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2010 Cleantech Predictions December 18, 2009

Posted by Andrew Chung in 2010, biofuel, Cleantech, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, energy storage, predictions, smart grid, solar.
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Lightspeed has invested across several cleantech areas, including solar (Stion), biofuels (LS9, Solazyme), clean coal (Coaltek), LED lighting (Exclara), and energy storage (Leyden Energy, f/k/a Mobius Power).

Peter Nieh and I (Andrew Chung) teamed up again this year to make a few predictions about cleantech in 2010 (see our prior year predictions for 2009 and 2008):

1. There will be increased availability of equity, debt, and project finance capital, along with an increased flight to quality.

Despite 2009 being a slow year for venture capital firms raising funds (Q3 featured the fewest number of VC firms raising money in 15 years), the cleantech category appears to have drawn continued commitments. Several domestic firms raised large cleantech-focused funds earlier this year. Internationally – from China to Singapore, India to South Africa – a number of local venture and private equity firms are now raising multi-hundred million dollar funds to target cleantech investment. As such, the global pool of equity capital targeted at cleantech will be greater in 2010, as investors continue to look at the sector as a source of investment opportunity. The emergence of the debt markets from the depths of the fallout from late 2008 and the growth in capital flows from an improved stock market should also increase the availability of debt, tax equity, and project finance capital.

Despite the rise in availability of capital in 2010, investors will likely remain cautious. We expect a larger share of dollars to go into emerging leaders and high-potential portfolio companies, as the number of new companies funded in first-time investments grows more moderately. Larger funds may preserve capital to make more substantial bets in later-stage, “winner’s circle” companies.

2. Massive project deployments and manufacturing capacity growth will be undertaken, as winners and losers become more apparent.

In 2010, we expect a number of prominent VC-backed cleantech companies to be tested, as they emerge from R&D and initial customer acquisition and move into full-scale production and/or deployment mode. Some companies will rise to market leadership, while others may fall, as the myths and reality of their technology, competitive edge, and ability to scale come to light.

The “shakeout” will likely impact the sectors that have seen the most investment in recent years, such as:

  • Solar: Many up-and-coming solar manufacturers have made bold claims about their capabilities. As these companies start to ramp their manufacturing capacity, their validity of their claims on efficiencies, yields, cost economics, capital efficiency, and field reliability will become more readily apparent. Companies will find it much more difficult to “scale first, optimize later,” as pressure on cash reserves increase significantly.

  • Smart grid: As some of the massive project deployments with nationwide utilities roll out, whether new technologies can truly scale to millions of endpoints cost effectively and reliably will become clearer. The utilities will also better judge the extent of the value created by the deployed networks and how far it extends beyond advanced metering into areas like demand response, distribution automation, and network management.

3. Momentum in plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles to continue, as a greater variety of vehicles starts to arrive to market. Electrical storage will be the key enabling technology.

Nearly every major carmaker claims it will launch a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) or all-electric vehicle (EV) some time between 2010 and 2013, as concept cars start to become production models. Notable target launches for 2010 include the Chevy Volt and Nissan EV-02. Numerous startups will also look to enter the market, despite the challenges in raising the funding needed to compete in the automobile industry.

Another trend to watch in 2010 will be an increased focus for fleet operators to consider adoption of HEVs and PHEVs, as the industry looks to rebound from the downturn and retire more of their aging fleet. Adoption will still be early, but sustainability initiatives and new emissions regulations should help.

The key enabler for the HEV and PHEV revolution will continue to be the battery technology. While established companies like Sanyo, LG, and Hitachi are all attempting to adapt their lithium-ion battery technology for the automotive market, limitations with traditional chemistries have made it difficult for a clear victor to become apparent; startups have an opportunity to disrupt the market and become alternatives for OEMs. For example, Leyden Energy (formerly Mobius Power, a Lightspeed portfolio company) is bringing to market Li-ion batteries that offer the high energy density that is critical for EVs, while providing a high degree of safety and long cycle life over a wide operating temperature range. We expect there to be some healthy competition and progress made here in 2010.

4. 2010 could see several public exits from some of the emerging leaders; consolidation, M&A, partnership, and JV activity expected to grow

With the IPO markets opening a crack in mid-2009 after nearly a year-long drought among VC-backed companies, investors appear cautiously optimistic about some public offerings in the cleantech area in 2010. We expect that IPO demand in this sector will be driven by factors like the success of the A123 offering (although the stock has come down 35% from its high and stabilized at where it opened in September 2009) and the scarcity of quality cleantech public companies.

Consolidation and vertical integration in areas like solar and biofuels will continue – many involving distressed companies that can no longer support the high cost of their assets and debt load. A number of solar M&A deals were announced in 2009, including First Solar acquiring Optisolar for $400 million and MEMC acquiring SunEdison for $200 million.

A number of biofuels companies have been active in the last couple of years developing strategic partnerships and joint ventures in order to speed up their market entry. LS9 and Solazyme (Lightspeed portfolio companies), for example, have teamed up with established giants like Chevron, Proctor & Gamble, and the U.S. Navy to further their development efforts.

