What's the Best Way to Invest in Renewable Energy?

What's the best play on renewable energy? Maybe a solar panel manufacturer? How about a wind turbine manufacturer? What about playing it safe with a utility and collecting a dividend? Choosing how to invest in renewables can be daunting. Of course, there are the usual suspects to consider, companies that may be frequently in the headlines, or companies that are pure-plays in a certain area.

But it would also be wise to consider some of the unusual suspects: companies that may less frequently appear in the headlines, companies that offer multiple ways to benefit from the success of the renewable energy market, or companies that benefit from the rapidly increasing incorporation of wind, solar, and natural gas into the grid.

Go big, or go home                                                                              
ABB Ltd. (NYSE: ABB  ) may not be the first name that comes to mind when considering renewables, but it certainly deserves a look. Providing power and automation technologies worldwide, ABB is a company which serves a prominent role in the development of solar and wind power projects. A story from last week illustrates this point well. ABB won an order to provide the infrastructure for a 76-turbine, 228 MW onshore wind farm that will be located in South Wales in the UK. It will provide the underground cables and construct two substations which will connect the wind-generated power to the grid. When operational, the facility will be one of the largest onshore wind farms in the country.

It's not just onshore wind that ABB is working with, though. Over the summer, the final phase of the Thornton Bank wind farm was completed. The 325 MW facility is one of the largest offshore wind farms in Europe. Located in the North Sea, the 54 wind turbines will contribute about 1,000 gigawatt-hours to the Belgian grid -- about the annual power consumption of 300,000 Belgian households. ABB provided the electrical connections: high-voltage submarine and underground cable systems, offshore substation and onshore grid connection, among other things.

Thornton Bank offshore wind farm. Source: ABB Ltd.

The company does not just operate in the wind space. Another recent story illustrates its value to the solar industry. In the Great White North, Canadian Solar (NASDAQ: CSIQ  ) selected ABB to assist in bringing, what will be Canada's largest solar photovoltaic, or PV, power plant online by 2015. The 100 MW facility will be located in Ontario and is expected to provide power for about 14,000 homes. According to Canadian Solar's press release, "ABB will provide a balance of system solution comprising of a broad range of power and automation products.

In addition, ABB is also responsible for engineering, electrical installation, commissioning, and performance testing of the plant." The order, booked in the third quarter, is valued at around $80 million. Canadian Solar is one of the global leaders in production of PVs. It is guiding for between 1,750 MW-1,770 MW of shipments for 2013. In the pipeline, Canadian Solar has 499 MW in Canada, 198 MW in the U.S., and 278 MW in Japan. Needless to say, a successful partnership in Ontario could lead to further collaboration between the two companies, greatly benefiting ABB.   

Powering up the portfolio of products                                                    
ABB is not only looking to succeed in the utility-scale market but the residential market as well. It made great inroads toward this goal when it acquired Power-One, a leading manufacturer of power inverters. The deal, valued at over $1 billion, further illustrates ABB's commitment to establishing itself as a market leader in the power and automation industry. Power-One's portfolio of products includes solar power inverters for residential, commercial, and utility-scale usage. Arguably, one of the most lucrative aspects of the acquisition lies in the fact that SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) uses Power-One's inverters in the installation of its systems. The megawatts deployed and expected to be deployed are the numbers to watch from SolarCity -- all of those megawatts don't mean anything unless the power can be used by the customer, and that doesn't happen unless there's an inverter to make it happen. Nonetheless, SolarCity's previous and estimated deployed megawatts are impressive.

Source: SolarCity Q3 2013 earnings presentation

What are the threats?                                                                                 
Two companies that represent threats to ABB are GE (NYSE: GE  ) and Siemens AG (NASDAQOTH: SIEGY  ) . Although both of these companies operate in the renewable energy space, they also operate in many other industries. So, for someone whose investing thesis rests mostly on the growing adoption of renewable energy, ABB offers a better argument than GE and Siemens.

Take solar for example. It's clear that ABB is well-positioned to profit from the growth of the solar industry. On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to disaggregate Siemens' earnings to identify just how vested it is in the solar industry. As for GE, solar is not very bright on the company's radar. In fact, GE sold all of its intellectual property regarding cadmium telluride technology to First Solar back in August for 1.75 million shares of First Solar's common stock.

Wind is a different story. Both GE and Siemens are global leaders in the manufacturing of wind turbines. This poses little (if any) threat to ABB, which does not do this. Furthermore, in its wind power segment Siemens' saw a decrease in orders for the fourth quarter, about 34% year over year. GE also had some disappointment with its wind offerings: a total of 407 wind turbines were shipped for the quarter -- 40% lower than the same period last year. Again, GE puts its success in the wind market in the context of turbine sales -- not a relevant issue for ABB.

Foolish final words . . .                                                                                 
It's no 3D printing, but renewable energy stocks are pretty hot right now, namely PV manufacturers. Are they still a worthwhile investment, or have they become grossly overvalued? Investors will have to dig deeper to answer that question for themselves. In the meantime, though, it's worthwhile to consider ABB. It has been sitting at the top of my watchlist for some time now, and I believe that it can be a big, long-term winner in the space. Sitting around and collecting a nice 2.8% dividend while the story plays out doesn't hurt either. 

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