February 24, 2017

An In Depth Guide To Buying and Installing a Home Electric Vehicle Charging Station

Tom Konrad, Ph.D., CFA

Most plug-in vehicles (both pure electric and plug-in hybrids) come with a "level 1" charging station which allows the vehicle to be charged from a standard household outlet.  If your vehicle is a plug-in hybrid with limited electric range, or you don't drive much, this is likely all you will need.  Otherwise, you will want a "level 2" charging station. 

If you are a do-it-yourself-er and like to get into the nitty-gritty, you should read the whole article.  If you just want some quick advice about the best charging station for you, skip to the last section, "Putting It All Together."

What a Home Charging Station Does

Technically, a home charging station (also known as "Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment" or an EVSE) does not charge your car.  You car has an on-board charger which converts household alternating current to the direct current which is stored in its batteries. 

I personally just installed a charging station for my wife's new Prius Prime plug-in hybrid, and concurrently applied for a grant from New York state on behalf of the Town of Marbletown to install a commercial charging station at my town's Community Center.  This article is based on that experience and the responses a poll of 20 charging station owners I contacted through Facebook groups and PlugShare, an app that allows users to find and review charging stations, and connect with other plug-in owners.

Before You Begin

Here is the information you'll need to make your decision.

  1. Make/Model of the plug-in you want to charge.
  2. Location of the closest electric panel to your parking spot.
  3. Your vehicle's electric range (PHEVs) or the longest distance you expect to drive between charges on a regular basis (EVs)

The make and model of the plug-in let you know the capacity of the vehicle's on board charger, and the size of its battery pack.  You will need a charger powerful enough to fully recharge the battery between trips, and you will need an outlet or the charging station installed near the parking space that has the capacity to service that rate of charging.

How Fast Of A Charger Do You Need?

If you will only need to charge your car up overnight, you have a plug-in hybrid with limited electric range, or you will not drive very far between charges, you probably don't need a very fast charger.  Quick charging may only be something you need on long trips, when you can take advantage of the higher charging speeds available at most public charging stations.

Most plug-in hybrids (with the notable exception of the Volt) have limited electric range, meaning they can charge completely in less than 5 hours using the included level 1 (120V) charger plugged in to a standard household outlet.  Most owners of these vehicles will not need a level 2 charging station.

My wife's Prius Prime is a borderline example.  It has 25 miles of electric range, and can be charged completely in 5-6 hours with a level 1 charger.  I elected to install a level 2 charger for the convenience of being able to leave the factory level one charger stowed in the car at all times, and because there are times when we take the car out more than once in a day.  In this case, a quick charge between trips can make the difference between using gasoline and staying all-electric.  Plus I like gadgets.

The table below shows approximately how much electric range a typical EV that gets 3-4 miles per kWh can recover for charging stations with different capacities.  The number followed by the A is the rated current in amps, the number followed by V is the voltage.  Level 1 charging stations use 120V, while level 2 charging stations use 240V.

Charging Current
1 hour
2 hours
4 hours
6 hours
10 hours
level 1 (12A 120V)
4-5 miles
9 miles
18 miles
27 miles
45 miles
level 2 (16A 240V) 10 miles
20 miles
40 miles
60 miles
100 miles
level 2 (30A 240V)
20 miles
40 miles
80 miles
120 miles
200 miles
level 2 (40A 240V) 30 miles
60 miles
120 miles
180 miles
300 miles

The rate at which a plug-in can charge is also limited by its on-board charger.  This charger's capacity is rated in kilowatts (kW.)  The vehicle's battery pack is rated in kilowatt-hours (kWh.) A vehicle's electric range is its efficiency (usually 3 to 4 miles/kWh times the size of its battery pack.)  So a 2016 Nissan Leaf's 30kWh battery pack and approximate efficiency of 3.5 miles/kWh give it a range of about 105 miles.  The Leaf has a 6.6 kWh on-board charger, giving it a maximum rate of charge of about 10 miles of range per hour, for a complete charge in 4-5 hours using a 30A 240V level 2 charging station. 

Most plug-in hybrids have smaller on-board chargers to match their smaller battery packs, as do some pure electric vehicles with smaller battery packs/lower electric range.  Much of the information available on-line says that the Leaf has 3.3kW on-board charger, but all 8 Leaf owners who responded to my survey reported charging times that could only be achieved with a faster on-board charger.

