By Maud Texier
Where does cleantech stand?
After a big boom in early stage investments and a green policies kick-off a few years ago, the cleantech industry has been through the struggles that always come with a young and maturing industry. Where are we standing now?
Unavoidable growing pains
Back in 2008, VC funds for cleantech were blossoming; some of them arguing that it would be the next internet boom. Politics started to raise their awareness about climate changes and environmental issues. Europe had led the way with the first feed-in tariffs for renewables and even a cap and trade market for CO2 in 2005. The US introduced Renewable Energy Standards in 30 states, and created ARPA-E as the new government agency to support innovation in the energy industry.
However, overproduction of solar cells and panels, combined with rapidly falling prices for that and other reasons, led to the demise of numerous solar startups. Meanwhile, many European countries, facing a financial crisis, stepped back and reduced its support for cleantech. The early growing pains that face all industries as they mature also showed up. That included some innovators going bankrupt or struggling to make it to their teenage years. Iconic cleantech companies such as Fisker, Better Place, and A123 went bankrupt; a lot of other startups had poor exits as they were struggling raising new funds.
Now VCs are defiant and most of the main teams are being dismantled as their cleantech portfolio did not perform well enough. Was that to be expected? Actually, VCs historically targeted rapidly growing markets in order to ensure high returns in a few years, whereas the energy industry bets on 20+years returns. There has obviously been a mismatch. Also, a lot of investors and entrepreneurs — new to the energy industry — underestimated the barriers of entry for this market, as well as the resistance of utilities.
However, a few VCs did well and are still in the game. Today, most of them are either targeting this new “cleanweb” segment, which is more likely to be capital-light with a rapid return by focusing on apps and softwares. Others are partnering with corporates to ensure a more sustainable investment and facilitating industry alliances for the ventures.
The cleantech coming of age
Funding a hardware cleantech company is currently very difficult, if not impossible. However, we still need those technologies to evolve and mature, as they will be the pillar of the next infrastructures. Cleanweb, new business models, and financing are key and definitely necessary to mainstream those innovations, but let’s not forget our final goal by focusing too much on the means….
I believe that the solar industry has never been better than it is today. It is true that a lot of people are struggling, we have seen the number of module manufacturers dramatically dropping over the last two years, and now the pressure is put on other types of hardware from the balance of system, such as inverters. But the price drop has been so strong and the emergence of new business models so impactful that PV is becoming mainstream. The market has been maturing into a more sustainable industry, and it will keep growing but likely with a trend towards verticalization.
Also, storage is going to see a huge change this year. A lot of companies have been working on their technologies for years now, and the market is finally getting ready, one step at a time. Timing is always critical for innovations: now as energy demand keeps increasing despite limited and decreasing capacities, storage starts making sense even at a higher price. California once again pioneered by introducing the AB 2514 bill that makes storage capacities mandatory for the state IOUs (PG&E, SCE, SDG&E). Is storage on the same path as solar was a few years ago?
I will just add a few words on the energy efficiency industry, this low-hanging fruit that companies have been trying to grab for some years now. Despite huge potential, energy efficiency is still looking for the right model. The concept of monetizing negawatts needs a lot of structure: policies, regulations, standardized measure, and verification processes. Some promising technologies for consumption disaggregation and new financing structures could dramatically change the picture with the right business models.
The energy industry is re-shaping itself as it faces new challenges. The emerging segments of this market have definitely been going through difficulties to reach technology viability and find the right business model. This market is a tough one, where you need heavy investment and strong will to upgrade infrastructures and modify a legacy system which has been running for decades. But we are finally witnessing the development of those technologies at large scale, creating new economies. Beyond solar, the grid is finally starting to change with storage, energy efficiency and consumer-oriented services.
About the Author: As an engineer, Maud dedicated her efforts towards the energy market. She hails from the oil & gas industry, and started her career working in electricity markets. As an analyst on a power trading desk, she studied the market mechanisms that can develop new demand-response models. She has been scouting new technologies such as renewables, storage or energy efficiency for a large power utility in Silicon Valley before joining a solar start-up.
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