Renewable Energy’s Investment Hockey Stick

Global investments in renewable energy seem to be growing faster than any of us thought. If current trends continue, we’ll soon be seeing the hockey-stick-shaped growth curves that have become iconic shorthand in technology sectors for hyper-paced growth.

According to a report released today (Download – PDF) by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, or REN21, global investment in renewable energy set a new record of $30 billion in 2004. That’s a far, far bigger number than others have projected, such as the Cleantech Venture Network, which just ten days ago projected that investments in clean technology — a broader category than just renewable energy — would total $10 billion between 2005 and 2009.

(My firm, Clean Edge, projected earlier this year that markets for just three technologies — solar photovoltaics (PV), wind power, and fuel cells — would grow to $15 billion annually by 2014, but that measures purchases of these technologies, not investments in them.)

REN21 is remarkable not just for its large numbers. The report has an impressive pedigree: REN21 was sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. Formally established in Copenhagen in June, REN21 is now supported by a steering committee of 11 governments, 5 intergovernmental organizations, 5 nongovernmental organizations, and several regional, local, and private organizations.

The report is one of the most thorough accountings I’ve seen of the state of renewables worldwide. According to its findings:

Renewable energy supplies 17 percent of the world’s primary energy, counting traditional biomass, large hydropower, and “new” renewables (small hydro, modern biomass, wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels). Traditional biomass, primarily for cooking and heating, represents about 9 percent and is growing slowly or even declining in some regions as biomass is used more efficiently or replaced by more modern energy forms. Large hydropower is slightly less than 6 percent and growing slowly, primarily in developing countries. New renewables are 2 percent and growing very rapidly in developed countries and in some developing countries.

The fastest growing energy technology in the world has been grid-connected solar PV, with total existing capacity increasing from 0.16 gigawatts (GW) at the start of 2000 to 1.8 GW by the end of 2004, for a 60 percent average annual growth rate during the five-year period.

During the same period, other renewable energy technologies grew rapidly as well, says REN21:

  • wind power: 28 percent
  • biodiesel: 25 percent
  • solar hot water/heating: 17 percent
  • off-grid solar PV: 17 percent
  • geothermal heat capacity: 13 percent
  • ethanol: 11 percent

These compare with annual growth rates of fossil fuel-based electric power capacity of typically 3-4 percent (higher in some developing countries), a 2 percent annual growth rate for large hydropower, and a 1.6 percent annual growth rate for nuclear capacity during the three-year period 2000-2002.

Renewable energy investments now come from a highly diverse range of public and private sources, says the report, “aided by technology standardization and growing acceptance and familiarity by financiers at all scales, from commercial finance of hundred-million-dollar wind farms to household-scale micro-financing.” One recent investment trend is that large commercial banks and stodgy energy utilities are starting to notice renewable energy investment opportunities.

Examples of large banks that are “mainstreaming” renewable energy investments are HypoVereins Bank, Fortis, Dexia, Citigroup, ANZ Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, and Triodos Bank, all of which are very active in financing renewable energy. Investments by traditional utility companies, which historically as a group have been slow to consider renewables investments, are also becoming more “mainstreamed.” Examples of utilities active in renewable energy include Electricité de France, Florida Power and Light (USA), Scottish Power, and Endesa (Spain).

All told, it’s an upbeat and encouraging assessment that renewable energy around the world is being embraced by an audience far more important than environmentalists, technologists, or even high-ranking government leaders: the big-bucks investors capable of growing the kinds of large-scale, sustainable markets we’ll need to create a renewable-energy future.

Ford is pushing Ethanol

Ford Motor Company recently announced a partnership to push new fueling stations for its ethanol-ready fleet of 1 million vehicles. Ford Ethanol Article. The actual fuel is E85, a blend of 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline.

I view this as a major win for cleantech. The future for clean fuels is not hydrogen, electric, or gasoline electric hybrids, but likely some liquid fuel blend running in hybrid configurations. And hopefully with a Plug-in hybrid options. These vehicles can run on gasoline, allowing us to deal with the fuel infrastructure problem in an incremental way.

Think plug-in hybrids running on a switchable fuel mix of ethanol and gasoline. That would not only slaughter emissions, and dramatically increase fuel efficieny, but allow our transportation sector to cheaply and easily fuel switch between fuel sources as diverse as grain ethanol, crude oil, natural gas (if GTL ever occurs in a big way), syncrudes, as well as electricity sources: coal, natural gas, hydro and wind.

That is a very viable plan to solve our energy independence problem. In contrast, additional drilling in ANWR and supporting OPEC is only a short term solution.

EDF is Going Public

The French government has announced plans to spin-off 15% of Electricité de France, one of the largest utilities in the world, to the public markets.

As IPOs go, this is going to be a big one. With over US$50 Bil in revenues, EDF is larger than American heavyweights Duke and AEP combined. As these types of companis typically trade at a bit better than 1x revenues, this could be a massive $7-$10 Billion IPO. IPO Article.

The question for investors is how well a sleepy state owned utility can compete in the EU electric industry for the next 50 years.

$450 Bil Phantom Bid to Acquire ExxonMobil

I couldn’t resist reporting on this one. A little one man Chinese investment company registered in New Zealand announced a takeover bid for ExxonMobil at at 25% premium to its current shareprice.

Article on Takeover. The company is called King Win Laurel International Ltd, is basically a guy in his house, and previously made offers for Telstra and the New Zealand Yum Brands franchisee. Those were rebuffed too.
You see these tenders every once in a while, often times they are part of larger investment scams. One typical scam (which this does not appear to be), is to issue a microtender for a small number of shares at below the current share price, and try to get gullible investors to sell into it. Others are just straight-up hoaxes. Article on Telstra Offer.

Competition Is Our Friend

I have long been an advocate of true, effective deregulation of the electricity industry. Of course, when typically uttered in the context of the power sector, the word “deregulation” conjures up images of the California experience of the 1998-2002 era — which was an abomination involving government intervention against market forces at many levels, and thus should not be termed “deregulation” by any thoughtful observer.

Instead, there are several examples of much more workable approaches to electricity deregulation — such as Texas and PJM — that should be examined when weighing the possibility of competition in the power sector. The consulting firm CERA has just recently issued a report assessing the U.S. deregulation experience, and generally concludes that the pros outweigh the cons.

CERA Press Release on Deregulation Study

As CERA’s Lawrence Makovich pointed out in announcing the report: “The expectation embodied in the conventional wisdom — that for deregulatino to be considered a success, power prices in nominal terms should have decreased continuously over the period under consideration — is inappropriate. Power prices needed to fluctuate in order to convey the appropriate signal for economic efficiency.”

Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, I contend that when considered more broadly, it has significant implications for those of us with environmental interests. Power prices need to fluctuate by time in order to provide clear price signals that enable consumers to capture the true economic value offered by on-peak renewables (most notably, solar) and demand-altering measures. When true economics are masked by regulation or badly-botched deregulation, many environmentally-beneficial energy technologies are hobbled.

Of course, competitive forces in electricity would also work better if subsidies on conventional energy were eliminated (as argued in a previous posting), and if externality costs imposed by energy production/use (most notably, CO2 emissions) were fully and appropriately captured into energy prices. But, one step at a time. Let’s get energy market structures and rules right first, and we can tackle those issues subsequently.