According to a recent report from the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps program, the solar and wind industries are creating jobs 12 times as fast as the rest of the U.S. economy -- which makes for a pretty significant number.
In this week's episode of Industry Focus: Energy, Motley Fool energy analysts Sean O'Reilly and Taylor Muckerman look at where and how renewable energy is being used and expanded in the U.S. and overseas. Also, they talk about how well the industry is positioned in the near and long terms, as well as few ways investors can get involved in the space without taking on too much risk, and more.
A full transcript follows the video.
This podcast was recorded on Feb. 2, 2017.
Sean O'Reilly: Welcome to Industry Focus, the podcast that dives into a different sector of the stock market every day. Today is Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, so we're talking about energy, materials, and industrials. I'm your host, Sean O'Reilly, and joining me today in studio is the man with the plan, Mr. Taylor Muckerman. What's up, sir?
Taylor Muckerman: Going accordingly.
O'Reilly: Going accordingly? Most well?
Muckerman: So far. Don't mess it up.
O'Reilly: Is your day adequate?
Muckerman: Yeah. I had to get in here a little earlier than I planned this morning.
O'Reilly: Really? How was the train?
Muckerman: Busier than normal. Rush hour.
O'Reilly: Do you have an open coming up? What's up?
Muckerman: No, just, all-team meeting for the international side. We got folks in Australia and the U.K. that we have to consider in the time frames, also Singapore. So you can't do it at noon.
O'Reilly: Oh, man. Do you Skype them in?
Muckerman: Yeah. If Skype works.
O'Reilly: That's the eternal question.
Muckerman: We go through the rotation of Skype, Slack, Google Hangouts -- they all fry on different days.
O'Reilly: Can you believe that Microsoft paid $8 billion for Skype? Think about that.
Muckerman: I cannot. They could have paid me $8 billion and I'd done the same thing.
O'Reilly: Eight followed by nine zeros, and it's not the best program.
Muckerman: It's not.
O'Reilly: Anyway. Should we talk about energy and stuff, or ... ?
Muckerman: That's what you had planned, right?
O'Reilly: Yeah, well, you're the man with the plan. So, Mr. Muckerman, according to a new report from the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps Program --
Muckerman: Say that one more time?
O'Reilly: Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps Programs. Say that five times fast.
Muckerman: No, that's all you.
O'Reilly: Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps Program. Environmental Defense Fund's Climate --
Muckerman: All right, what did they have to say?
O'Reilly: It was actually kind of cool. The solar and wind industries are apparently creating jobs at a rate of 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy. That's actually kind of significant. It's not even off a small base. This is millions of jobs.
Muckerman: Yeah. It's up to, roughly, about 4.5 million jobs in the U.S., from 3.5 [million] in 2011.
O'Reilly: Yeah. And we have a population of 320 million, about a little over 100 million in the workforce this year. This is not small potatoes anymore.
Muckerman: Yeah, and if it continues growing near the 20% that it has been in recent years, we're going to see some very meaningful growth. These numbers are going to continue to grow.
O'Reilly: I have to learn how to install solar panels.
Muckerman: Something like that.
O'Reilly: But for this reason, this growth that we're seeing, I naturally started to wonder where, this renewable-energy project, where is this usage common? You hear stories about how Las Vegas is all renewable now, Hawaii, you go to Hawaii and apparently solar is everywhere. So I started to wonder, where is this more common than not? Because here in Virginia, we have a lot of natural gas-fired plants; I'm from Ohio, I'm sure there's a coal fire plant there somewhere still --
Muckerman: Not a new one. Only about 0.17% of all new electric generating capacity last year came from coal.
O'Reilly: Is that, like, a guy burning coal in his shed out back?
Muckerman: I think that's what that amounts to. 0.17%. Yeah. Only 45 megawatts.
O'Reilly: Wow. Anyway. We dove in and looked around the world and saw where it was pretty common, and we found a few surprises, and a few other places that we're not so surprising. What do you think -- should we start with the U.S. and then the world, or vice versa?
Muckerman: America first!
O'Reilly: America first, all right, perfect. Let's break it down. What's going on in America?
