California's top energy regulator rolls with power company executives behind the scenes
Yet as one skeptical energy insider noted, "there are 15 to 20 other funds, with 10 times as much money, an hour south in the same field," referring to the burgeoning clean-tech hub in Silicon Valley. It's questionable whether the CPUC is actually fulfilling some dire need with CalCEF, this person said.
Lynch, not surprisingly, takes a dim view of CalCEF. The former CPUC president questions what business the CPUC has creating a private foundation to guide venture capital investment. "It is a fundamental distortion of the PUC's authority," she charged, "all in service of Peevey's ambitions."
Peevey's economic disclosure showed that he holds more than $1 million in a private family trust, without disclosing whether private investments contributed to that fund.
Adler stressed that there is arms-length relationship between CalCEF board members and the companies that benefit from the fund's investments. "Because we are a nonprofit, and because we have on our board members of the regulatory community, we recognized quickly that we can't be making direct investments into companies," said Adler, a former CPUC staff member who was highly regarded even by the critics of CalCEF. "So ... we've picked the venture-capital funds that we wanted to partner with."
CalCEF funnels its capital into three different for-profit investment firms, which in turn select the companies that will be included in CalCEF's investment portfolio. Several directors of the partnering investment firms also sit on the boards of directors of the companies they invest in. The startups run the gamut, from carbon-offset outfits, to energy-efficient lighting manufacturers to solar and wind companies, to biofuels startups to various kinds of technology firms related to the smart grid.
But CalCEF has also poured money into companies that bolster the fossil-fuel industry. One of its first investments was CoalTek, a company developing technology for so-called "clean coal." Asked to explain why, Adler told the Guardian, "We don't have veto power on every deal that goes down."
Adler said he personally believes that "there's no such thing as clean coal," but tempered this by adding, "there are some very smart people in our community who will tell you that there's no future ... without coal."
Another CalCEF investment, DynaPump, is developing technology to make it more energy efficient to pump oil and gas. Asked about this decision, Adler responded: "I will say that when we were approached with this investment by the venture partner that ultimately undertook it, we had our misgivings. If you can save energy in the production of oil and gas, then you're definitely making a contribution to overall energy efficiency."
There appear to be some closer-than-arms-length links between CalCEF board members and the investment fund's beneficiaries. A bio for CalCEF director Nancy Pfund, for example, notes that in her capacity as manager of an outside investment fund, she had "worked closely" with Tesla Motors, a CalCEF investment. Tesla provided CalCEF's first investment return earlier this year after Tesla went public. A principal of one of the investment firms that works with CalCEF, Stephen Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, holds Tesla shares in a personal trust, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.