Venture capital trends suggest solar industry maturing

Venture capital investment trends in the cleantech industry suggest that solar is the cleantech leader and that the industry is maturing, according to a venture capital analyst.

Ernst & Young released its cleantech venture capital report earlier this week, which revealed that cleantech investing was up 54 percent quarter over quarter and that 32 percent of those investments went to solar energy companies.

Investors poured $1.14 billion into cleantech companies in the first quarter of this year compared to $743.3 million in the first quarter of 2010, according to the report. But there were on 69 total deals this year compared with 79 last year.

“That’s something to monitor,” said Jay Spencer, Ernst & Young’s Americas Cleantech Leader. “But I wouldn’t call it a trend or say it’s anything significant to investing.”

However, that piece of data combined with news that 67 percent of solar financing went to later-stage development and that more than half the total money went to revenue-generating enterprises means the industry is maturing.

“It says to me that we’re supporting the commercialization of the cleantech industry,” Spencer said.

Ernst & Young has been tracking cleantech data since about 2000 and has been issuing reports since 2008, Spencer said.

In the beginning, investments went toward new innovations, and they still do. The largest venture capital deal of the quarter was a $362.7 million investment in MiaSole, a thin-film solar panel manufacturer in northern California. Thin-film solar is considered next generation solar innovation. But even that investment is still late-stage and revenue generating.

There weren’t as many opportunities to get into the commercialization of solar and other cleantech companies early on.

“What we’re seeing now is the point where we’re ready to invest in the commercialization,” Spencer said. “That’s a good sign. That’s a good sign of the industry growing.”

He said that solar has always dominated the cleantech realm for venture capital investors. That’s probably because it was the most ready to move to market when investors started looking for enterprises to support.

“This is a long, long journey we’re on, and we’re just in the early stages,” Spencer said, noting that national leaders are talking about cleantech futures with plans and projects for the years 2020, 2025 and 2030. “We’re at the early stage of this transformation.”