Plug Power Shows One Way to Survive Cleantech’s Booms and Busts

How the fuel-cell maker managed to hang on in a turbulent investing environment.

By David R Baker and Brian Eckhouse
August 4, 2021

The momen­tum behind clean­tech stocks may be fading—again. For about a year, com­pa­nies push­ing to decar­bonize and elec­tri­fy the world cap­tured the market’s imag­i­na­tion as nev­er before. But now, as investors try to deter­mine which com­pa­nies can make it over the long run, they may want to con­sid­er the sto­ry of Plug Pow­er Inc.

The hydro­gen fuel cell mak­er, based in a sub­urb of Albany, N.Y., has already sur­vived boom-bust cycles that dev­as­tat­ed many oth­er clean­tech com­pa­nies. Its shares reached almost $150 in ear­ly 2000, then flirt­ed with pen­ny-stock sta­tus for much of the next two decades. The com­pa­ny changed man­age­ment and adjust­ed its busi­ness strat­e­gy. Then, as investors’ appetite for cli­mate-friend­ly tech­nolo­gies returned, Plug Pow­er became a Wall Street dar­ling again, with a mar­ket val­ue that topped those of util­i­ty giants such as PG&E Corp. and Con­sol­i­dat­ed Edi­son Inc. in ear­ly 2021.

Plug Power’s renais­sance was emblem­at­ic of a broad­er revival in the clean­tech sec­tor. As the cost of bat­ter­ies and wind and solar pow­er declined, new tech­nolo­gies became eco­nom­i­cal­ly com­pet­i­tive. Tes­la Inc.’s stock surged more than 700% in 2020, mak­ing it one of the world’s most valu­able com­pa­nies. Funds tracked by BloombergNEF pumped more than $17 bil­lion into cli­mate-relat­ed star­tups last year, up from $1.4 bil­lion a decade earlier.


By 2010 the clean­tech bub­ble had burst. Ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists used to the quick turn­around of tra­di­tion­al tech invest­ments became impa­tient. Nan­cy Pfund, founder and man­ag­ing part­ner of DBL Part­ners and an ear­ly Tes­la Inc. investor, describes such investors as dri­ve-bys, say­ing there was a “tourist qual­i­ty” to clean­tech invest­ing at the time.

I hope it’s gone,” Pfund says. “It feels like the chal­lenge is more evi­dent and seri­ous. The amount of peo­ple bet­ting their careers on cli­mate change is at an all-time high. In that sense, it’s very dif­fer­ent than 10 to 15 years ago.”

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