RICH PICKINGS: Billionaire greenies

In the wake of the Rudd government's ETS backflip, we look at Australia's richest green investors, based on level of commitment, depth of pockets and length of investment view.

It has not been a good few days for those entrepreneurs around the world hoping to get rich from the clean tech sector.

In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s decision to delay his carbon pollution reduction scheme for at least three years has been praised by many sections of the business community, but slammed by local clean tech players already struggling to access funding and win support.

In Spain, the nation’s biggest producer of solar panels, T-Solar, pulled its IPO citing uncertainty about renewable energy subsidies.

In the US, the draft US climate bill has been stalled by a row over congressional procedure, although many pundits don’t hold out much hope that it will actually become law.

These developments will do nothing to encourage wealthy investors into the green sector, particularly at a time when most seem content to stick with the familiar areas of property and shares.

Those who are brave enough to invest in this uncertain environment will need a high level of commitment to the cause, deep pockets and a very long-term investment view.

These are exactly the hallmarks of a group of investors recently singled out by Forbes magazine as the world’s top green billionaires.

The list, which was judged on the billionaires who are most active in green causes and who are "working to have the greatest impact”, contains a number of little-known billionaires, led by Sun Mircosystems cofounder Vinod Khosla. He is worth $US1.1 billion and has been investing in energy start-ups since 2004 through his company Khosla Ventures.

Israel’s richest woman, Shari Arison, who is valued at $US3.4 billion and is the heiress of leisure giant Carnival Cruise, is ranked second. She recently published a memoir called Birth: When the Spiritual and the Material Come Together, which explains her philosophy about how investing should profit both the investor and the community. Her main green investment is in infrastructure and construction company Shikun & Binui, which she plans to make 100 per cent "sustainable" within four years using solar power, and a company called Miya, which focuses on reducing leaks in underground water pipes.

But there are some big names on the list too, most notably Richard Branson, who is ranked fourth. The Virgin Group boss has pledged to invest around $US1 billion in alternative fuels over the next four years and has already invested in a number of green energy companies, including businesses developing low-energy lighting, solar energy and water purification.

Tech sector royalty Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who are the co-founders of Google, also earned a place on the list for their commitment to the environmental cause and the $100 million they have promised to pump into green technology and ideas. And it’s not all big-picture ideas with this pair – last September Google launched a power meter which allows households to see their energy use in real time.

Finding Australia’s richest greenies is a bit tougher. While many of the entrepreneurs on the Rich 200 list are passionate about the environment, few are active investors in the green sector.

Here are a few of the standouts, based on wealth and commitment to the green cause.

Zhengrong Shi

Australia’s other 'sun king', Zhengrong Shi, is the founder and major shareholder of the China-based, US-listed solar power firm Suntech Power. While he is usually recognised as one of China’s richest men, he became an Australian citizen while studying at the University of New South Wales during the 1990s. Last year he was listed on the green rich list of Chinese publication Hurun, with a fortune of $US1.1 billion. The company’s shares have been volatile in the last few years, hitting a high of more than $US90 back in 2008 before falling back to around $US13 in recent weeks.

Anthony Pratt

Anthony Pratt, head of the Pratt family’s $4 billion Visy empire, is also a walk-up start for this list. His father Richard, who recognised very early in his career that waste reclamation and recycling was good both for business and for the environment, built his paper and packaging empire around this philosophy. Visy has continued to look for ways to use utilise waste throughout its operations. Last year, Anthony Pratt commissioned a US$60 million energy plant in Atlanta that gasifies waste from its manufacturing processes; Visy then uses the clean energy to power its recycling mills and cut energy costs. Visy plans to build four more similar plants around the world as part of a $1 billion investment in clean energy over the next decade.

Ralph Sarich

Perth inventor Ralph Sarich made his fortune from the invention of the orbital piston engine in the early 1970s, before investing in shares and particularly property in the mid 1990s. The inventor was listed on last year’s Sunday Times Green Rich list thanks to his investments in wind power and his grand plan, announced in 2008, to help fund the development of a $10 billion carbon neutral property development off the coast of Freemantle.

The Belgiorno-Nettis Family

The billionaire Belgiorno-Nettis family’s Transfield Holdings has made investments in several clean energy companies, with mixed success. It currently owns a majority shareholding in Novatec Biosol, which is based in Germany and owns a solar power station in Spain. Transfield Services, in which the family owns a large stake, is also the largest shareholder in Transfield Services Infrastructure Fund, which owns four wind farms.

Gordon Merchant

Billabong founder Gordon Merchant is the largest investor in Plantic, an Australian company developing bioplastic technology. The company, which is listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market, has its main plant in Melbourne and offices in the UK and Germany. Merchant is a director and his shares are worth around $3 million. It is a tiny part of his $900 million fortune, but clearly a big passion for the wealthy surfer.