Crunch time for alternative-energy startups

OTTAWA, CANADA - Canada's nascent clean-tech sector has joined the growing list of battered industries looking for emergency government support.

With debt and equity financing increasingly tough to find, and oil prices hitting four-year lows, many companies that offer alternative energy and efficient technologies are facing a life-and-death struggle, says Vicky Sharpe, chief executive officer of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC).

"The clean-tech sector, like all the others, is facing issues over the availability of new capital," Ms. Sharpe said.

While North American venture funds are still offering early-stage and second-round investing, startup companies that need to raise capital from debt and equity markets for commercial-scale projects are running into road blocks.

"There is huge momentum in the groups of companies that SDTC has supported and (government) needs to make sure that there's investment to take these companies through to market," she said. "It would be a shame to leave them hanging there — which means some of them may not survive the wait until the price of energy goes back up."

The federal government is facing a growing clamour for support from industries mauled by the economic and financial downturn, including the auto sector, aerospace and forestry companies.

SDTC is set to announce its 13th round of financing for clean-tech startups, most of whom have energy-saving and renewable-energy technology. The fund also supports companies that have clean-air and clean-water technologies.

To date, it has allocated $342-million for 144 clean-tech projects, leveraging another $800-million in investment from the private sector or provincial funds.

But the financing only supports pre-commercial development, and Ms. Sharpe is urging the government to provide additional funding and a revamped mandate to allow SDTC to assist companies that face commercial-stage expansions but are having trouble accessing capital.

The agency already has such an expanded mandate for ethanol and other biofuels.

The Harper government allocated $500-million to the agency to support the commercial development of next-generation biofuels — ethanol and biodiesel made from agricultural, forestry and other waste streams. SDTC is now reviewing several applications for support from that fund.

Despite the pressures on it from sagging oil and gas prices, and the capital market meltdown, Ms. Sharpe insisted critics are misguided when they proclaim the death of the clean-tech sector.

Governments around the world, including the American and Canadian administrations, are embracing greenhouse gas emission targets and energy security mandates that will ensure a market for technologies that offer energy efficiency, as well as renewables like solar and wind.

And while some critics suggest the clean-tech sector is too dependent on subsidies to be viable, its supporters contend those subsidies merely reflect governments' efforts to create markets for technologies that reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, in the absence of carbon taxes or other more punitive abatement measures.

Ms. Sharpe acknowledged, however, some companies — notably in the solar sector - may have been overvalued, even relative to market conditions that existed before the most recent tailspin.

She said companies that are sensitive to oil prices — especially ethanol producers and those that provide fuel-saving technologies — are being squeezed now, but should eventually see prices recover. And the higher prices will restore the economic appeal of alternative fuels and technologies aimed at improving energy efficiency.


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