Investors say state must find new approaches to compete for dollars

Two investors speaking at a forum on green jobs Wednesday said that a wholesale change in approach will be required for tiny Connecticut to attract some of the billions of investors’ dollars available for clean energy projects.

Kevin Walsh, managing director of renewable energy for the Stamford-based GE Energy Financial Services, and Old Lyme-based Liddy Karter, executive director of the Connecticut Venture Group, both said that successful projects must be large enough to make money for decades. Walsh said that right now most of the venture capital available through firms based in Connecticut is being invested out of state. Those projects are huge, relative to anything proposed here so far.

Karter suggested that cities, towns, and the state government could pool orders on efficient items like fuel cells, something Connecticut companies like United Technologies and FuelCell Energy in Danbury already make, to create large projects out of several small ones.

“We’re leaders in fuel cells,” she said at the half-day forum sponsored by The Connecticut Mirror. “I’m working on a project right now with the small business administration to develop that technology. We’re really strong there.”

But in order to attract investors, a fuel cell project would have to guarantee that, for example, “we’re going to provide fuel cells for every school, every hospital, whatever, and backup power,” she said, “and we’re going to place that order that they have to pay for, because they’re going to pay for a generator.” Only such large orders and collaborations will make a difference.

She said that a similar kind of collaboration might capture waste methane at the state’s many sewage treatment plants. Anaerobic digesters can capture the gas and turn it into natural gas. She said that in order for an idea like this to become reality, the state would have to encourage cities and towns to pool orders and set up long-term contracts. Those would lower the risks low for investors.

The commissioner-designate for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Catherine Smith, joined the two investors in their panel. She said that her priorities would be to coordinate with companies that have a large base of operations here, to work with Yale University and the University of Connecticut to consider how to bring new jobs to the state in startups, and to make the state friendlier to business.

“We need a much more collaborative process,” Smith said. Investing in green jobs should be a long-term prospect, she added. “The state does not want to subscribe to a bubble philosophy. We want a more sustainable philosophy.”

In sketching the current investment landscape that is not friendly to small states, both Walsh and Karter drove home that a small state like Connecticut competes with big projects out west. Walsh said his company has invested $6 billion in renewable energy like wind, geothermal energy, and biomass, over the past five years, but almost none of it has been for Connecticut projects.

Three-quarters of those projects are for wind farms, which will provide a return on an investment for 20 to 30 years, Walsh said. Connecticut’s fast-moving wind is confined to two areas and the projects currently proposed are for a few turbines.

Walsh said that GE recently invested in a 32,000-acre wind farm in Oregon that would provide 850 megawatts–about 10 times the entire wind potential of all of Connecticut.

Karter said that last year Connecticut received only 1 percent of the total invested in clean-tech projects in the United States in 2010.

“The average first-round venture capital investment in 2010 was $7 million. Most very small very innovative companies don’t need $7 million,” she said. “So they’re really getting funded today by ‘angels'” -a reference to individual investors who put up an average of $250,000 to $1 million.

Connecticut’s best prospect for the near future, she said, is investment in established technology companies that have a proven product.

“Little tiny companies are years in the making,” she said. “Where we need to focus is today — companies that are ready and commercialized. Companies that are ready to hire people.”

Walsh said that an important factor for green projects is “how easy or difficult it is to site a project.” Difficulty in permitting is not limited to small states like Connecticut. He said that in California, a leader in renewables, developers often spend millions of dollars before being turned down for permits.

Karter said that many energy projects cross her desk are considered high-risk because the developers have not secured necessary permits. The reason? That they take a long time to get and are very expensive, so they want to wait until they have funding. But investors want to wait until they can be sure the project is definite.

Later in the forum, the new commissioner of what is proposed to become the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Daniel C. Esty,  said he would make it a priority to make securing permits less onerous.