 Below is the charger capacity for the most plug-ins on the market today, along with the size of the charger needed to take full advantage of this capacity.  Additional charging capacity is available as an option on some models. 

Table 2: Charging Capacity of Various Plug-in Vehicle Models
Charging station required for fastest possible charge Minimum Recommended Circuit
On board charger capacity

Vehicle Models

40A -level 2
50A 240V
10kW
Tesla Model S. Tesla Model X. Mercedes B-Class Electric
32A -level 2
40A 240V
7.4kW
BMW i3
30A - level 2
40A 240V
6.6kW to 7.2kW
Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt,  Ford Focus Electric, VW e-Golf, Fiat 500e, Kia Soul EV, Hyundai Ioniq, Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in Hybrid
16A - level 2
20A 240V
3kW to 3.7kW
Chevy Volt, Audi A3 eTron, BMW X5 xdrive40e, Chevrolet Spark EV, Ford C-Max/Fusion Energi, Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, Mercedes C350, S550, GLE550e Plug-in Hybrids, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Porsche Cayenne/Panamera S E-Hybrid, Prius Prime, Smart Electic, Volvo XC90 T8, Porsche 918 Spyder, Nissan Leaf (some early models).
10A- level 2
15A 240V
2 kW
Prius Plugin

Circuit Size

The final factor which may limit the size of the charging station you need is the capacity of the electrical circuit you will be using.  If you try to charge a car at a rate equal to or greater than the capacity of your wiring, you will flip the circuit breaker.  Unless the circuit is rated for continuous use, you should limit the charging rate to 80% of the circuit's capacity. 

A second reason for charging at slower rates is efficiency.  The electricity lost (called line loss) is proportional to the square of the current (the A or amps number in the charging rate) and  inversely proportional to the capacity of the wiring.  Line losses also increase with temperature, and the lost energy becomes heat in the wiring, further reducing efficiency.  Line losses become more significant the longer the wiring between your main electrical panel and your charging station.  With properly sized wiring, these losses will usually be less than 2 percent of the electricity used.  But 2% can add up given the large electricity consumption of EVs.  35 miles of driving a day in a typical EV uses 3650 kWh over a year.  Two percent of that is 73kWh, or two to three days worth of a typical household's electricity usage.

Most charging stations can be set to limit charging speed to less than their maximum capacity.  Many plug-in vehicles also have the capacity to limit their charging rates and charging times.  This feature can be used both to keep actual charging rates within the capacity of the circuit, as well as to reduce charging rates further in order to reduce line losses.  Choosing specific charging times (either with your vehicle or some charging stations) can also save you money because of preferential rates from your utility.

If you have to install a new 240V circuit to service your charging station, I recommend installing at least a 50A, 240V circuit, or even a 100A, 240V subpanel for your garage if you can.  Reasonably affordable EVs with large battery packs and powerful on-board chargers such as Tesla Model 3 are likely to be widely available in the next few years.  You'll want the charging capacity to accommodate your new, long range EV.  If you have a two car household, you may also want the ability to charge two cars at the same time.

Higher capacity wiring will cost you more today, but the extra cost will be a fraction of the cost of the electrical work.  Upgrading your wiring at a later date later would involve doing everything over again.  Even if you never need a more powerful charging station, the reduced line losses will help defray the extra cost over time. 

Should You Oversize Your Charging Station?

You may find a charging station with the features you want but a higher capacity than you need.  If the rated power of your charging station exceeds 80% of the capacity of your circuit, make sure that you are buying one that has the ability to limit the charging current.

One good reason to oversize your charging station is durability, which my poll respondents felt was the single most important feature. Since no brands have a long history, it's hard to judge which brands are likely to be the most durable.  However, it is a good bet that a charging station rated to supply 40 amps of current is likely to last a long time if it is only used to charge cars at 15 amps.

Features

I included a question about features in my poll.  Here are the ones my respondents found most important:

ESVE features.png

Durability, a long charging cord, charging speed, cost, and being outdoor rated were among the most valued features.  One I neglected to ask about was the charging station having a plug as opposed to being hardwired.  Charging stations with plugs don't cost much more than those without, but even if they are too large to be truly portable, it makes them easier to take with you if you move. 

Some features may have gotten lower ratings in my poll because they are only useful to some users, even if they are essential to the users who want them. 

