NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In alternative energy, the weather vane was spinning wildly last week.

Pick your cliche, it probably all applied to wind energy.

It was the best of times and the worst of times; there was the ecstasy of victory, followed by the agony of defeat. Wind was blowing fiercely before it blew out to end the week.

On Tuesday of last week, JPMorgan Chase initiated coverage of U.S. pure-play wind company Broadwind Energy ( BWEN) with an overweight rating. A few weeks earlier, Raymond James had also taken a bullish turn on wind, providing the same buy rating on Broadwind. Disclosure note: both firms served as part of a securities syndicate in an early 2010 public stock offering by Broadwind .

What was even more notable about the JPMorgan overweight of wind was that it coincided with a thematic shift away from U.S. solar stocks. JPMorgan says institutional investors have been looking for alternatives to solar stocks in the alternative energy space -- and JPMorgan is not alone in expressing this sentiment on behalf of the big investors -- and it had decided on wind as the play for the next few years as the solar sector goes through growing pains related to a shift away from high state subsidies in some European nations.
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However, JPMorgan's overweight of Broadwind came out four days before the only pure-play wind energy company in the U.S. released its fourth quarter earnings. It is safe to say -- it is a downright understatement -- that the Broadwind earnings did not blow any investor away. On the other hand, investors who took the JPMorgan overweight as a sign to buy shares of Broadwind between Tuesday and Friday of last week may still be blowing steam out of their ears today.

Hopefully that hot air is not blowing in the direction of TheStreet. However, there is a bit of a mea culpa required on the part of this reporter. A Q&A featured on last week with the JPMorgan analyst, Christopher Blansett, made it clear that the JPMorgan analyst believed the wind sector might still bottom out in the first half of the year before recovering. Nevertheless, this point could have been highlighted more prominently, especially given the overweight rating on the stock being released only four days before a terrible earnings report from Broadwind.

How bad was the Broadwind earnings? Shares dropped 20% on Friday after an $82 million one-time charge due to weak demand from customers, and it led to an earnings per share loss well beyond the expected loss in the street forecast (albeit a forecast of 2 analysts). Broadwind management also indicated that a bottoming out in its business can be expected in the first half of the year before demand recovers to normal levels.

After the Broadwind share freefall on Friday, those solar investors among our audience may be preparing a big cream pie with icing spelling out the letters "I told you so" and hoping the winds will carry it to our face.

As noted, the downbeat Broadwind commentary dovetailed with the comments in TheStreet interview with the JPMorgan analyst, that the shares' trough point could still be possible at a future date. Still, a bigger mea culpa on the part of this reporter may be required in terms of framing the alternative energy debate in terms of wind versus solar in the first place. Of course, in the days of William Randolph Hearst, journalists would do just about anything to sell papers, and even today, we have way too much press and ink devoted to Tiger Woods and Lindsay Lohan.

Still, even if JPMorgan says the argument should be about wind versus solar, or TheStreet says it does, do investors need to agree?

Of course, maybe that's why we posed the question in the first place. And in JPMorgan's case, it is important to note that the only argument being made was that wind shares may be a better investment for the next 12 to 24 months. That's it. Beyond that, the JPMorgan analyst noted, where wind and solar will be five years from now is a pointless question on which to speculate.

In that case, we hope it was not pointless when we asked TheStreet readers-- well-known for their embrace of solar energy -- for their answer to this question: Has the time finally arrived for wind to blow by solar as an investment theme?

The results of the poll showed an exuberance for solar shares that is typical of our investing audience. We make no judgments, but it's a fact: the TheStreet crowd is a solar fan club (with apologies to CedricT).

Approximately 61% of poll respondents said that solar would continue to be a better investment opportunity than wind. This would certainly be an incontrovertible argument if the time frame was between last Friday and the second quarter of 2010, as Broadwind itself said a bottoming out in shares may still be ahead of it.

However, this could also mean that the best time to buy Broadwind shares is just ahead of us, and, in that case, might it make sense for investors who buy into alternative energy as a theme to buy into wind as well as solar?

In fact, when we asked in a similar poll in 2009 -- whether readers believed that wind or solar was the better investment -- a large group of poll respondents indicated that they thought the best bet was to split assets between solar and wind.

Curiously, this logical viewpoint was expressed to a significantly lesser degree in the more recent poll last week. Only 13% of poll respondents said that hedging bets between wind and solar was the smart alternative energy play.

Meanwhile, a mere 20% of poll respondents indicated that their answer to the alternative energy investment question was to invest in the wind-power sector, and companies like Broadwind.

Does the lack of apparent investor interest in playing both solar and wind show that solar bulls and solar detractors are becoming more entrenched in their respective camps?

If so, it may be a mistake. Big industrial conglomerates like General Electric ( GE) and Siemens ( SI) are investing in both wind and solar. Instead of getting into a game of alternative energy chicken, the smart investor should probably rise above it all and ask alternative energy devotees: "Can't we all just get along?"

At least when it comes to wind and solar, might it be wise to embrace both technologies? It is often the best road to enlightenment to take two extremes, and instead of picking one or the other, seek to marry them.

What's more, while there are plenty of sound reasons supporting the development of wind energy, solar experts have point-by-point counter-arguments for the viability of solar.

For example, one of the major bones of contention between wind and solar is pricing -- wind being much cheaper in many locations than solar. The biggest solar market of all, Germany, didn't become the biggest solar market because solar was cheaper than wind energy, for certain.

Still, even on this point about solar's high cost, solar backers say the argument in favor of wind misses the market, or is at least incomplete. Jesse Pichel, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, says that the solar sector will reach grid parity in two years time -- though this is a debatable point, as no solar company has come forward and said as much. A notable First Solar ( FSLR) PowerPoint slide from its 2009 investor presentation showed the transition to markets during which solar becomes economically viable without subsidies. However, the First Solar slide provided no timeline.

Pichel's larger aim, regardless, is to shift the debate away from the need to define solar as being in a race to grid parity. While Pichel believes solar will reach grid parity in two years, he argues that the more important point is that the cost of solar will continue to come down past that grid parity point.

Pichel also wrote in an email about wind versus solar that all the talk about solar's high cost ignored what should be an important part of the debate about alternative energy versus conventional energy.

While Pichel predicts grid parity for solar in two years, he also raised a question we have heard in the past from many frustrated alternative energy investors, writing, "I don't think solar has to be at grid parity; clearly there should be a premium for clean energy versus dirty. You pay a premium for organic food right? For natural soaps and cleaners."

It's a logical talking point -- however, this is the capital markets, and logic is not always the ultimate arbiter when it comes to dollars and cents. As the JPMorgan analyst said himself in the discussion last week about Broadwind, whether we are talking about wind or solar, lower-than-expected prices on conventional energy sources could continue to dampen the growth prospects of alternative energy for years to come. What's more, Whole Foods shoppers elect to pay a premium; electricity rate payers who bear the costs of feed-in tariffs provided by their government to support solar are not making a personal decision.

On the other hand, if you believe that there should be a premium for clean sources of energy, then the logic dictates support for both wind and solar, and any other technologies that move society away from reliance on atmosphere-clogging forms of energy and exhaustible fossil fuels.

In the end, maybe that's the most important point with which to end this debate, at least for a day. It could be wind that outperforms solar in the second half of 2010 and 2011, and it could be solar that outperforms wind in 2012 -- or both sectors could go bankrupt, or perform beyond any investors wildest dreams. However, if, as an investor, your interest in alternative energy is tied not just to profits, but to the idea that they are "premium" societal products, and that this will ultimately drive profits, then pitting one against the other doesn't serve your ultimate interest anyway.

-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.


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