The cleantech asset firesale: Whose fault is it?

There’s been an unsurprising amount of anger and political games from Republicans over the recent announcement that Wanxiang Group would invest $465 million in ailing American battery maker A123 Systems, effectively taking control of the company. Probably the most succinct political statement came from the Romney campaign to The Wall Street Journal when a spokesman said, “It is unfortunate Obama borrowed from the Chinese to give taxpayer money to prop up green energy companies that the Chinese are now buying.”

A123 Systems received a $249 million grant from the DOE and is in line to receive another $100 million in tax credits from the state of Michigan where it has a production plant. The fact that the sum of American taxpayers’s R&D investment will end up in the hands of an aggressive Chinese conglomerate does not sit well with many people.

But these types of deals shouldn’t surprise anyone, and we can expect more of them. China has always been more gung ho on cleantech and renewable energy than America due to its sincere desire to end its dependence on foreign energy imports. China has put up $216 billion in subsidies for cleantech over the past few years and even in the past quarter, Chinese cleantech investment surged 92 percent to $18.3 billion.

The China Development Bank provides extensive credit lines to solar companies, in particular, to keep the companies going through difficult times. There just isn’t the similar commitment to cleantech in the U.S. compared to say the American automotive industry whose bailout cost taxpayers at least $25 billion.

So with financing tight in the U.S. for new energy players, A123 Systems had no choice but to look for its savior in a place that does support cleantech. And while no one wants to admit it, A123 was fortunate to have found a lifeline as without it, the company was headed for bankruptcy and layoffs at its U.S. plants.

The other reason these deals make perfect sense is that Asian companies have tremendous experience with taking a technology and scaling it with inexpensive labor and a highly flexible factory systems. Seoul based Hanwa is looking to make a play for German solar cell and module maker Q-Cells. In 2008, Q-Cells was the largest solar cell maker in the world, and the company has invested year to year in improving its cell efficiency as well as supporting next generation CIGS technology. It’s currently insolvent.

There’s a real opportunity for a company like Hanwa to scoop up the assets and position itself in the solar PV market. Leading Chinese solar panel maker LDK acquired German based Sunways a few months ago with a play to get better access to the German market.

So I’d say we’re at the beginning of this consolidation trend and the real unfortunate news is just that there aren’t enough Asian buyers to meet the amount of European and American cleantech companies that are failing (still waiting for Solyndra’s buyer, now aren’t we).

And this isn’t healthy consolidation. Healthy consolidation occurs when a larger company purchases a smaller company to increase efficiencies of scale. What’s going on here is that physical and intellectual assets are being bought cheaply, wiping out investments and devaluing those assets themselves.

When thinking about cleantech investment and solar in particular, the real question in my mind has to do with how long we’ll wait before the market has thinned out, manufacturing power is left in the hands of a few players, and prices start to stabilize. And then will there be enough organic global demand to support batteries and solar panels which are still not cost competitive with their fossil fuel foes.

Everyone believes we’ll hit that point where they are cost competitive, but for the time being it’s mostly Asian companies and Asian governments that want to take the risk and invest the capital to position themselves for that future energy economy. Can we blame them for that?

Question of the week

How much more acquisition movement will we see from Asian players in cleantech?