  • An outdoor rating will be essential if your parking space is outdoors, but it will be irrelevant if you park in a garage. 
  • The ability to control charging times will be important if your car does not have this feature itself- but only if your electrical utility gives rewards or preferential rates for avoiding charging during peak demand.  That said, utility rates for plug-ins are changing, and you may need this feature tomorrow even if it is superfluous today.

Safety Certification

Intertek and Underwriter's Laboratories are Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories provide safety certification for EV charging stations.  If your charging station has one or both of these safety certifications (the ETL or UL logos, respectively), you can be assured that the product line has undergone rigorous (and expensive) safety testing.  One of these certifications will be required for a direct-wired EV Charging station to pass an electrical inspection.  However, and EV charging station with a plug will only require an electrical inspection for the wiring to the outlet.  Safety certification is also required by most government rebate programs for electric vehicle chargers.

Buying a charging station without such a safety certification does not mean it is unsafe.  In fact, charging stations are primarily safety devices to ensure that the vehicle's on-board charger can access household current safely.  I did an internet search, and only found two reports of fires that could possibly be linked to electric vehicle charging after trying several variations on my search terms.  In contrast, a search for "hoverboard fire" quickly produces reports of "half a million" fires and many videos. 

Of the two possible EV charging station fire reports I found, one could not be directly linked to the charging station in question (a UL listed Siemens model.)  The other fire started near a home charging station of unknown brand which had been installed by the owner.  Since we don't know the brand of the charging station, we can't know if it had a safety certification, but improper installation could easily have caused the fire.

Brands

While few people have more than a couple years experience using charging stations, my poll respondents had this to say about the following brands:

Top Recommended Brands:

  • ClipperCreek: Recommended by more respondents than any other brand.
  • JuiceBox:  Probably the best options in terms of power and features for the price.
  • ChargePoint Home
  • Bosch
  • Tesla
  • Siemens/Versicharge
  • GE Durastation

Mixed Reviews:

  • Aerovironment (some re-branded by Nissan): Expensive, but a good warranty. One (of four) had it break right before the warranty expired.  He was unimpressed with their customer service, but said he thought service had gotten better in recent years.
  • Audi: Expensive to install, but easy to use.

My Top Picks

  • Duosida 16A: $289 on Amazon
    A basic portable charging station with a long cord and a great price.  Not designed for wall mounting.  Not safety certified.
  • ClipperCreek 16A, 24A, 32A, and 40A: $402, $538, $601, and $895 on Amazon.
    A well-rated charging station with a long cord and a reputable brand.
  • GE DuraStation 30A: $397 on HomeDepot.com
    A powerful, no-frills charging station from a recognized brand. Maximum current can be adjusted to 30A, 24A, 16A, or 12A using a jumper.
  • JuiceBox 40A: $499 at eMotorWerks
    The least expensive 40A charging station available.  Maximum current can be set by adjusting trim-pots inside the enclosure.  Not safety certified, the company says they expect UL certification in March 2017.
  • JuiceBox Pro 40A and Pro 75A: $599 and $899 at eMotorWerks
    Full-featured, high-power charging stations at a low price.  Wi-fi enabled. Can be adjusted with a smartphone app to charge at any lower current required. Not safety certified, the company says they expect UL certification in March 2017.

(prices include shipping)

I had personal experience with eMotorWerks (JuiceBox) support through eBay, where I bought a refurbished JuiceBox Pro 40.  I found them very slow to respond, and had not reached a resolution after a week.  But given that mine was a cut-price refurbished unit (and their prices are amazing to begin with) I still give the brand my highest recommendation. 

I contacted eMotorWerks and asked them to respond to the previous paragraph.  Here is their response:

"We appreciate the endorsement of our products, and are working diligently to fully staff and train our support team. Our sales have nearly doubled at the end of 2016 due to accelerated growth in EV sales (record 25,000 EVs sold in December, nearly twice the previous year) and successful programs we recently launched with our utility and Community Choice Aggregation partners. We're working to further grow our support team and deliver top-notch service to all our customers."

After the first version of this article was published, eMotorWerks solved my problem to my complete satisfaction.

If you want top-notch service, ClipperCreek and ChargePoint Home have good reputations according to my poll respondents.  I do not know if growth is straining their customer service departments.  You will pay $100-$400 extra for similar models from these vendors compared to eMotorWerks, but you may consider the extra expense worth it, especially if JuiceBox has not yet received its UL safety certification when you care buying your charging station and this concerns you.

