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TheStreet Open House

Renewable Energy Is on the Salesman's Side

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- My favorite Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie is their 1957 comedy Desk Set, easily found in IMDb.

Tracy plays an early computer engineer, basically an IBM (IBM) salesman. Hepburn plays a TV network researcher who fears her department is about to be replaced by the new computer whose installation he's supervising. It's a major undertaking, and it's obvious Tracy's character is well-paid.

That's the way it was throughout the industry for its first 30 years. If you could convince someone to buy a computer you made a very good living. Margins were simply enormous.

The PC represented a tipping point. The PC sold itself. You didn't have to adapt to the PC, in time its abundance adapted to you. So today a computer thousands of times faster than the ones Tracy sold is cheap as chips, its margins wafer-thin.

Renewable energy today is where computers were right before the tipping point, the year I entered college. To make money, you want to be Spencer Tracy. You want to be selling solar or wind or biomass systems, not making them.

This is bad news for investors. You can't really make money. The main solar ETFs, Market Vectors Solar Energy (KWT) and the Claymore/MAC Global Solar Index (TAN), are down almost 80% over the last two years. First Solar (FSLR), which once sold for over $300 in 2008, is now down to under $30.

Wind is just as bad. If you bought the PowerShares Global Wind Energy Portfolio (PWND) ETF five years ago, you will feel pawned because you're down 77%. Vestas was an industry leader at over $23/share in 2009 -- it's now in the pink sheets at $1.69. Suppliers are doing just as badly.

Like biomass? KiOR (KIOR) just opened its first big plant, in Columbus, Miss., and has plans to build more. But the stock is at $6 a share, down from over $20 in 2011. Technology players such as Ceres (CERE)and Solazyme (SZYM) have done no better.

Companies including SolarCity, Sungevity, and SunRun, which sell and finance solar systems, are in the Tracy role right now. If you can convince someone to buy a renewable energy system, if you can find financing for that deal -- in short, if you can make that pay -- you're making money. But these companies are private, you're not going to get into them.

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