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SolVentus Energy's 2010 Solar and Wind Energy Industry Outlook

By Troy J. Jensen, President, SolVentus Energy, Inc.


The Solar and Wind Energy Renewable Energy vertical continued it's quickening evolution into becoming a mainstream focus of Alternative Energy development. Though the overall percentage of electrical energy generated from Solar and Wind-based generation remains low in the United States, SolVentus Energy is convinced that the vertical is poised to overcome several substantial challenges in 2010, positioning the sector for a breakout year.

This article serves as a glimpse of a much larger white paper research project currently in development by SolVentus energy in conjunction with several other major contributors to evaluate the vertical's evolution in 2010. The goal is not to provide specific company or equity price predictive analysis, but rather to dive into several critical factors that can be factored into those specific company and sector analyzations, and provide overall guidance as both industry players and investors make their tactical judgement calls with all other factors critical in predictive modeling (revenue projections, cash and debt positions, management track records, corporate health, financing prospects, industry consolidation, competitive-set analysis, inventory issues and the like). So please keep that in mind as we dive into a glimpse into how our team feels 2010 very well could play out, and as we highlight some of the critical issues that will effect the industry.

The Copenhagen Effect - A Positive or Negative?

Read through ten in-depth reports from respected sources on the effects of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, and you will get ten different views of it's various successes and failures, and their corresponding effects on the GreenTech industry. We view the Copenhagen Climate Conference as a non-issue as it pertains to the continued development of the solar and wind energy generation evolution in the United States marketplace. Americans have a long nature of taking a leadership position in critical technology development through primarily the open-market entrepreneurial path (with a secondary hybrid approach of the free-market combined with heavy government investment and involvement - witness the space program and aviation industries as examples). SolVentus Energy's team strongly feels the hybrid-approach to GreenTech's technology evolution will continue in 2010 as it has in 2009, with government (both state and Federal) subsidies, grants and legislation continuing to provide a strong impetus for accelerated investment by open-market funding sources. Venture Capital firms, Private Equity firms, equity markets and substantial investments by large corporations will continue to fuel much-needed capital investment to further accelerate technological advances to bring the costs and availability of solar and wind energy generation sources more and more competitive with traditional energy generation sources. 

Make no mistake, the Copenhagen Climate Conference failed to produce some of the key goals and sovereign national commitments many were hoping for to bring about an even further accelerated compression point of Alternative Energy advancement and deployment globally, and again, the United States was viewed as one of the major "blockade" nations in terms of reaching some of the more lofty global goals and commitments to reducing the world's carbon footprint. However, our team remains neutral on the actual proven science behind some of the hot issues at Copenhagen, such as Global Warming and it's short and long-term ramifications. Realistically, we still don't have firm scientific evidence pointing towards impending global environmental doom in the near-term. That said, I think all reasonable parties can agree that long-term ramifications do exist, and for a number of critical environmental, geopolitical, national security and economic reasons, the strong momentum towards Alternative forms of energy generation has reached the tipping point of no return. For these compelling reasons, while Copenhagen was a disappointment for many, we feel it just further highlights sustainable, long-term momentum this quickly-accelerating technology sector. 

The GreenTech Funding Environment

Venture Capitalist Firms, Private Equity Firms, and even traditional lending organizations made very large bets in 2009 on the GreenTech Industry and all its internal sectors, and all signs point to a 2010 funding record for GreenTech. There are several negatives often heard around Sand Hill Road's ability to fund GreenTech startup technology companies - the main one being that VC's are simply not well-suited to venture capital-like funding. I want to point out a few of those challenges often stated, and offer some counterpoints:

1. The Capital Costs Are Too High in GreenTech - Yes and no. In the past, many venture capital firms have been disappointed with the pace of return-on-capital invested throughout the early half of this decade. The industry was nascent in its evolution - the advancements from just five years ago are truly breathtaking. As with the Interactive space in the 90's, we are seeing capital costs decrease as technologies build upon technologies, raw source manufacturing production capacity is already beyond current raw material needs for silicon for panels, and CRITICAL components to really accelerating Alternative Energy generation sources, like Smart Grid, communication and technology advancements to bring the National Energy Grid into the 21st century and usher in unprecedented achievements in conservation, distribution and soon, streamlined marketplace energy trading (that will bring downward pressure to solar and wind energy costs while bringing the inevitable efficiencies inherent in a free-market environment), are not nearly as capital-intensive as current thinking suggests. Think of the bevy of startups that are working on building energy management control software, home retrofit an d energy consumption reduction software for everything from commercial buildings and warehouses to transportation fleets. Each of these firms, if their Intellectual Property is executed successfully and provides its intended benefits, will provide a massive overall effect on our National Energy policies and evolution moving forward, and do nothing but help bolster the movement to Alternative Energy Generation. Even many current solar panel manufacturers are seeing cost-savings through innovative research, design, development and production processes.

