Susan Preston, whose image as a leader in clean-energy investment has grown in her years overseeing the nation's first angel fund for seed and start-up clean energy companies, has reason to look toward 2012 with optimism. And she dismisses the criticism of those who would deter federal efforts to spur such investments as "purely political."
Preston, general partner in the nearly four-year-old California Clean Energy Angel Fund (CalCEF), acknowledges the high-profile bankruptcy of solar-power start-up Solyndra may suggest improvements are needed in federal energy-loan guarantee programs..
"But you don't throw the baby out with the bath water just because some politicians are using the bankruptcy to make political hay," Preston said.
"Overall, the government will show a nice profit on the loan-guarantee program," she says, moving on during an interview to things she'd rather talk about, like the successes of CalCEF and the likelihood that she'll focus next year on raising a new clean-energy fund.
And she enthuses about the possible resurrection of a tax-break for start-up investors that she conceived and that was gathering support in Congress before the economy went flat.
That "political hay" that Preston calls "purely political" has been made over the last couple of months by Congressional Republicans over the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a Fremont, CA, solar-panel maker. It was treated by the Obama Administration, including a visit by the President himself, as the poster child for investment in renewable energy.
Solyndra was the first beneficiary of the federal loan program and, as a company with new technology and support from a group of venture-capital firms, it seemed to be an ideal candidate for visibility.
Thus when the company went bankrupt this past September, defaulting on a $528 million federal loan, Republicans seized the opportunity to make it the poster child for what they viewed as excessive Obama enthusiasm for alternative energy.
"The loan guarantee program from which Solyndra received money has a number of other companies in the program, the vast majority of which are involved with project financing of large, utility-scale facilities with 20 to 25 year power purchase agreements," Preston said.
In fact. the U.S. Department of Energy web site indicates the federal agency has made $35 billion in loans and created almost 65,000 jobs as a result.
"If you want to talk about wasted money, let's look at the billions and billions of dollars spent on defense technology which completely fails," she added.
Preston, while a partner in a major Seattle law firm, helped guide the launch of the nation's first women's angel group, Seraph Capital, in Seattle in the late '90s. And in a six-year stint as Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the entrepreneur-focused Kauffman Foundation, she became a widely recognized expert on angel financing, including authoring numerous articles, white papers and books on the topic.
It was that angel-financing expertise that resulted in her invitation in 2008 to guide the launch of the CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund, for which she proceeded to raise $11 million to invest in early-stage clean-energy companies. The angel fund was launched by the California Clean Energy Fund, a non-profit that hired Preston to create the angel fund and then became a limited partner in the for-profit CalCEF.
Preston is confident the political flap won't have a negative impact on either the CalCEF angel fund, or in a new fund she expects to begin raising money for early next year.
At this point there has been no official announcement on plans for the second fund, which she says will be "much bigger" than the current fund's $11 million, adding that while "we have not come to complete agreement on the name, it will likely be CalCEF Clean Energy Ventures."
Despite the financial challenges that have prevailed almost since CalCEF was launched, it has produced a positive return on investment with its four fundings, which averaged about $750,000, Preston said.
Although Preston emphasizes that there are no geographic restrictions on investments by the CalCEF angel fund, "on a practical basis, and because of the strong prevalence of clean energy companies in the Bay Area, we have not made an investment outside this area."
But she notes that she and her partners "have been to several other places in California, and elsewhere in the country, to explore possible candidates for investmernt."
"Clean energy has seen a bounce back in the last 18 months and at a greater rate than some other technology sectors," Preston said, adding that "within clean energy, certain areas are performing better than others when you look at global indexes. For instance, wind is down, but smart grid related technologies are performing reasonably well."
Asked what kind of energy startups are likely to generate the most interest over the next couple of years, Preston responded: "Energy efficiency, smart grid and storage are my bets."
"Grid storage will be an interesting area to watch because the problem with wind power is that the wind blows more at night while most of the needs are during the day," she said. "We are really in need of storage technology."
Preston is enthused that a proposal she put together about four years ago for an income tax credit for investors in start-up companies, an idea that drew bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress before the economic chaos shunted it aside, has seen a revival of interest in recent months.
The Access to Entrepreneurs Act (ACE) may move forward this coming year, she says, but it will have to be without her assistance because the first priority will be launching the new fund while continuing to oversee administration of the CalCEF fund.
"Our goal is to do well while we are doing good." Preston says. "Our first priority is to make money for our LPs, but because we invest in clean energy, we get to do good at the same time."
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