Spoiler alert: it doesn't mean much, at least by itself.
Back around 2008, a lot of VCs were bullish on clean energy technologies. There were a number of reasons for this, and we've discussed many of them here before, but clearly one of the reasons was that a comprehensive carbon policy really looked like it was about to be implemented at the federal level. Both major candidates had been vocally in support of pricing carbon, and federal legislators were lining up to take part in crafting the eventual legislation. The result, of course, was the hot mess and eventual failure that was KGL and cap-and-trade. But still, it served as an indication that -- despite many protestations to the contrary -- VCs were perfectly happy to follow policy shifts into new investment areas.
So with the Obama administration now implementing the Clean Power Plan announced earlier this week, does this mean we'll similarly see investors jumping back into the market? Or even if they're not actually going to do this, should they?
The answer on both counts is probably not.
Many people have written a lot already about how effective and/or bold this plan is, as a policy instrument and strategy, so I won't dwell on that here. Go read David Roberts or Brad Plumer or Coral Davenport or Mike Grunwald or Julia Pyper, among others. But from an investor's perspective, there are a few key takeaways.
1. It's complicated
Much of the plan will be implemented state by state, in different ways. This doesn't provide the simplicity that investors would like to see, in terms of a robust national market and/or price for carbon that would lift the nationwide market for clean alternatives. Yes, it's an amplification of the trend over the past decade for state-level policy to lead market growth for clean power, and that's generally a good thing, but entrepreneurs in this market will tell you that having to deal with the intricacies of 50 different markets isn't something that lends itself easily to growth. A lot of effort has to be expended just to figure out what's going on. Plans to expand into a certain state get changed suddenly because that state's particular regulations shift or their incentive pool runs out earlier than expected. There's a good impact in terms of being able to count upon some state level markets being attractive at any given time, so there's some security in the depth of the confusion. But yes, it's confusing. The Clean Power Plan is just going to add to that.
2. It's going to take a while to kick in
This is, from a policy perspective, a very good thing. When you're forcing change on a market with a lot of entrenched incumbents, a time delay provides the kind of flexibility that eventually yields significant cost savings.
However, many of the direct impacts of the Clean Power Plan won't be felt by entrepreneurs and their investors for years. There's power to the signaling, and that's a good thing. How that signaling will trickle down to actual signed contracts, revenue growth, profitability, cash flows, etc., is still really unclear.
3. It's vulnerable
This may be the only viable path for the Obama administration to make headway on this issue in its remaining two years. But there are a lot of court decisions yet to be made regarding it, and if the next president isn't supportive of the plan, it's relatively easy to unwind.
4. It's focused on implementation
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but by itself, this plan doesn't do that much to spur the longer-term development of new technologies. To meet goals, many of the states (especially those that choose to delay implementation and eventually scramble to meet requirements in a hurry) will focus on implementing existing technologies. Hey, I'm a fan of implementing what we have today. But I, and many other investors, are also interested in the next wave of technologies. Yes, there are other programs in place to help support those. And while, very indirectly, anything the CPP does to promote market growth of existing tech will also eventually support the commercialization of new tech, it's all very indirect within the context of this CPP.
So is the Clean Power Plan better than nothing? Sure. But by itself, is it sufficient to prompt investors to jump back into the pool? Unlikely. And purely as a policy instrument, will it achieve what we need to achieve to avoid climate catastrophe? Of course not.
Thus, I think the most important potential impact of this policy is that it could send a signal that we're moving toward stronger climate-change policy over time. But even if so, there are a couple of reasons to feel somewhat unexcited.
First, this CPP approach may be very pragmatic politically, but it's not paired with strong rhetoric around how future regulation will get stronger and simpler over time. If you want to signal that we will eventually have climate policy in place that will help save the planet for future generations, we need to start talking nonstop about what that policy will look like, even if it's politically infeasible today. Create a sense of inevitability if you want the power of the signal to matter.
And second, as mentioned above, it's not a strong signal unless the next elected president also fully embraces the plan. That's to be determined. I will just note to future President Trump: This Clean Power Plan is fabulous. It's very classy.