2. Venture Capital Firms Handle Founders - As a veteran of the Internet's rise, our team here at SolVentus together have been involved in over ten technology startups. Personally, I have been either a founder, part of a founding team, or have lead startup fundraising in a revenue consultancy role six times. And they are indeed wild rides. VC firms are perfectly structured, with far more experience than I, in handling the rather eclectic personalities that come from founders and pioneers in technology sectors. I will venture a bit father in GreenTech - I see two main sets of startup founding partners that are proving to be every bit as adventurous in terms of management of expectations and adherence to business models and monetization plans as the boisterous days of the Internet Boom - the die-hard Greens, who will make any decision, despite its deviance from the business model or even profitability if it is saving mother earth, and the technology folks (many of which have migrated from the digital and technology space, like the Internet and PC/hardware verticals). Both can be a handful, and venture capital firms are very well equipped to handle the absolutely inevitable challenges that are inherit in technology startups. This may seem like a minor issue to many readers, but experience shows time and time again many of the most successful technology companies today were very close to crashing and burning during their early startup phases, and I have long held that venture capital firms do not get nearly the credit they deserve in handling those very delicate and potentially devastating challenges - challenges that often occur on a daily or weekly basis. One last point - venture capital firms can tolerate failure - in fact, it's often a badge of honor for the big boys. For every home run, there are several whiffs. That matches perfectly with GreenTech and its inevitable evolutionary pains it will experience over the next decade.

3. GreenTech is Science and Technology Intensive - Enough said right there. Venture capital firms have years and years of experience working with technology and biotech firms, with a very admirable rate of success. National labs, universities and governments all have their important roles to play, but they will never approach the success rate of the private market funding of startups in producing blockbuster results in the technology and science sectors. 

4. Where is the Google in GreenTech? - Many argue First Solar may be the Google in solar and GreenTech. I disagree. I think we have yet to see the "Google" in GreenTech, and our research in how all the working pieces will fit together to bring solar, wind and other alternative energies into the mainstream national energy mix will require perhaps 20 "Mini-Googles." Each can provide massive returns-on-investment, many in short time-periods, and with our national electricity grid literally the lifeblood of our entire economy and nation, I would suggest the early strong winners will have long, high-margin, very profitable futures, with extremely strong and secure positions in the respective GreenTech verticals they serve. 

5. A Pathway to Success Exists - I continue to highlight this point, but there are so many similarities to the advent of the chip industry, the personal computer industry, and the Interactive industry. And with the exponential power of those computers and software development having compressed and accelerated R&D to levels unimaginable just 15-years ago (and that acceleration continuing weekly), look for GreenTech's evolution to produce even quicker, more innovative advancements in a much shorter time-period. The path to success clearly exists, and early innovators with the First-to-Market advantage will quickly emerge as industry-dominant players. 

Summary - Look for continued record levels of investment in the GreenTech sector, with larger and larger bets in 2010. An ancillary benefit is the current Administration's seemingly firm commitment to continue to stimulate funding for the GreenTech industry in any way possible, including tax advantages, grants and subsidies, and pro-GreenTech legislation, with the goal of placing the United States in the leadership role in Green Technology and Alternative Energy Generation.

The Effect of Government Subsidies, Grants and Legislation in 2010

The United States has become one of the more aggressive nations in promoting alternative energy technologies, but at the federal level tax credits and depreciation incentives are not currently enough to encourage sustainable demand growth. Instead, some states and municipalities have taken the lead in providing incentives through a variety of mechanisms ranging from upfront rebates and property tax credits to renewable energy credits and even European-style feed-in tariffs. SolVentus Energy’s extensive interviews with both end-users and manufacturers, as well as on-the-ground experience with our clients in solar and wind generation and other GreenTech sectors, lead us to conclude that for sustained growth in the U.S., incentives must, and will, be increased at the Federal level.  Due largely to the credit crisis, funding for solar and wind energy generation projects has been tight. In the U.S., this has particularly been the case, because banks are unwilling to lend to projects that have undetermined cash flows.

