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Public clean-tech firms get clobbered

On the heels of a weak ending for venture funding in 2008, a clean-energy stock index falls further than the overall market, with solar and biofuels battered the worst.

Amid the carnage of last year's stock-market performance, shares in clean-energy firms fared worse than others, according to data published Wednesday by researcher New Energy Finance.

That dramatic decline--at one point going below 2003 levels--was despite some of the most advantageous political and economic factors for clean technologies in years.

At its low point in November, the WilderHill New Energy Global Innovation Index (the ticker is "NEX"), which tracks 88 clean-energy global stocks, fell over 70 percent. The index then enjoyed an "Obama bounce" after the presidential election, to end up at a 61 percent decline in 2008.

For comparison, the S&P 500 index fell 38.5 percent last year and the U.S. Nasdaq Composite was down 41 percent.

The downbeat news from the public markets comes on the heels of the year-end data about clean-tech venture capital, which saw funding peak in the third quarter of 2008 and then finished the year sliding down.

Among public companies, the two hottest--and some argue overinflated--sectors within clean tech battered the worst were solar and biofuels. On average, solar shares plummeted 75 percent; biofuels and the biomass sector plunged 68 percentl; and wind fell 56 percent.

The poor performance reflects the fact that the energy business is very capital intensive and sensitive to fluctuations in fuel and commodity prices.

The price of oil plummeted from over $140 a barrel in July to under $40 in December. Meanwhile, the credit crisis made financing harder for projects such as wind farms or manufacturing plants.

The overall clean-energy sector, which has been exploding over the past three years, was also due for a correction, New Energy Finance CEO Michael Liebreich said in a statement.

Yet the demand for clean-energy products and services is still strong, making the long-term outlook good, he argued.

"Worries about climate change and energy security are still on the political agenda, and indeed the latter issue has become even more topical with the dispute over gas supplies between Russia and Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza. And Obama is not the only leader seeing clean energy as an important element in the programs they are planning, to help stimulate economic activity," Liebreich said.

Meanwhile, the level of venture funding in 2009 could potentially drop after three years of rapid growth, said Brian Fan, senior director of research at the Cleantech Group.

Still, he said, the "fundamental drivers" of energy scarcity amid growing demand and of climate change policies are intact, which should attract more investors.