Muckerman: You're seeing it crop up everywhere -- that's renewable, not just solar. When you look at all new energy capacity added last year in 2016, we're looking at about 26 gigawatts were added, and 61.5% came from biomass, waste, heat, solar, wind, or hydro. Nearly two-thirds. Another third came from natural gas, which, on the fossil-fuel side, is the cleanest of the three, meaning oil, coal, or natural gas. So, arguably, what was that, 94.5% is generally clean, almost two-thirds is renewable. That's a pretty big move.
O'Reilly: I have to ask, because a lot of companies are starting to invest in this. You have the yieldcos, like 8point3 Energy Partners; you have SunEdison [yieldcos TerraForm Power and TerraForm Global].
Muckerman: MidAmerican Energy has one of the largest wind projects in Iowa, generating 301 megawatts.
Muckerman: Name drop.
O'Reilly: I had to.
Muckerman: It's fine. He's in it. They're in it.
O'Reilly: Did you see that special, by the way?
Muckerman: I did not, but it has been talked about here at The Fool. What was it, PBS? HBO?
O'Reilly: It was HBO. It's mostly about his personal life.
Muckerman: OK. Just a lot of Diet Coke or actual Coke?
O'Reilly: And breakfast at McDonald's every day.
Muckerman: Perfect. Living to be 100.
O'Reilly: We are not being compensated by HBO at all, to our listeners. We're talking about HBO's Becoming Warren Buffett, it aired on the 30th.
Muckerman: Oh, you didn't get a free subscription?
O'Reilly: No. I'm going to watch it this weekend. Actually, I probably will sign up for the free trial. Anyway, bottom line, I actually knew this stuff had a future when Buffett started investing in windmills. I was like, "Oh, this is actually economical," because he does not do things that are not going to make him money. We saw that one statistic about Alaska. What's up with those guys?
Muckerman: When you think Alaska, you think oil, generally. They have a lot of it; they're producing a lot of it. And kodiaks, and stuff like that. But this is a state that, they basically give a paycheck to all their citizens from all the oil revenues that they make on an annual basis. And what they're seeing is, solar and wind is actually cheaper in a lot of places than oil and diesel, because you're looking at some places, the more remote areas of Alaska, they needed to use diesel, of all things, to generate electricity. We're looking at upwards of $0.60 per kilowatt-hour. Meanwhile, you're looking at some people that are generating energy from hydro and wind in the city of Kodiak, and you're looking at about $0.11 per hour. So a sixth of what they're paying on the diesel side. And that seems to be a theme. Texas, one of the fastest-growing renewable energy-generating states in the country, traditionally all oil and natural gas when you think about it. Right on par with California, which produces its own share of natural gas, but not nearly what Texas is doing. So Alaska, Texas, seeing that renewable energy is finally at parity or below parity with fossil fuel electricity generation.
O'Reilly: So, what am I to take away from this? Are people just invested in this because they're like, "Oh, we need more electricity, so we're just going to invest in this because of regulations"? Or is this actually being done in the places where it's economical, and that's it? How are businesses making decisions here?
Muckerman: Well, it's becoming economical in more places every day. Even if you think, Donald Trump appointed all these folks that are closely tied to the fossil-fuel industry, but on his list of infrastructure projects, he has a lot on there that supports the renewable-energy industry --
O'Reilly: You're kidding, what?
Muckerman: Projects like, a lot of transmission lines so that you can build the infrastructure for these companies, so that they can actually get the power from a wind plant. He has this Plains & Eastern electric transmission line project, which is trying to move wind energy from the western tip of Oklahoma 720 miles south to --
O'Reilly: That sounds like the Pickens Plan, remember that?
Muckerman: -- southeast to Memphis. And that's enough clean energy for 1 million homes in the Mid-South. So that's just one area. That's not actually building the wind turbines, but it's allowing that power to be efficiently distributed to places. Obviously, if you think about Memphis' population compared to the plains of Western Oklahoma, it's a little bit more densely populated. So right now, those wind turbines probably aren't being used to the efficiency and the efficacy that they should be. But then, you have hydroelectric plants planned, more transmission lines, wind power, energy storage and grid modernization targeting minimizing the magnitude of potential blackouts in California by increasing storage for renewable energy. All told, it says that the projects could add about 9 gigawatts of clean power if they are all finalized and put into place. So that's roughly about a third of all the energy capacity that we have added in the last year, just in a few of these projects that Trump has laid out in his initial infrastructure plan.
