With energy expected to feature prominently at Davos this month, what are the opportunities for investment in low carbon innovation in 2013?
For some energy investors, the second dash for gas represents a good enough reason to kick clean technologies into the long grass and to return to a short term approach to energy generation.
However, although the lower price of natural gas makes it harder for renewables to compete on cost, the long term expense of pushing the problem of climate change into the next decade is far higher. Research by investment consultants Mercer, for example, found that continued delay in climate change action could cost institutional investors thousands of billions of dollars.
A second dash for gas, (unless supported by carbon capture technology), is not in the UK’s long term interest as it will lock in fossil fuel power stations, therefore raising the cost of meeting the nation’s legally binding carbon target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050.
Similarly, the US, which has been making headway in reducing emissions (if it had ratified the 1997 Kyoto protocol it would have now met its obligations), now stands to become the world’s largest gas producer by 2015. In this case, the US’ single minded focus on energy self sufficiency will be met, but at the risk of placing undue bets on fossil fuel, just as we enter a carbon constrained world.
There is increasing awareness amongst investors that the huge reserves of coal, oil and gas held by companies are sub-prime assets. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, 80% of fossil fuel investments are effectively unburnable, since doing so would blow legally binding greenhouse gas emissions budgets.
To some extent, the carbon bubble is not the concern of fund managers, which are incentivised by short term returns. However, further up the investment chain, asset owners (who invest over periods of upwards of 20 years), now face the realisation that continued large scale fossil fuel investment is leading us towards the same financial conditions that led to the 2007 crash.
Not all investors are content to sleepwalk into what Lord Stern called “the greatest market failure the world has seen” (Stern Review 2007). There is a rising realisation that it is more economically prudent to invest in clean technologies, such as renewables, smart grid and greater energy efficiency, which will put the global energy supply on a secure, low carbon energy trajectory.
Indeed, many asset owners are looking to manage climate risk by hedging their portfolios – by investing in low-carbon assets so that when an adequate carbon floor price is reached, the loss of value in high carbon investments is offset by an increase in value in their low carbon investments.
But there’s a long way to go. According to the AOD Project, less than 2% of a typical asset owner’s portfolio is currently invested in low carbon assets; this is compared to an average of over 55% of a portfolio being invested in high carbon assets. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), $268.7bn was invested in clean energy technologies last year, making 2012 the second most successful year on record for the global cleantech sector.
According to BNEF chief executive Michael Liebreich, "…the most striking aspect of these figures is that the decline was not bigger - given the fierce headwinds the clean energy sector faced in 2012 as a result of policy uncertainty, the ongoing European fiscal crisis, and continuing sharp falls in technology costs."
Great advances have been made in the last decade, with technologies such as solar becoming mainstream, as indicated by a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway recently spending $2.5 billion on a major solar project. But there’s a long way to go. According to the IEA, $500bn a year must be invested in clean energy between 2010 and 2035, in order to transition to the low carbon economy.
According to the London School of Economics (LSE), only 30-40% of the investment can be covered by balance sheets and project finance of UK utilities, leaving the majority investment share to come from other investors. So what is attracting pension funds, banks and insurance companies to the market?
Investing in a new energy future
This year, the global investment community is looking at the threat of climate change with fresh eyes, having witnessed the economic damage caused by extreme weather events, such as the hurricanes and droughts that have swept the US. The discussion has moved on from solely the question of how to prevent runaway climate change, to how we put resilient infrastructure in place to defend against its impacts, here and now.
Already, the insurance industry has adapted and carriers are calculating the impact of weather events as a function of climate change and pricing the risks into policies. Climate investment funds are becoming more numerous, for example, the United Nations’ new global financial institution, the Green Climate Fund (GCF), aims to raise a massive $100 billion a year by 2020 for carbon mitigation and adaptation programs.
On a smaller scale, cooperatives are also growing in stature as a means to fund clean energy projects, Westmill Solar in the UK for example last year raised over £2.5m for a 20,000 panel solar park, funded from, and for the local community. Similarly, the ubiquitous nature of the internet is opening the door for ‘crowd sourced’ solar funding projects, such as Solar Mosaic.
Lastly, but significantly this year, large corporate investors are driving a growing spike in cleantech investments. Private investment is coming from both energy companies, such as Shell, which in December participated in a $26 million funding round for solar thermal company GlassPoint Solar Inc., through to major retailers, such as Ikea, which are investing in renewables to take themselves ‘off grid’ in order to protect against rising energy costs.
Fostering cleantech investment in 2013
In the current atmosphere of wavering government support for the green economy, how can clean technologists build confidence understanding with asset owners? Maintaining confidence with both policymakers and funders is critical, it’s up to technologists to provide consistent proof of their business cases, in a diverse range of scenarios. Of course, it’s better to under promise and over deliver, but at the same time it’s vital that the commercial growth pathways of technologies are demonstrated in a clear, strategic way.
Government and industry must ultimately work together on sustainable energy infrastructure, but industry cannot wait for that to happen. Technologies must be proven at scale, which both influences investment and policy, but also stimulates low carbon investment when policy is decided upon. Lastly, it’s vital for clean technologies to appeal to the universal nature of asset owners, in order to demonstrate the opportunities of the low carbon economy as a whole. The more investors are exposed to a portfolio of diversified low carbon investments, the more likely they will be to invest.
Greater than the sum of its parts
Fundamentally, all clean technologies face the same challenge of justifying longer paybacks on investment to realise energy savings down the line. The low carbon economy is a paradigm shift; to achieve it requires cleantech verticals to talk and work together.
Whilst there are many disparate technologies, there are also many distinct synergies, which technologists should leverage collaboratively, to justify investment. Recent advances in energy storage, for example, which has asymbiotic role in driving returns on renewables, energy efficiency and smart grid, has the potential to coalesce clean technologies for the first time, which is a very exciting prospect for 2013.