The Outlook for Investing in Green Energy

How to deal with a sector that has pop—and could go pop, too.

Venture-capital investment in a range of clean technologies has risen steadily. The figures cover North America, Europe, China, and India.
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You've probably seen this movie before. Deep-pocketed investors swarm research labs in Silicon Valley and fledgling companies in generic office parks, searching for world-changing technologies and the promise of untold profits. Before long, the great Wall Street hype machine starts to crank into gear as a few highly buzzed stock offerings explode onto the market. Business magazines pronounce the sector as the Next Big Thing. And off in the distance, a few curmudgeonly killjoys start talking about a bubble eventually going bust.

Shades of the dot-com bubble-and-bust cycle are seen again on Wall Street, this time with a green tint. Over the past few years, the media blitz about the threat of global warming, combined with a superspike in oil prices, has enabled green-technology entrepreneurs to raise billions of dollars in venture capital. But stock investors, looking for opportunities in a down market, are pretty psyched up as well. A quick glance at the shares of First Solar, Wall Street's current favorite, is illustrative. The thin-film solar cell maker made headlines as the "Google of solar" with a share price to match. It hit $288 a share on July 16, up more than 900 percent since the start of 2007. Energy Conversion Devices, another thin-film player, has seen its shares jump more than 100 percent this year.

Fueling the fire. But whether companies are developing solar, wind, advanced biofuels, or any of a number of emerging clean-energy technologies, the combination of global economics, investor interest, and a forthcoming pro-green turn by Uncle Sam makes it hard to argue a long-run bear case against green stocks. Of course, that sort of superoptimism is itself a prerequisite for a bubble.

But, hey, plenty of money can be made before a bubble goes bust. And this one probably has a long way to go. "We're still in the very, very early stages of the game," says Brian Fan, senior research director at the Cleantech Group. "Is there a bubble? There isn't. If valuations in some publicly traded sectors are out of whack, I think it's a function of the fact there are too few opportunities for investors and there's too much demand and appetite for exposure to these technologies."

Just as investors in Chinese stocks like to point to market size as a compelling reason to snap up shares ("Hey, if XYZ Co. can capture just 1 percent of the market . . ."), so do green investors. Boosters tout most often the sheer magnitude of the energy market and the minimal penetration of any one green technology. Currently, a mere 1.5 percent of American electricity generation comes from renewable sources.

Over in Silicon Valley, stalwart venture capital funds like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures, headed by Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla, are spreading huge bets around on a staggering variety of start-ups. In the second quarter alone, some $2 billion in venture cash flowed into the sector, according to the Cleantech Group, an all-time record, beating out a $1.8 billion influx in the third quarter of 2007. Watch the VC funds' spending for new investing ideas once markets improve and start-ups begin going public again in full force.

U.S. government support could soon be improving, too. Almost everyone agrees that the next administration will be kinder to green technology than the current one. John McCain has said he'd like to offer a $300 million prize to the inventor of a battery strong enough to power a car. Barack Obama has made investing in clean energy a core element of his economic plan. Both candidates also want to create a carbon emission cap-and-trade system, an almost seismic event for green-tech firms as companies would rush to meet new pollution regulations by adopting new technologies.

Make mine mini. So how should investors play the bubble? First, they need to understand that rather than one megabubble, a more likely scenario is that a bunch of minibubbles in various subsectors would constantly percolate, bubble, and pop.



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  • Kirk Shinkle

    Kirk Shinkle is a senior editor for U.S. News Money and manages the Best Funds portal. Follow him on Twitter @KirkS or email him at kshinkle@usnews.com.