O'Reilly: Correct me if I'm wrong, but as I just mentioned, that sounds a lot like the Pickens Plan. Do you remember that, in 2008, T. Boone Pickens was like, "You have this energy corridor from The Dakotas down to Oklahoma, you have all this wind, you need to get it to the coast," and he wanted to build these huge transmission lines? And one of the problems is they need to be enormous, because if you're sending electricity over long distances, you lose some of it. It's actually very difficult. That's kind of exciting.
Muckerman: Yeah. A lot of these projects are being built by private companies, so it's very fragmented, almost on a state-by-state basis. If you go to the SEIA website, the Solar Energy Industries Association, they put out a report from September 2016 that basically lists every project that's online, being constructed, or in development in the entire United States. The list is 30-40 pages long, because there are just so many small companies that are out there building one plant, two plants. Maybe eventually they will get bought up, or maybe some of those are part of a bigger holding corp. But it's very widely distributed. It's not all public companies that are doing this. Generally, if you think about the suppliers of these wind turbines and solar panels, those are --
O'Reilly: Like a General Electric or something.
Muckerman: Yeah, those are coming from publicly traded companies like a General Electric, like a Siemens. Then on the solar-panel side you have First Solar and SunPower, and then SolarCity on the residential side. They're actually providing the solar panels and doing some installation. But a lot of the folks that are building these and operating them are private companies, for now.
O'Reilly: Awesome. So, Mr. Muckerman, it sounds like in the United States, solar is becoming common.
Muckerman: Adding jobs, adding clean energy, being supported by states that you might not think would support clean energy, and even Donald Trump is supporting it.
O'Reilly: And it's because of economics.
Muckerman: Yes. Flat-out.
O'Reilly: So, solar is going in where there is sun; wind is going where there's wind. It's cost effective.
Muckerman: Yeah. I'm pretty sure they even just approved the largest offshore wind farm in U.S. history off Long Island. So, there's that.
O'Reilly: For New York City, yeah.
Muckerman: Yeah. If you look at the Northeast, they're pretty underserved. At least, natural gas energy hits New York and doesn't make it past New York. So the New England area is definitely hurting for natural gas and renewable energy.
O'Reilly: It was a big learning experience for me when I saw both how needed and difficult it is to get natural gas lines up there in the Northeast. It's like a web, and there's not enough. It's kind of crazy.
Muckerman: They're trying to build them, but not quickly.
O'Reilly: It's densely populated; it's actually kind of difficult. Really quick, before we talk about some more specifics, like in a continent like Africa with the sunlight it gets and everything and how, with solar, you can put up a solar panel and power something, it's decentralized. That will obviously see some growth, and we'll discuss that in a minute. But I wanted to quickly go down a list. This is enormous. There's a group called The Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century. They, every year, put out a report on the global status report of renewable energy. You can go to ren21.net and check it out. They do this every June, so we have last June's report, and it mostly covers 2015. But anecdotally, this sort of thing doesn't get changed a lot. This thing is pages and pages long! All right, let's do a quiz. Where do you think --
Muckerman: Oh, I have the list right in front of me.
O'Reilly: Oh, you do?
Muckerman: Yeah. I can't cheat on air.
O'Reilly: Shut your computer!
Muckerman: I've seen it; it's too late.
O'Reilly: All right, fine.
Muckerman: We can quiz our listeners. Give them five seconds to guess.
O'Reilly: All right, our listeners can check this out. Google "2016 report."
Muckerman: Sorry. I ruined it. You sent it to me.
O'Reilly: I'm not going to forget this. No, I did. What stuck out to you there? You have China beating us for investment in renewable fuels --
Muckerman: And total capacity or generation as of the end of 2015 for all renewable power. That's only set to accelerate, I think, you're looking at China expected to, according to Reuters, plow $361 billion into renewable-energy power generation by 2020 -- $361 billion. That will create 13 million jobs, they estimate. And that's just over a five-year period from 2016 to 2020.