Our 2010 outlook is that the combination of federal and state incentives and falling module prices will work together to dramatically increase demand in the U.S. As more banks become comfortable with funding these projects, and find ways to securitize the cash flows, we believe it will become an attractive revenue stream for solar lending divisions. Utilities, which are just now getting serious about meeting RPS goals, will likely take the lead in developing new solar projects. Until now, they have been unsuccessful in getting support from their ratepayers who would see up to a 10% increase in their utility bills. However, we believe that the emphasis that the Obama Administration is placing on climate change and positioning the United States in a global leadership position in the GreenTech revolution is quickly filtering into the fabric and culture of American society, and will continue propelling the U.S. solar and wind industry throughout 2010, culminating in the U.S. emerging in the global leadership position in solar PV and wind energy generation market share by 2014, according to our most recent forecasts.

Accelerated Solar and Wind Technology Advancement

The Energy Industry is ruthlessly ruled by the immutable laws of thermodynamics. It's a reality even the Greenest of the Green must address. The very first law of thermodynamics says that energy is neither created or destroyed. It gets redistributed. The chemical energy that is stored in the jet fuel inside a Virgin America airliner in San Francisco is, during a flight to JFK, turned into heat in the atmosphere or heat on the tarmac, or perhaps into air-conditioning that keeps the passenger in seat 2B comfortable. Thus, the energy in the jet's fuel tank doesn't disappear - it gets redistributed. And that redistribution of concentrated energy to a more random form leads us to the second primary law of thermodynamics - which says energy tends to become more random and less available. Heat always dissipates, from hotter to colder, never the other way around. An air-conditioned room during the summer in Phoenix or a heated room in Boston during the winter will quickly become uncomfortable unless more conditioned air is pumped into it. And creating that conditioned air, whether it is cooled or heated, takes a steady flow of energy, or what is called "base load." Taken together, the first two laws of thermodynamics provide the key to understanding why fossil fuels are so dominant in today's economy, and why technology advancements are SO critical in our inevitable move to cleaner forms of energy. Turning diffused forms of energy - whether that energy is stored in the starch found in inside corn kernels, the photons in sunlight, or the kinetic energy available from the strong breezes blowing off of Cape Code - into more concentrated forms of energy is always an uphill battle. And the more diffused the energy source, the more difficult it is to concentrate it into a form that can provide usable work, whether that's lighting a house, powering a jetliner, or firing a furnace. 

I present that basic science background on thermodynamics as it relates to energy to help readers understand some simple facts that give solar and wind energy generation three pivotal current challenges that are being addressed and overcome quickly through technology advancements and breakthroughs: 

1. Solar and Wind Power is Intermittent - While the fact is obvious, critics claim that solar and wind cannot replace the need for base load electric generating capacity from traditional sources like coal, natural gas, and nuclear. So a technology solution is needed to address turning intermittent generating capacity into base-load generating capacity for wind. 

2. The "Not In My Backyard" Argument - Few people want to live near wind turbines (NIMBY, or the "Not In My Backyard" argument). The same goes for the new electric power transmission lines so critically needed for our nation's electric infrastructure, NO MATTER the source of the energy being generated. Factor in the environmental effect of turbines on birds and other wildlife (I am in no way making a political stand on saving birds - again, living in California, I know what a barrier birds and minnows and all sorts of other environmental issues can create) and imminent domain issues, and we have the second limitation to wind power generation especially that will need to be overcome. 

3. The Discussion of Solar and Wind Energy CAPACITY Versus Production - So many in GreenTech will boast of the alternative energy generation capacity of a certain new project or field, but, back to it's intermittent nature, it's production is key. These terms have to be kept in mind whenever discussing clean energy sources like wind and solar. This is a slippery issue - we have personally worked on projects (primarily in solar, but also in wind) where, because of all sorts of issues too lengthy to list, actual production ranged anywhere from 11% - 62% of actual electric generation capacity. This third issue is very critical - too many solar and wind energy generation projects that wildly under-perform installed capacity will hurt the industry, so industry players need to be very accurate and conservative in their estimates for the long-term viability this vertical. We will see much more accurate forecasting of generation capacity in 2010 in our estimation, as the industry has had some rude awakenings to this effect. 

Technology advancements (our forthcoming white paper will detail many of these, but for obvious intellectual property reasons, permissions to publish details are very hard to obtain) are in turbo-mode, if you will, to address how to solve the intermittent generation issue with both wind and solar. Let's quickly address the three limitations I cite above: 

1. Intermittent Electric Power Generation - This is being actively and aggressively addressed by battery storage technology. There are both short term (1-3 years) and long-term (4-10 years) technologies in the works that will allow for large-scale, efficient storage of the power generated to be distributed much more evenly, providing the important "base-load" generation solar and wind energy generation needs to compete head-on with traditional energy sources. Our experience in various technology sectors over the past 20 years show a clear, proven pathway - costs will compress as critical mass is reached, and the acceleration of battery technology, capacity and functionality advancements will begin to see the inevitable compressed acceleration points we have seen in other technology verticals. Another factor will be the evolution of the Smart Grid, and all it's critical components. I will save a long-winded Smart Grid comment here, but suffice it to say, all indicators point to a vastly more intelligent, efficient national electric grid boosting intermittent energy sources like wind and solar tremendously. 

