Wall Street's Power Surge

Energy plant tragedy puts a light on bank, private equity push into electricity.

ByABC News
February 9, 2010, 3:41 PM

Feb. 11, 2010— -- Goldman Sachs has attracted a long line of critics and conspiracy theorists convinced the Wall Street bank is at the root of many an economic catastrophe.

But after a deadly power plant explosion in Middletown, Conn., involving a company called Kleen Energy, even members of the conspiracy crowd might have been surprised to learn that the natural gas-fueled plant was being built by a private equity fund and that it had been bankrolled by Goldman.

And while no one is suggesting the bank's involvement underwriting the nearly $1 billion project would have in any way compromised safety -- indeed, the exact cause of the explosion is still under investigation -- the incident does call attention to the ever-growing alignment between a shifting national energy policy and the Wall Street financiers who hope to profit from the green movement.

In terms of promoting clean energy, greed, for lack of a better word, is good, power industry members said.

"In simple terms, the clean fuel industry is dead without Wall Street funding," said Karl Miller, a former Wall Street banker, power industry executive and energy investor.

Jim Owens a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association representing investor owned power companies, said that's because those companies "need capital, a lot of capital."

"Electric utilities are perhaps the single most capital intensive industry there is," he said.

One of more than 80 natural gas turbine projects currently under construction in the United States, the Kleen Energy plant was just a few months away from finally generating electricity. It had survived nine years of political hurdles.

Goldman's financing, a complex debt issuance sold mainly to European banks, got done just a few months before the financial market meltdown of autumn 2008. Kleen, in fact, was to be among the biggest power plants in the Northeast and the hope was that its becoming operational would eventually reduce electric bills in Connecticut, which gets most of its power from out-of-state providers.

Coal-fired power plants are seen as Environmental Enemy No. 1, and the backlash against them opened the door for the Kleen project and others like it.

While coal fired plants still produce roughly half of all the kilowatt hours of electricity consumed in the United States, natural gas, which a decade ago accounted for just 10 percent of electricity produced, now accounts for upwards of 20 percent, according to the Edison Electric Institute. Hydro and alternative sources make up the balance.

With the backlash against carbon emissions only growing, coal-fired power plants could soon be a thing of the past.