January 16, 2011

The Sorry State of the Renewables

Back in February 2008, Eric Janszen wrote an article in Harper's on "The Next Bubble," in which he gamely predicted that alternative energy fit the bill better than any other sector of the economy. Janzsen's piece is an excellent dissection of the technology and real estate bubbles, focusing, in the case of the latter, on the growth of the FIRE (Financial, Insurance, Real Estate) sector of the economy. As of yet, however, his prediction of a bubble in alternative energy has been far of the mark.

Here is what he wrote back then:
There are a number of plausible candidates for the next bubble, but only a few meet all the criteria. Health care must expand to meet the needs of the aging baby boomers, but there is as yet no enabling government legislation to make way for a health-care bubble; the same holds true of the pharmaceutical industry, which could hyperinflate only if the Food and Drug Administration was gutted of its power. A second technology boom—under the rubric “Web 2.0”—is based on improvements to existing technology rather than any new discovery. The capital-intensive biotechnology industry will not inflate, as it requires too much specialized intelligence.

There is one industry that fits the bill: alternative energy, the development of more energy-efficient products, along with viable alternatives to oil, including wind, solar, and geothermal power, along with the use of nuclear energy to produce sustainable oil substitutes, such as liquefied hydrogen from water.
Alas, it has not worked out that way. On the contrary, alternative energy, especially the wind and solar sectors, has busted pretty badly.

Herewith a visual tour of the sad state of wind and solar.

This chart shows the price of TAN (the solar etf or exchange-traded fund) and FAN (the wind etf) over the last three years:

Also revealing are ratio charts of TAN and FAN in relation to other energy indexes. As these charts show, the capital markets have been punishing alternative energy and rewarding coal and oil. (A lot of natural gas companies have also been slaughtered in the last few years, but that's another story.)

Here's a longer term view showing the ratio chart of the Wilderhill Clean Energy Index with the Dow Jones Coal Index:

Just to add insult to injury, here's the Clean Energy Index in relation to British Petroleum:

The past is not necessarily prologue; perhaps this is a terrific buying opportunity for "clean energy," having been down so long. But in the last few years, investors in green technologies have pretty much gotten crushed.

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