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Predictions for Cleantech in 2012

As we close out 2011, let’s look towards what the new year may have in store for cleantech.

There are eggshells across the sector for 2012. Global economic uncertainty in particular is leaving some skeptical about the chances for emerging clean technologies. And those who watch quarterly investment data, or who look only in a single geography (e.g. North America) may have seen troubling trends brewing this past year. But the true story, and the global outlook for the year ahead, is—as it always is—more complicated.

As you’ll read below, we predict a decline in worldwide cleantech venture capital investing in 2012. But we believe the gap will be more than made up by infusions of corporate capital. And the exit environment, depending on who you are and where you list, still looks robust in 2012 for cleantech (it may not have felt so, but it was actually surprisingly robust in 2011, according to the data). All in all, if you’re a cleantech entrepreneur seeking capital, our advice is brush up that PowerPoint and work the system now… while there’s still a system to work.

Because the largest risk, to cleantech and every sector in 2012, we believe, is the specter of precipitous global economic decline and the systemic changes it might bring.

Here are our predictions for cleantech in 2012:

Cleantech venture investment to decline
In the face of naysayers then forecasting a cleantech collapse, in our predictions this time last year, we called an increase in global cleantech venture investment in 2011. We were right. At this writing, total investment for the first three quarters of 2011 is already $6.876 billion, with the fourth quarter to report early in 2012. Given historical patterns (fourth quarters are almost always down from third quarters), we expect 2011 to close out at a total of ~$8.8 billion in venture capital invested into cleantech globally. That’d be the highest total in three years, and second only to the highest year on record: 2008.

cleantech 2012 predictions venture investmentTotal 2011 investment is expected to show growth from 2009’s figures once the fourth quarter (dashed lines, estimated) is added. However Kachan predicts total venture investment in 2012 to decline from 2011’s total. Data: Cleantech Group

Yet in 2012, we expect global venture and investment into cleantech to fall. Not dramatically. But we expect cleantech venture in 2012 as measured by the data providers (i.e. companies like Dow Jones VentureSource, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, PwC/NVCA MoneyTree, and Cleantech Group) to show its first decline in 2012 following the recovery from the financial crash of 2008. Our reasoning? There are factors we expect will continue to contribute to the health of the cleantech sector, but they feel outweighed by factors that concern us. Both sets below:

On one hand: What we expect to contribute to growth in cleantech investment in 2012

  • China gets a hold on its economic turbulence – For five years now in our annual predictions, both here at Kachan and when I was a managing director of the Cleantech Group, we foretold the rise of China as cleantech juggernaut. Yet, now with China having become the largest market for and leading vendor of cleantech products and services by all metrics that matter, and now receiving a larger percentage of global cleantech venture capital than at any point in history, there have been recent warning signs. New data just in (for instance, falling Chinese property prices and sluggish export growth because of faltering first world economies, not to mention the first decline in clean energy project financing in China since 2010 as wind project financing declined 14% in the third quarter of 2011 on fears of over-expansion) suggests the Chinese economic engine is slowing. On the face of it, that might look bad for cleantech. But we put a lot of faith in China’s central government and the seriousness with which it views this sector as strategic. Even now, the country has just gone on the record forecasting creating 9 million new green jobs in the next 5 years. Nine million! And China has a good track record in executing its 5-year plans.
  • Rise in oil prices – Cleantech is a much wider category than energy. But for many, renewable energy is its cornerstone. And while there’s no question about the long-term markets for renewables, the biggest factor affecting their short-term commercial viability is the price of fossil-based energy. The good news: indications are that oil prices are headed upwards in 2012, which should be expected to help make renewables more economic. Naysayers maintain that a poor global economy will destroy demand for energy, keeping the price of oil artificially low. For much of 2011, the price of oil was relatively low. But we argue the price per barrel will continue its inexorable rise in 2012 given continued growth in the size of the global market for oil, driven by market expansion in the developing world. Further adding to the expected oil price increase is a little-known fact: there’s been a decline in the quality of oil the world is seeing on average. And the poorer the quality of the oil, the more it costs to refine it into the products we require. Oil prices are headed up.
  • Corporations’ even stronger leadership role – Corporate venturing was up in 2011, possibly setting new record highs, according to the data providers (4Q data not in yet.) Cleantech corporate mergers and acquisitions globally were up in 2011, again possibly setting new record highs, according to the data. The world’s largest companies assumed the leadership we and others predicted they would last year at this time—and indications are they will continue to do so in 2012, with balance sheets still strong.
  • Solar innovation as a perennial driver – Investment into good old solar innovation and projects is still strong, and has remained so for years, while other clean technologies have risen and fallen in and out of investment fashion. And that’s despite most solar companies being in the red and having billions of dollars in market capitalization disappear over the last year. As some solar companies will continue to close up shop in 2012, look for investment into solar innovation to remain strong in 2012 as the quest for lower costs and higher efficiencies continues.
  • Persistence of the fundamental drivers of cleantech – The sheer sizes of the addressable markets many cleantech companies target, and the possibilities for massive associated returns, will continue to draw investors to the sector. Why? The world is still running out of the raw materials it needs. Some countries value their energy independence. More than ever, economies need to do more with less. Oh, and there’s that climate thing.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss what worries us about the prospects for growth in cleantech investment in 2012.

A former managing director of the Cleantech Group, Dallas Kachan is now managing partner of Kachan & Co., a cleantech research and advisory firm that does business worldwide from San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver. The company publishes research on clean technology companies and future trends, offers consulting services to large corporations, governments and cleantech vendors, and connects cleantech companies with investors through its Hello Cleantech™ and Northern Cleantech Showcase™ programs. Kachan staff have been covering, publishing about and helping propel clean technology since 2006. Details at www.kachan.com. This article was reprinted with permission from Kachan & Co., and can be read in its entirety here.

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