O'Reilly: The per-capita numbers were hilarious to me. Investment in renewable power and fuel per unit of GDP, No. 1 was Mauritania, then Honduras, Uruguay, Morocco, and Jamaica. Renewable power capacity per capita, No. 1 is of course Denmark, Germany, Sweden. But, dollar for dollar, it's pretty much us, China, Germany, a little Japan and the U.K. in there.
Muckerman: Yeah, Japan is No. 3 in terms of investment in 2015. Then the U.K., and then India.
O'Reilly: Which is not surprising, because they had the nuclear problem, they have no natural resources, they don't have oil, so it's like, what are we going to do here?
Muckerman: Makes total sense, and they're surrounded by ocean.
O'Reilly: A little tricky there. I was surprised by how big biomass energy is. Is that the landfills, and it has methane burning it --
Muckerman: Yeah, the waste, heat, things like that.
O'Reilly: I was surprised by how big that was.
Muckerman: Yeah, not too shabby. A decent amount. If you think about how much we actually do waste, it's smart to use it.
O'Reilly: Yeah. It's physics. This is just energy; it's like wind. These things happen.
Muckerman: Energy can never be created or destroyed.
O'Reilly: Oh, man. That's very Zen of you.
Muckerman: Isn't that something that they say in physics?
O'Reilly: Yeah. All right, let's dive in here to a few unique interesting situations. Saudi Arabia. They obviously have a ton of sunlight, but ...
Muckerman: What are they well known for, besides sunlight?
O'Reilly: Oh, I don't know, maybe they're known for going out into the desert and sticking a straw in the sand and getting oil.
Muckerman: And they are expected to dump between $30 [billion] and $50 billion into major renewable energy by 2023. So not nearly on the same level as China, but still.
O'Reilly: Well, what was the Saudi Aramco, the oil company that might be IPO-ing in a year or two, they're talking about dabbling in it a little bit, I saw this morning.
Muckerman: Maybe $5 billion in renewable-energy deals, yeah. They've asked HSBC, [JPMorgan Chase], and Credit Suisse to go out there and try to find some companies that they might be able to buy with $5 billion of cash lying around.
O'Reilly: What do you think Saudi Arabia is thinking? I see a couple possibilities, or maybe it's all of them. Is this, we need to shift away from oil because someday we're not going to be able to use it?
Muckerman: Yeah, I think the last couple years was a gut check for them, because oil provides a pretty decent amount of subsidies for the social programs they have. So they've been losing out on a lot of that revenue. So they're trying to at least internally reduce their demand on oil.
O'Reilly: So they can sell more oil?
Muckerman: Yeah, I think that probably has something to do with it. Also, they powered their country with oil.
O'Reilly: I was about to say, they are one of the few countries that burns oil for their electricity grid.
Muckerman: Yeah. So if they can make electricity cheaper, then why not? They're looking to grow up to about 30% of their power from low-carbon sources by 2030. Right now, they have about 10 gigawatts of power from wind, solar, and nuclear.
O'Reilly: Sweet. I have to think they're trying to play catch-up with the UAE [United Arab Emirates], too. They've been doing a lot with solar.
Muckerman: I mean, they're right there' it's the desert; they have plenty of sun right along the equator.
O'Reilly: Yeah, exactly. What else stuck out to you as you looked around the globe? As I mentioned, I'm optimistic about Africa because installing the transmission lines for traditional centralized power like we have, like a natural gas-burning power plant or something, it's a little bit of a hassle.
Muckerman: Well, if you think about it in terms of what they have done with telephones, for example. They've pretty much skipped land lines and went right to cellphones. So if you think about it, it's a similar situation. You have a cell-phone tower rather than telephone lines crisscrossing the country. You can liken a cellphone tower to a solar grid, because they can be placed sporadically around the country and distributed in the regions where they're needed. So I think that's probably what's going to happen. It's just going to skip traditional power generation and go straight to renewable, more regional distribution, as needed.
O'Reilly: It almost seems like renewables are the best thing that ever happened for developing nations. I mean, that's pretty darn useful.
