Cleantech insiders weigh Wall Street turmoil

Investment banks may be on the ropes, but the bell hasn’t rung for cleantech, said attendees at Cleantech Forum Washington D.C.. It hung thick, like the D.C. humidity, at the opening reception at the Cleantech Forum in Washington tonight.

Yet while today’s Wall Street’s woes were discussed roundly in the informal networking kickoff event, attendees generally had a positive take on the outlook for cleantech, in the face of the bankruptcy over the weekend of Lehman Brothers and sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America.

Project finance and other large capital outlays should be expected to become harder, suggested investor Josh Becker of New Cycle Capital, a venture capital firm.

“I think people underestimate the degree of financial uncertainty on Wall Street right now. The degree of—I wouldn’t say panic, but I’d say uncertainty—will slow things down, especially things that require large amounts of capital, project finance, big plants, etc.”

And, as Becker noted, many cleantech companies require large sums of money.

“It’s going to make things more difficult. How much more difficult? I don’t think we know. There’s a chance that cleantech is somewhat immune, but listen, when the market’s down 500 points, that’s not going to help anyone.”

Short term financial market uncertainty doesn’t necessarily mean long term woe in cleantech, agreed Todd Glass, chair of the energy practice group at law firm Heller Ehrman.

“If you look at the destruction of Lehman [Brothers] today, what you’re seeing is
that people are going to be looking at things that have a longer term positive potential return. And I don’t think anybody is debating that alternative energy has a positive future,” he said.

“We think that the capital will continue to flow. We’re still seeing it. If you look at the cleantech statistics from the venture community, investment is very solid.”

“The companies that have the technologies, the team and the market potential are still going to get the money they need,” said Glass.

Investor Becker pointed out there were opportunities in chaos.

“For us, we’re early stage investors. This is the time we want to be investing. When there’s financial turmoil, that spells great things for us.”

“For people looking for small 5, 10, 20 million dollar series Bs or series Cs, hey, those funds are raised. People have money to put to work, so that shouldn’t be as big an issue. But people going out trying to raise large sums of money, or who are thinking about tapping the public market, or are seeking project finance, they could be affected.”

A prominent cleantech industry insider, who spoke with the Cleantech Group on the condition he not be named, also thought the cleantech sector would be relatively unscathed, but warned the current financial bloodletting was just the beginning.

“This is a long way from over,” he said.

Heller Ehrman’s Todd Glass was the most optimistic.

“I think the best five years are just about ready to start. If you look at the cost of fossil fuels and the cost of alternatives, the cost is still high. We still live in a very insecure [energy] environment, where the supply of crude oil is constrained. The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has a more aggressive renewable energy law than the U.S. does. You put all these things together, you’ve created a recipe for really [accelerating] new energy technologies,” he said.

The main program of the Cleantech Forum XVIII in Washington D.C. begins in the morning.

By Dallas Kachan

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