Mutual Funds

Green energy funds are testing investors’ patience

By Mark Jewell
Associated Press / February 6, 2011

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President Obama laid out an ambitious goal in his latest State of the Union address: By 2035, America will get 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources.

Achievable? Maybe, if you consider that Obama’s expansive definition of clean energy includes nuclear and emerging clean coal technologies, which many environmentalists don’t embrace as ways to combat greenhouse gases.

A less obvious question is whether mutual fund investors will have the patience to stick with green investing principles that have recently left them in the red.

The stocks of renewable energy companies, such as wind and solar power providers, have been big losers. The Clean Edge Global Wind Energy Index, which tracks wind energy stocks, is down about 27 percent over the last 12 months.

That disappointment came as oil company stocks and the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index both surged about 20 percent.

If his goal is to be realized, Obama and his successors will have to stick with the programs he embraced early in his presidency to support wind and solar power. The government may even have to raise its commitment, likely through new subsidies that could create further opportunities for green investors.

Either way, Obama’s speech offered comfort to investors left wondering how long to stick with it.

“The sector is not much loved at the moment,’’ concedes Edward Guinness, co-manager of the Guinness Atkinson Alternative Energy Fund.

With a nearly 22 percent loss in 2010, the fund finished last among 83 funds specializing in energy stocks, according to Morningstar. The $38 million portfolio was weighed down by solar and wind energy stocks, most of which fared poorly last year. One of its biggest holdings, SunPower Corp., fell 46 percent.

Meanwhile, another Guinness Atkinson fund, Global Energy, posted a nearly 17 percent return last year, thanks to gains for the oil and gas company stocks it holds. They benefited from an economic recovery in a world still hooked on fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, solar and wind energy stocks have recently hit several obstacles:

■Several European governments face huge deficits that could jeopardize their traditionally strong support for alternative energy subsidies. Spain and Italy have already reduced their backing, and wind and solar stocks have been hurt by fears that more such cuts are coming.

“That has been this huge ax sort of hanging over the alternative energy industry, keeping everyone cautious,’’ Guinness says.

■Recently low natural gas prices have reduced the incentive to convert to solar or wind.

■A recent rise in oil prices hasn’t yet been enough to translate to significantly higher costs for electricity generated from burning fossil fuels, Guinness says.

Still, investors in wind and solar energy stocks may benefit over the long haul, if they’ve stuck with it this far.

One such investor is Matt Moscardi. He and his wife have about 15 percent of their portfolio in exchange-traded funds holding stocks of clean energy and other environmentally conscious companies. Moscardi hasn’t seen big returns since he began investing in clean energy six years ago, but he’s confident it will pay off eventually.

“For me, it was like an opportunity to buy into IBM or Microsoft in the early 1980s, when nobody thought personal computing was going to be a big deal,’’ says Moscardi, a 32-year-old researcher with a Boston financial company.

Among institutional investors such as pension funds and foundations, recent losses on solar and wind energy stocks have led to a new recognition of how volatile these stocks can be, said Dan Bakal of Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit network of green investors and environmental groups. The declines “have made investors a little more careful.’’