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Clean Energy Makes Big Strides, but Just How Sustainable is the Growth?

Global investment in clean energy capacity expanded by 5 percent in 2011 to $260 billion. The growth comes despite the considerable drag from economic crisis in Europe and weak growth in the U.S.

The new research, compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, was announced yesterday in New York at United Nations headquarters building, site of the Investor Summit on Climate Risk & Energy Solutions.

Up from $247 billion in 2010, last year's rise in spending on clean energy capacity offered reasons for optimism along with rising cause for concern. Note that this data includes spending on renewable energy technologies, but not advanced coal, nuclear or conventional big hydro.

The good news: Spending has quintupled in the past seven years, with outlays for solar power leading the expansion -- soaring by 36 percent to $137.5 billion during 2011.

And in the global horse race for green energy leadership, the U.S. regained its lead over China for the first time since 2008. U.S. spending hit a record, at $55.4 billion, up 35 percent, as investment in China rose by just one percent to $48.9 billion.

"The performance of solar is even more remarkable when you consider that the price of photovoltaic modules fell by close to 50 percent during 2011, and now stands 75 percent lower than three years ago, in mid-2008," Michael Liebreich, chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in a statement.

But lurking behind those big numbers are worries that U.S.' resurgence in 2011 may turn out to be the lunge that precedes a stumble. Spending in the U.S. was buoyed by a big surge of stimulus funds, originally set aside in the 2008 stimulus bill, that will taper off sharply in the year ahead.

"The U.S. jumped back into the lead in clean energy investment last year," Liebreich added. "However before anyone in Washington celebrates too much, the U.S. figure was achieved thanks in large part to support initiatives which have now expired."

As those incentives shrink, the global wind and solar industries are set to consolidate. Supply in both the wind and solar markets exceeds demand significantly, leading to bankruptcies and pullbacks. In the solar space, Solyndra is the most visible, but one of a growing number of startups that crashed under pressure from falling solar cell prices.

Dominated by mature conglomerates such as GE and Siemens, the outlook for wind is dimmer than for solar: Global investment fell by 17 percent to $74.9 billion. To try to compete with lower-cost Chinese manufacturers Vestas, the world's largest producer of turbines, yesterday announced it was shuttering a factory, and cutting 2,335 jobs, or about 10 percent of its staff.

Of course, oversupply means lower-cost energy systems for buyers. And even as subsidies are declining in the wealthy West, non-financial policy support remains resilient. In the U.S., renewable portfolio standards in 29 U.S. states represent a $400 billion investment opportunity, as other states finalize similar commitments.

Meanwhile, stepped up subsidies in emerging markets -- especially Brazil and India -- are upgrading energy services to virgin markets. Spending in these areas will replace some of the investment that is retreating in North America and Europe, said Ethan Zindler, Head of Policy Analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Financial innovation remains a weak spot, however, especially in the U.S., where clever capital solutions could help fill the gap left by shrinking federal subsidies. Given the multi-billion dollar scale of many clean-energy investment projects, there's been a dearth of the sorts of high-efficiency financial instruments that can bundle up batches of projects, and finance them at low cost in public markets, Zindler added.

There have been some promising precedents -- such as PACE loans and solar lease-to-own programs. But nothing has yet emerged to substitute for large-scale, multi-billion federal subsidy programs. Proposals such as green bonds or a national infrastructure bank are stuck in the starting gate, said Zindler.

Institutional investors, meanwhile, are hungry for more diversified ways to put money into greener projects. "Investors need diversified, sustainable strategies that maximize risk-adjusted returns in a volatile investment environment," said Ceres head Mindy Lubber, which directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk, a network of 100 institutional investors with collective assets totaling about $10 trillion.

The retreat of subsidies may enhance the competitiveness of products and strategies already honed to deliver higher efficiency and energy savings, said Marc Vachon, vice president of ecomagination at GE. He added that GE's ecomagination product line is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the company, having already generated $85 billion in revenues to date.

The event saw the release of two other reports of note for folks following investment trends in green business and clean tech:

Global investment consultant Mercer issued a new report showing how leading global investors, including the nation's largest public pension fund, CalPERS, are integrating climate change considerations into investment risk management and asset allocations. The report, "Through the Looking Glass: How Investors are Applying Results of the Climate Change Scenarios Study" comes on the heels of a Mercer report last year showing that climate change could contribute as much as 10 percent to portfolio risk over the next 20 years.

Deutsche Asset Management also released a new report, "2011: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly," describing generally mixed results on climate investments and policy in 2011 but projecting long-term growth in cleaner energy markets to continue. Positive trends included China and Germany's continued low-carbon leadership, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's issuance of new rules on hazardous air pollutants, Australia's new carbon legislation, and Japan's commitment to supporting the deployment of more renewable energy.

The report also highlights negative trends such as the weak performance of cleantech public equity stocks in 2011 and the expiration of several U.S. federal renewable energy incentive programs, including the "highly successful" Treasury Grant Program that expired Dec. 31, 2011. The report noted that the TGP program, in 2 1/2 years, leveraged nearly $23 billion in private sector investment for 22,000 projects in every state across a dozen clean energy industries.

Last but not least, a plug. If you, like me, have concluded that the "end of coal" is all but inevitable to prevent catastrophic climate change, check out this remarkable presentation -- which ended with a standing ovation -- by Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO at yesterday's summit.

Trumka, a former miner, spoke with passion about how the "end of coal" message is landing on the ground in blue-collar coal country, even as he acknowledged the dire need to address climate risks and build a low-carbon economy.

His message is cause to reflect on how labor's interests are often misunderstood and under-represented in climate policy discussions. Where coal miners see their jobs, housing values, and culture imperiled, it's no surprise that the politics of climate change become hard to swallow -- no matter how chaotic the climate change signals may be. The same labor issues vex the proposed XL Pipeline, about which Trumka says labor remains divided, and natural gas fracking as well.

Read the transcript here or watch his talk below, starting just before the 14-minute mark. It's well worth the 15-minute running time:


Wind turbine photo CC-licensed by Samuel Stocker.

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