Muckerman: Now that it's cost-effective, yeah. Beforehand, they were just kind of waiting on it. Companies want to invest. Foreign direct investment is a big thing in this world. I don't know if it's going to be African companies that are building these solar and wind and hydroelectric power plants, but somebody is going to do it because there's money to be made.
O'Reilly: Right. So I'm an investor, you're an investor, we're all Fools, we're all investors. How do you get in on this? What do you see as the reasonable way to make money off these trends?
Muckerman: For me, personally, I would probably look at the bigger providers of the equipment. Like we mentioned, a few, GE kind of hedges your bets a little bit, because they're involved in oil and gas, and also, they have exposure to renewable-energy sources. So I think that kind of hedges your bets a little bit.
O'Reilly: The hardware is like, eh, what do you think about an advanced solar-panel manufacturer, like a Canadian Solar or something?
Muckerman: They have had their troubles.
O'Reilly: If you can't see him, he's wincing right now.
Muckerman: That's just because these companies have gone in waves. One company makes an advancement, and everyone jumps on their bandwagon, and then somebody else's solar-panel cells become more efficient, so everybody jumps ship and starts using them.
O'Reilly: It's like computers.
Muckerman: Yeah. So that's why I would say big holding company like GE or Siemens to get access to wind power. Then, companies that are effectively adding solar power at utility scale. I think that's really where you're going to make your money. So MidAmerican might be a good choice, or SunPower, which is a more global company. You see SunPower installing solar panels, and First Solar, too, all over the world. SunPower is fortunate enough to have the backing of Total, which is a forward-thinking oil and gas company.
O'Reilly: Right. What do they own, 30% of that thing?
Muckerman: It might be more, it's at least 30%. They may have upped their stake in the past couple years. I'm not 100% sure. [Editor's note: As of SunPower's Nov. 10, 2016, 10-Q, Total S.A. owns 57% of SunPower.]
O'Reilly: That wouldn't surprise me.
Muckerman: Then there's another company that's hedging its bets between traditional fossil fuels and renewable energy -- Total, a French company. There's just a few to point out. Bu, like I said earlier, a lot of these companies are private. You have to do some digging, but maybe you could hold a portfolio of a few of these companies, little bits and pieces of each, rather than betting your entire portfolio of renewable energy on one or two companies. You can, maybe, buy a basket of them.
O'Reilly: Awesome. Yeah, the bottom line, it sounds like, is that this trend is happening. It is becoming increasingly common in more and more places.
Muckerman: Yeah, it sure is. You think about Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) and SolarCity being combined with some help from Panasonic and that lithium-battery factory. If energy storage does happen, which, I think it would have to from renewable-energy sources, the Tesla Gigafactory out there in California is looking to build more batteries than the entire capacity to build batteries worldwide is right now. So they're expecting the need to be there.
Muckerman: If you don't have renewable-energy generation, you don't need those batteries. So they'd better pray that the trend continues, which I expect it to.
O'Reilly: Awesome. All right. Thanks for your thoughts, Mr. Muckerman.
Muckerman: Well, what are you looking at? Let's get some thoughts from you really quick before we head out. You mentioned one company? 8point3?
O'Reilly: Yeah. We're short on time. Thank you for the shout-out, though. I'm kind of conservative with this sort of thing. One, I'm not a tech person. I don't know which solar panel is the best, that sort of thing. But I like the monopolistic characteristics, the cash generation characteristics of those yieldcos that get spun out, and they just build huge solar projects. They send the electricity into the grid. That's it. 8point3 Energy Partners has a 7% yield, it's kind of guaranteed. I mean, it's meat and potatoes.
Muckerman: Unless the sun starts charging for its rays, then these companies are sitting kind of pretty in the long run.
O'Reilly: Right. Cool. All right. That is it for us, folks. Special thanks for our producer, Austin Morgan. Thanks for laughing at all of our bad jokes, Austin! Be sure to tune in tomorrow for the Technology show with Dylan Lewis. If you're a loyal listener and have questions or comments, we would love to hear from you. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, people on this program may have interests in the stocks that they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against those stocks, so don't buy or sell anything based solely on what you hear on this program. For Taylor Muckerman, I am Sean O'Reilly. Thanks for listening, and Fool on!