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Brownout at energy firms

Those alternative energy companies, the ones developing fuel cells or solar power systems, look like they're running on empty.

That's not true in every case, but many of the publicly traded companies that enjoyed brief flings as hot stocks at the start of the decade are priced at pocket change today.

Evergreen Solar Inc. of Marlborough went public at $14 per share in 2000 but closed at $1.45 yesterday. Beacon Power Corp. of Woburn launched its own initial public offering at $6 per share late in 2000. Those shares were available for 31 cents yesterday.

SatCon Technology Corp. of Cambridge, probably the best-known local company working on alternative energy, is in the toughest shape of all due to declines in power system equipment and sponsored research. SatCon, which makes specialty motors and other equipment used to convert or store power, has seen its stock lose two-thirds of its value this year. Those shares closed yesterday at 42 cents, and the news gets even worse.

In the last week, SatCon has warned investors in regulatory filings that it is critically short of money as operating losses continue to burn through its remaining cash. SatCon reiterated a previous warning that its ability to continue as a going concern was in serious doubt.

The company raised $3 million with a private placement of stock in February and collected another $1.5 million selling shares of Beacon Power (which was spun out of SatCon when it went public) in June. "Despite these events, we need an immediate infusion of capital in order to continue operations," the company reported in a securities filing on Tuesday.

The problem common throughout the alternative energy business is money, of course. Most of those companies made modest progress, if any, ramping up business after they raised cash selling stock two or three years ago. Worse, real progress ahead would seem to be a long-term proposition.

"For this industry to get a kick start, you are going to need to see significant support and funding from the government," says analyst Sanjay Shrestha, who counts himself among the believers. He also thinks the alternative energy business would benefit from a period of consolidation.

Alternative energy investment stories have changed with the times. When money was easy in the go-go days, many companies pitched stories about smarter, cleaner ways to power a roaring economy. Today, you're more likely to hear a story about how energy independence and lots of small, decentralized power-generating resources are good ideas in a more security-conscious time.

The alternative energy stocks may indeed enjoy their day in the solar power. But even an optimist like Shrestha suggests that time might come at the end of the decade that started with such a flash of investor enthusiasm.

The Red Herring Jobs, jobs, jobs:

John Hancock Advisors has reinstalled two former managers of US Global Leaders Growth. Sort of. George Fraise and Gordon Marchand had managed the mutual fund, one of Hancock's most successful, as subadvisers when they worked for the investment firm Yeager, Wood & Marshall Inc. Fraise and Marchand recently quit Yeager, and Hancock then fired the firm as subadviser of the fund. Fraise and Marchand, who went into business for themselves, were hired by Hancock yesterday to again co-manage the mutual fund.

John A. Pliakas has been elected chief executive of Coburn & Meredith Inc. Pliakas joined the regional brokerage as a senior managing director in May 2002. Coburn & Meredith has offices in Boston and Hartford with independent brokers throughout New England.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.

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