Things are looking bright.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Clean Energy Beats the Market

Matthew A. Winkler is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the editor-in-chief emeritus of Bloomberg News.
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Environmentalists love energy companies that don't pollute. That should be obvious. Not so obvious: So do investors.

Stocks of clean-energy companies are proving to be better investments than those of companies that produce most of the Western Hemisphere's power, and are outperforming the rest of the stock market as well.

The evidence is found in the New York Stock Exchange Bloomberg Americas Clean Energy Index. Its 141 companies, all based in North and South America, returned 32.62 percent in the past two years. In contrast, the 40 conventional-energy companies in the Standard and Poor's 500 Energy Index returned 1.02 percent over the same period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Clean energy also is beating the rest of the stock market. The Clean Energy Index is up 6.02 percent so far this year. Lagging behind are both the S&P 500 and the Russell 3000 Index, which gained 3.12 percent and 3.86 percent respectively in 2015.

The clean-energy advantage is two years old, and it has been sneaking up for a decade. During the past 10 years, the stock index for conventional-energy companies returned a total of 82.71 percent. That was almost twice as much as the clean-energy index, which returned 41.86 percent.

The five-year comparison looks very different, however, with the gap shrinking to 12.53 percentage points; conventional energy returned 57.74 percent and clean energy 45.21 percent.

There are plenty of standouts within the Clean Energy Index. Alterra Power Corp., a Canadian supplier of electricity, owns and operates geothermal, hydroelectric and wind generating facilities in North and South America. The company produced a 28 percent total return during the past 12 months. Chile's AES Gener SA operates thermoelectric and hydroelectric plants while selling electricity in its home market of Chile and throughout Latin America and the U.S. AES delivered a 34 percent total return during the past 12 months. Canadian Solar Inc., which makes solar products, generated a 19 percent total return during the past year.

Conventional energy companies proved inferior investments during the same period. Consol Energy Inc., the Pennsylvania-based miner of coal, oil and natural gas, lost 51 percent in value during the past 12 months. Oklahoma's Chesapeake Energy Corp., a producer of oil and natural gas, lost 61 percent over the same period. For Chevron Corp., the California-based producer, refiner and supplier of crude oil, natural gas and chemicals, the figure was 22 percent. The oil-price collapse since last summer hurt some of these companies but can't account for a trend that's been developing for years.

The emergence of clean-energy companies as market leaders comes amid a persistent decline in the cost of producing renewable energy. Solar's cost per megawatt hour plummeted to $128 today from about almost $315 in 2009. The energy cost of wind per megawatt hour is $85.48, down from $96.09. 

The trend is the opposite for traditional energy. "The cost of traditional energy will continue to rise because the cheaper sources of oil and gas have mostly been tapped" and "prices for exploration, extraction and processing" deep sea and tar sands oil will remain relatively expensive, said Irena Asmundson, chief economist at the Department of Finance for California, which has the best performance of clean technology companies domiciled in the U.S. "Prices for producing clean technology are probably going to continue to fall. There's going to be greater demand for clean technology because of public policy and people's preferences. A lot of clean technology companies reached almost parity with traditional energy companies in terms of price and convenience. Everyone can see the writing on the wall, that climate change is happening. These clean technologies are going to be more valued in the future."

What's next? Expect the line between the conventional-energy and clean-energy businesses to disappear.

"Traditional energy and clean energy are converging," said Francesco Starace, the chief executive officer and general manager of Italy's biggest energy company, Enel, Spa, during an interview this month in his Rome office. "Over the long term, power generators will all need to have both. A power generator without a clean energy portfolio won't be possible."

(With assistance from Shin Pei)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Matthew Winkler at mwinkler@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Jonathan I Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net