Al Gore Walks Away From Green Energy

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When Al Gore talks, people listen. Just ask the folks who hand out Academy Awards and Nobel Peace Prizes.

Al Gore also talks to investors. Since 2007, the former Vice President in Bill Clinton's administration has been preaching the benefits of putting your money where his mouth is: Alternative energy.

But if Al Gore has any message for investors today, it might very well be this: "Stay the hell away from alternative energy!"

Not that he would say so. At least out loud.

Reading through the promotional materials he puts out through his company, Generation Investment, it is hard to tell whether his "Client Update" is selling investments in his Climate Solutions Fund or memberships in the Sierra Club.

"Scientific fundamentals continue to point to a need for urgent action on climate," Gore says. Just like his Oscar-winning movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," it has lots of cool charts and graphics.
Climate policy is still firmly on the political agenda and corporate climate-related activity is increasingly strategic. Innovation is driving costs down and improving the business case for low carbon and high efficiency solutions.

This goes on for 20 pages. But even Gore does not seem to be listening anymore.

Gore's company files a quarterly report with the SEC that tells a different story about the 30 stocks in its portfolio. His company's public investments in wind, solar, biomass and other alternative energy to combat climate change are practically non-existent.

But his portfolio is top-heavy in high-tech, medical instruments, and even more pedestrian investments in companies such as Amazon ( AMZN), eBay ( EBAY), Colgate Palmolive ( CL), Nielsen ( NLSN), Strayer University ( STRA), and Qualcomm ( QCOM).

He is also big in China, with stakes in a big Chinese travel agency, CTrip, and China's largest medical equipment manufacturer, Mindray Medical.

And if you want a piece of the natural gas pipeline game -- heavily dependent on the environmentally suspect fracking -- you can find that in Gore's portfolio as well with Quanta Services ( PWR).

Generation Investment even had a piece of Staples ( SPLS) at one point -- but that was before anyone realized that was Mitt Romney's love child.

Not an Apple ( AAPL) to be found, despite the fact that Gore sits on its board of directors. But Generation Investment at one time did have a piece of General Electric ( GE) and Procter & Gamble ( PG) and that global warming game-changer, PayChex ( PAYX).

This is "urgent action on climate"? If you say so, Mr. Gore.

If Generation Investment is a bit gun-shy on alternative energy, perhaps it is because of its catastrophic brush with First Solar.

Data from Best Stocks Now app

Three years ago, First Solar seemed on its way: Interest in solar was at an all-time-high -- as were subsidies for making, installing and using it. So America's largest manufacturer of solar equipment seemed ready to cash in.

So did Generation Investment. According to SEC filings, Gore's company bought 440,000 shares in late 2010 at about $130. By the first quarter of 2012, the value of First Solar -- and just about every other solar manufacturer in America -- had plummeted.

Generation Investment rode it all the way down, buying more and more shares as the price went lower and lower until finally it reached $25 in the first quarter of 2012. Generation Investment was holding 1.1 million shares worth about $28 million.

All this despite $3 billion in loan guarantees that kept many analysts talking about its great future. But the stock was always more popular with true believers in solar energy than with people who want to make money.

In the second quarter of this year, Gore et al. finally figured out what I have been saying to my clients, my listeners and my readers for two years: Alternative energy is a terrible investment and "sell everything under the sun." That's why I started shorting First Solar at $121 and kept shorting it all the way down to $33.

You can read about it in my SeekingAlpha article "How Does First Solar Survive?"

Filings for the next period show First Solar had disappeared from its portfolio -- with Generation Investment selling its shares for somewhere between $12 and $25.

Not all of Generation Investment's portfolio is listed with the SEC. The company also invests with the KPCB Green Growth Fund and the Eco products fund, which also invest in public and private companies.

The "Client Update" is very cagey about how much and where Generation Investment puts its money. But it did list several firms as part of its portfolio that do not show up in SEC filings. Including:
  • Germany's largest solar company, SMA Solar. It, too, was part of a multimillion-dollar loan guarantee, this one from the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency. SMA has gone down 57% over the last year.
  • Over in China, SunTech Solar is the world's largest maker of solar panels. Gore likes it enough to list it in his "Client Update," even if the company is falling out of favor with its Chinese masters who have made solar the most heavily subsidized industry in the world.
    SunTech has lost 82% of its value over the last year. Others in the Chinese solar panel business are not faring much better.
  • Meyer Burger, a German solar company, lost 49.6% of its value over the last year.
  • EcoSynthetix transforms "renewable resources into high performance biomaterials that replace petroleum based chemicals." What it does not do is convert investors into winners. Its stock has fallen about 60% since its initial public offering last summer.
  • Landi Renzo helps convert cars from gasoline to natural gas. Its stock is down 25% over its one-year high.

    Not all of Generation Investment's picks in alternative energy are money losers: Dialite is up 60% over the last year.

    When I see a portfolio loaded with medical instruments and other health-related high tech as Gore's is today, I congratulate whoever had the foresight to put them there, whether they learned about them in my newsletter or not.

    Every year I talk to hundreds of people about their portfolios. Never does anyone say they want to be in alternative energy, whether it makes money or not. Wind and solar and biomass are more popular with people who invest other people's money.

    Like pension funds, for example.

    Gore's company is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in public employee pensions in California and New York. Generation Investment's fees in New York alone are $30 million over three years, reports the New York Post.

    At least someone is making some money off solar. Even if it is only Gore. Do they give Nobel Prizes for phony finance?

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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