We expect to see these types of transactions and relationships to continue in earnest in 2010, as large companies seek ways to tap into startup innovation, and startups seek ways to scale up in more capital-efficient fashion.

2009 Cleantech Predictions December 3, 2008

Posted by lsvp in 2009, biofuel, China, Cleantech, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, energy storage, predictions, solar.
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Lightspeed has invested across several cleantech areas, including solar (Stion), biofuels (LS9, Solazyme), clean coal (Coaltek), LED lighting (Exclara), and energy storage (Mobius Power). Here are some of our cleantech predictions for 2009 (see our prior year predictions here):

1. Cleantech funding will slow significantly, forcing startups to seek alternative growth strategies

The level of cleantech VC investment reached its highest levels ever in recent years. With the market downturn, however, many of the key players in the recent wave – private equity funds, hedge funds, project financiers, and debt providers – have slowed or halted their funding pace, and the IPO window is effectively closed. VC firms will continue to invest, but at a more modest pace.

As a result, we expect many startups to delay their timing for achieving commercial production. Startups will need to rethink their scale-up strategies and sacrifice growth in favor of reaching breakeven earlier. Hardest hit will be the companies that need to make significant capital expenditures to prepare for commercialization, but still have substantial technology and scale-up risk.

As companies find it more difficult to attract funding and drive down costs, expect some to seek more creative solutions. For example, biofuel startups will increasingly leverage underutilized production assets owned by distressed corn ethanol companies for commercial production capability. Meanwhile, expect large, established energy enterprises to play an increasingly vital role in helping to support startups as a development partner, funding source, customer, distribution partner or acquirer.

2. Companies will come under increased pressure to achieve competitive cost economics

With oil and energy prices falling significantly from last summer’s historical peaks, cleantech startups have stiffer requirements for the cost economics needed to compete with traditional energy sources. Companies with technologies that enable disruptive cost economics and can target higher-value market segments will be best positioned to stay competitive. For example, biofuel companies that can produce higher-value specialty chemicals can thrive even with oil at $40 per barrel. In solar, even with polysilicon prices falling due to the impending supply glut, high-efficiency thin-film solar panel providers will have the potential to exploit an intrinsic cost advantage. Conversely, companies that do not provide compelling cost economics will find it tough to contend.

The downturn has also made consumers and enterprises increasingly price sensitive and less willing to choose products at a price premium for the sake of “going green.” As such, sustainability-oriented green building products without an inherent cost advantage will be a tougher sell with more cost-conscious building owners.

3. Investor interest in energy storage, especially for automotive and grid-scale applications, to grow strongly

VCs will continue to invest in areas with large market opportunities, significant headroom for innovation, and more capital-efficient expansion models. We expect energy storage to be one of these areas. In the automotive sector, batteries with improved safety, performance, and cost parameters will be crucial to the broader adoption of electric vehicles (EV’s) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV’s). In the utility sector, the dramatic increase in distributed generation expected in the next decade from wind, solar, geothermal, and other sources will continue to adversely impact grid stability. We believe that economical grid-scale storage will be a critical part of the solution.

4. Government will play larger role in cleantech, as policymakers around the country increase their support

With passage of the solar investment tax credit and the Obama Administration’s stated support for a $100B+ energy plan, we expect the seeds of key U.S. energy policies for the next decade being planted in 2009. Although policy enactment may not happen in the coming year, expect topics like carbon cap-and-trade/taxation, national Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS), biofuel incentives, EV infrastructure, and grid-scale storage to be hotly debated. We expect that the federal government will move to formalize a venture capital-like arm to invest in promising cleantech startups, with particular emphasis on commercialization as opposed to research & development. State governments will continue to drive cleantech policy, with more states establishing or tightening RPS and RFS, reducing permitting requirements involved in consumer renewables adoption, and offering tax breaks for startups.

Importantly, policymakers at all levels will continue to consult the private sector to understand benefits and risks of emerging technologies that could benefit from regulatory support to avoid legislation that could potentially be detrimental to the cause (see Lightspeed’s presentation to California’s Lt. Governor and the Commission for Economic Development).

5. Cleantech comes of age in China

During the middle of last year, China passed the U.S. as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). 300 million people in the country have no access to potable drinking water; over a million people each year die from air pollution-related disorders, with new coal-fired plants going into operation on a weekly basis.

The Chinese government has put its might behind increased support for cleantech, enabling viable technologies to achieve distribution more rapidly. After the Olympics ended, the national leadership passed the Circular Economy Law to stimulate cleantech spending through energy efficiency, water conservation, and tighter regulation of GHG emissions. Further, the government has committed to a renewable energy budget of ~$300 billion over the next 12 years, a ~15% renewables target by 2020, and a ~$200 billion environmental protection budget through 2010.

VCs have already responded to this building momentum, as local investment in cleantech rose from $550 million last year to an expected $720 million this year, according to Cleantech China Research. Sectors that look poised to attract VC investor attention in 2009 include wind, clean coal, waste-to-fuel technologies, and energy-efficient building materials.

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