Ask Pictet Clean Energy Fund manager Philippe de Weck where he finds investment value in a world more concerned about the economic recession than reducing emissions and the short answer is in technology pioneers.
LEDs, or energy-efficient light-emitting diodes, shine in de Weck’s investment universe as they are “ultimately how we are going to light the world,” he said in an interview at Pictet & Cie’s headquarters in Geneva. “Cree is really at the cutting edge of the LED chip technology.”
Cree Inc., based in Durham, North Carolina, is the fund’s largest holding among LED developers and has more than doubled in the last 12 months as demand grows for lighting that saves on power bills while generating fewer greenhouse-gas emissions.
De Weck’s fund returned 32 percent in the year ended May 3, a “respectable” performance for a “volatile sector” that beat more than half his peers when adjusted for currency moves, Ben Guest, chief executive officer of the clean-tech investment manager Hazel Capital LLP in London, said in a phone interview.
By comparison, the benchmark WilderHill New Energy Global Innovation Index gained 6 percent in the same period, while the SAM Smart Energy Fund advanced 53 percent. De Weck’s performance was held back by Iberdrola Renovables SA, the biggest wind parks owner and his largest holding, which dropped 8.9 percent.
Most clean energy shares have suffered since the United Nations global warming talks stalled in Copenhagen in December and as President Barack Obama’s administration debates the shape of legislation aimed at cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
De Weck’s favored holdings for his Luxembourg-based mutual fund, which has about $750 million under management, include Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a Seal Beach, California-based operator of natural-gas fuel stations, and Westport Innovations Inc., a Vancouver developer of natural gas engine technology.
“You can really get bang for your buck in terms of cleaning up the energy supply by moving from coal to gas. Or oil to gas,” said de Weck, who is 36. Emissions can be cut in half combusting gas instead of coal and almost half as well for oil.
Two of the fund’s better-performing stocks, Westport Innovations and Clean Energy Fuels, “are acknowledging this trend,” he said. Westport shares have surged 58 percent in 2010 while Clean Energy Fuels has advanced 16 percent.
“These are companies that by growing their businesses they are contributing to a reduction in the emissions of CO2,” de Weck said.
The stocks de Weck and his team buy are considered best poised to gain from interest among governments and investors seeking growth from technology that limits greenhouse-gas emissions, including carbon capture and storage technologies. The European Union wants 20 percent of its energy to come from renewable sources such as solar and wind in 10 years.
Wind-park operator EDP Renovaveis SA, the renewable-energy unit of EDP-Energias de Portugal SA and one of the Pictet fund’s top holdings, said today that first-quarter profit fell 14 percent after financing costs more than doubled.
Half of the holdings in de Weck’s fund, which started in May 2007 and avoid oil, coal and nuclear power, are from North America with about 36 percent from Europe. He views the U.S. as a “swing factor,” with stimulus-related money not spent last year coming through in 2010 and 2011 for clean energy companies.
De Weck favors the U.S. smart-meter company Itron Inc., China High Speed Transmission Equipment Group and RusHydro.
“We have one investment in Russia, RusHydro, which for us it’s very cheap,” de Weck said. “On a megawatt basis, it’s probably the cheapest hydroelectric generator in the world, very attractively valued.”
With an investment theme that highlights clean energy, China “was nowhere when we launched this fund, zero. They’ve picked up tremendously,” he said. The Chinese last year installed more wind-farm capacity than in Europe or the U.S.
De Weck’s fund attracted about 10 percent in net new money in the first quarter, he said.
Also encouraging is the performance of stocks such as Cree, which says its TrueWhite technology uses 85 percent less energy than incandescent systems, he said. Cree benefits from demand for LEDs in TVs and computer backlit displays including Apple Inc.’s iPad.
LEDs also are gaining popularity among financially pressed municipalities for longer-lasting street signs and lights, de Weck said. “The commercial lighting people get that.”
‘Capture the Heat’
Ormat Technologies Inc. is a top holding. “What they do is very simple: They explore and identify sites for geothermal energy. Heat close to the ground. Drill holes, install the equipment. Capture the heat,” he said. Ormat creates “reliable renewable power.”
So why invest in clean energy over other sectors? “The drivers here are quite significant: You have long-term issues of energy supply, i.e., we don’t know how long our hydrocarbons last. They aren’t infinite, that’s one thing we know,” he said.
With the transition to a lower-carbon environment, de Weck said investing in “clean energy is an area which you can address this.”