2. Not In My Backyard 
Issue - This is social issue that will need to be resolved, and we feel strongly, with current cultural and social trends, it will be overcome to a great extent in 2010. It is frustrating and completely counterproductive to the GreenTech industry - here is a well-publicized example I highlight only to bring about further awareness of this challenge. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in 2005 as an outspoken environmental lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, complained in a New York Times op-ed about proposed "ugly wind turbines" off Nantucket Sound. I will let an op-ed response in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time sum it up, calling his opposition to the wind farm as an example of "a worldview born among the privileged patricians of a generation for whom building mansions by the sea was indistinguishable from advocating for the preservation of national parks." Bottom line - these will be issues the sector will have to overcome at the grassroots, local level, with help from Federal Government mandates (similar to the mandate that HOA's cannot outlaw solar panels in residential developments). 

3. Clear Standardized Communication of Installed Generation Capacity as Opposed to Actual Production Capacity - We in the industry must be very cognizant of communicating INSTALLED CAPACITY versus ACTUAL PRODUCTION estimates. It is critical to be as accurate and conservative in our power generation estimates. As superior commercial battery storage solutions come online, it will be critical to factor that in those generation estimates as well. Standards (whether mandated by the government or the marketplace)  will be critical in bringing about a much firmer reliance on predictive modeling of solar and wind generation project capacities.

I want to reinforce two critical technologies that are receiving not just "billions in government subsidies", but also billions in private funding - battery technology and the Smart Grid (and its related periphery technologies). Simply, we are on the verge of some tremendous advancements in battery storage capabilities that will lead to tremendous efficiencies in storing that intermittent wind energy, lending to solar and wind energy generation providing a reliable base load electric generation source similar to the fossil fuel sources widely used today. The second is the Smart Grid - companies ranging from Google to IBM to Oracle, as well as dozens and dozens of viable, Silicon Valley-funded start-ups, are devoting billions of dollars in solutions for the intelligent and efficient distribution of electric energy. Finally, much-needed infrastructure investments in the construction of new, high-voltage transmission lines, to effectively and efficiently link wind and solar energy generation fields to other parts of the nation are in the process of planning and in many cases, is well underway. 

Solar and Wind Energy Generation - Macro and Micro-Generation Trends

We will see continued marketplace evolution in the end-user sales trends for micro-generation alternative energy generation. Players in the industry like Solar City, a turnkey, consumer-friendly solution for a grid-tied residential or commercial solar energy production solution, continue to gain market-share and traction in the industry. Utility-scale macro-generation projects have suffered some setbacks in the second-half of 2009 due primarily to budgetary constraints, but as the economy continues to recover, the Obama Administration continues its push for GreenTech funding, subsidies, grants and legislation, and the likely potential of legislation aimed at mandatory reduction levels of carbon emissions will all lead to a healthy combination of both macro and micro-generation solutions, grid-tied to the nation's utility companies, providing a healthy boost to solar and wind energy generation's overall percentage of electrical energy generation in 2010. Our team at SolVentus strongly believes there will be a convergence of both forms of alternative energy generation, and are working with clients entrenched on both sides of this renewable energy equation.

Utility Companies and Their Directional Strategy in 2010

Utilities, which are just now getting serious about meeting RPS goals, will likely take the lead in developing new solar projects. Until now, they have been unsuccessful in getting support from their ratepayers who would see up to a 10% increase in their utility bills. Again, both state and federal government emission mandates will play a key role in how aggressive the utility companies continue to offer rebates, ease-of-opportunity and competitive feed-in tariffs (or wholesale purchase prices to grid-tied producers during peak energy periods). We predict a progressively more intense effort by local, state and federal governments to put pressure on utility companies to continue the alternative energy trend with ever-more aggressive incentives for consumers to "Go Green."

The Critical Element - The Development of the Smart Grid and It's Peripheries

We strongly believe 2010 will be a milestone year for the Smart Grid. The first phase of the Smart Grid was about defining it - and it took nearly a decade for utilities (and vendors) to articulate a vision and blueprint for such a complex undertaking. Now that we’re there, it’s time to start making this vision concrete. Phase Two is about building out the smart grid, and again, I believe that 2010 will be a milestone year for progress in this regard. One important measure of our progress will be the number of newly connected homes and businesses by the end of next year.

