting diodes (LED). LED is becoming more common as consumers choose to minimize costs now while they weigh new generation methods like rooftop solar.

We'll continue to probe the White House's energy policy initiatives and compare the best options for you to profit in your portfolio.

This article was written by

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Green Chip Review is a biweekly newsletter focused helping investors profit from the development of cleantech and organic food markets. Covering policy, finance, technology and public markets, Green Chip takes a global soup-to-nuts approach in helping investors understand - and invest in - this still nascent but increasingly valuable market.

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