1. A Year of Interfaces - Commercially available products with real standards and real interfaces will drive a meaningful start to Phase Two of the smart grid. That means utilities have realized that the “last mile” network of the grid is as important as the rest of its networked devices.

2. A Year of the Majors - Now that the Smart Grid is a reality, the world’s leading technology vendors are plunging into the fray. The smart grid’s enormous, complex challenges will be met with ingenious solutions from leading vendors in virtually every technology vertical. Look for new alliances among major networking companies, major telecoms providers, major chip suppliers, major retail household appliance manufacturers and major enterprise software vendors (as well as some unknown startups).

3. The Security Debate Will Be Behind Us - Shocking as that may sound, it’s true. Sure, security generated a lot of buzz (and anxiety) in 2009, but government-grade, standards-based security has won the day. The only questions that remain center around how and where security gets implemented within the smart grid. Stay tuned for lots of debate about how best to implement standards-based security. Granularity -– across devices, data, transport and systems — will play a key role in determining successful (or failed) smart grid architectures.

4. Disruption Is Bound to Happen - Yes, there are government stimulus awards being handed out, as well as contracts signed by putative (and emerging) market leaders. But which vendors are likely to succeed, and why? My prediction - disruption will result from a combination of the “usual suspects” (large, well-known technology vendors) plus some new surprises.

5. Smart Grid Networks Will Continue to Be Built - Until recently, there was lots of talk, speculation, blogging, Powerpoint presentations and whiteboard diagrams — and little else. So who is actually building out a viable, scalable, secure smart grid network? Actual smart grid deployments -– while small -– are now growing (in stature, as well as volume of connected devices). As the smart grid transitions to Phase Two, the vendors that demonstrate real technology (that’s really working in real-world deployments) will have a huge advantage and overwhelming mindshare with utilities.

6. Distributed Generation and Load Shaping Will Be the New “Killer Apps” - In the mid-1990s, everyone used to ask what the Internet’s “killer app” (i.e., the application that would propel massive adoption and growth) was. Seems rather quaint from our 2009 vantage point. Yet keen minds involved with the Smart Grid are now asking a similar question. But first the following queries about distributed generation and load shaping need to be answered:

  1. How can utilities safely incorporate and distribute alternative energy?
  2. How will utilities manage and distribute all that new energy going back into the Smart Grid? Has two-way energy management been a heretofore ignored issue?
  3. How does this transform utilities’ value-add? Do they become energy brokers/marketplaces, as well as energy providers? Will deregulated markets help or hinder this process?
  4. How will consumers’ interests be protected? Who really wins?
  5. If harnessed properly, can we end our reliance on fossil fuels?

7. The Birth of Retail Energy Will Be Upon Us - With connected smart meters, utilities are on the cusp of developing more powerful ways to connect and communicate online with consumers. Moreover, utilities will need to listen closely to consumers, and work hard to deliver what consumers want. That’s exciting, but daunting. Our prediction: The birth of ‘retail energy’ will happen first in deregulated markets, where there exist meaningful incentives for both utilities and consumers to communicate and transact online.

8. Energy, Voice, Video and Data Will Emerge - and Converge - Back at the start of the century, telecommunications companies described the “triple play” (voice, video, data) opportunity –- a convergence of all media into the home, provided by a single vendor, and streamed onto a variety of consumer devices (phones, TVs, computers, and more). The Smart Grid is the first opportunity to enable the “quadruple play,” and we believe it will be a very, very big opportunity. Quadruple play is made possible by the use of standards-based, scalable smart grid architectures that connect and leverage feature-rich devices and functionality, along with high-bandwidth (and low cost) 4G networking. We are already seeing both vendors and utilities evaluate the benefits of this “quadruple play” approach as they build out their smart grids.

2010 - Solar and Wind Energy Generation Accelerate at a Surprising Rate

In summary, our research is pointing at 2010 as a breakout year for solar and wind energy generation in the United States. As described above, there will be many intricate working parts, from financing, government policy, ancillary technology advancement, invention and development, and even social changes, that will converge in a compressed, accelerated manner, ushering in a new technology revolution in the GreenTech space. SolVentus Energy strongly believes 2010 is the year GreenTech is ushered in as the new high-growth technology space in the United States economy, producing surprising economic benefits, job creation, helping establish the U.S. in a leadership role in a critically important industry, revitalizing and in some cases, replacing aging industries, and finally, providing investors enormous opportunities not only in 2010, but for the decade to come. 

Disclosure: No holdings in any of the companies referenced in the article.

Disclosure: No positions.