Putting It All Together

Although this is a rather technical article, choosing a home charging station does not have to be complex.  Here are the essential steps:

  1. If you do not drive much or your vehicle's electric range is less than 20 miles, a level 2 charging station is probably not worth the cost.  Try using just the factory level one charger for a while.  Otherwise:
  2. Use Table 2 to determine the charging station capacity your vehicle can use.
  3. If you are doing your own electrical work, go back and read the whole article.  Otherwise:
  4. Purchase a charging station from my top picks (above) with a rated capacity at least as high as given in Table 2. If you are relying on a government rebate program to pay for part of the cost, make sure that the model you choose qualifies for the program.
  5. Have an electrician or three give you quotes to install a "240 volt(V) 50 amp(A)" circuit to your parking space and install your charging station.  You can also ask them for a quote to install the minimum recommended circuit for your vehicle from Table 2, but the savings are not likely to be significant.  You will probably be better off with a 240V 50A circuit in the long run. 
  6. Have your electrician install the charging station, and adjust the charging station's maximum current to not overload the circuit. The adjustment should not be needed unless you opted for the cheaper electrical circuit.
  7. Charge your car quickly at home.

The prices and specific models mentioned in this article are based on what was available at the start of 2017, and will change.  The advice about charging station and circuit sizing should be more durable.

Giving Back

After you install your charger, I encourage you to let the occasional plug-in driver charge at your home.  You can do this with PlugShare.com and the PlugShare app (Android, iTunes) which is a great resource for finding both public charging stations and plug-in owners like yourself who want to may electric driving as worry-free as possible by extending the network of public stations.

My own charger is available on the PlugShare, and I'm looking forward to meeting the first plug-in driver I can help with a charge.

February 22, 2017

Alterra Power: Deep Geothermal

by Debra Fiakas CFA

Last week, one of the leaders in a development consortium, Iceland’s largest privately owned energy generator HS Orka hf, announced the completion of a project to prove the merits of deeper geothermal wells.  The project in the Reykjanes Peninsula in southern Iceland reached 4,659 meters depth in January 2017, where temperatures measured 427 degrees Centigrade and fluid pressure was 340 bars.  By all accounts the project was successful, suggesting that deep wells could a cost effective approach to geothermal energy.

The drilling program was mentioned in early December 2015 a recent post “Hot Rocks, Warm Stock,” which touched on the option of investing in a larger company, Statoil (STL: SW or STO:  NYSE), for a stake in geothermal technologies for renewable energy.   Unfortunately, a position in Statoil brings with it the noise of Statoil’s fossil fuel interests.  Fortunately, for the more environmentally-conscious investor, there is an alternative.

HS Orka is majority owned by Alterra Power (AXY:  TO or MGMXF: OTC) a Canada-based geothermal power generation company.  Alterra has interests in eight different power facilities totaling 825 megawatts of generation capacity using hydro, wind, geothermal and solar technologies.  The assets are located in Texas and Indiana in the U.S., British Columbia in Canada and, of course, the HS Orka asset in Iceland. Alterra’s development pipeline includes additional geothermal projects in Iceland through HS Orka, in Peru through a local Energy Development Corporation, and in Italy through Graziella Green Power.  Notably HS Orka is also planning new hydro-electric projects, in which Alterra will participate.  No doubt the knowledge gained during the recently completed deep well drilling project will boost HS Orka’s geothermal development as well.

Alterra Power reported $42.9 million in total sales in the first nine months of the year 2016, providing $2.7 million in net income or $0.06 per share.  Since there is considerable noise in reported income from charges and benefits through the shifting values of equity derivatives, the financial fortunes of this company are best viewed from the perspective of cash earnings.  Operations generated $15.5 million in cash in the first nine months of 2016, representing sales-to-cash conversion rate of 33.8%.  This compares favorably to the conversion rate in the previous year of 28.0%, and suggests Alterra can consistently generate cash for future investments.

Internal cash resources have not been enough for Alterra’s ambitious development plans.  The company had $273.6 million in long-term debt on the balance sheet at the end of September 2016.  The debt-to-equity ratio was 1.15, suggesting there is potential for additional leverage if the company needs to move aggressively in its renewable energy markets.

Alterra’s common stock trades on the Toronto exchange under the symbol AXY, but investors can also gain access through the Over-the-Counter Pink Sheets where the stock is quoted as MGMXF.  The shares have traded off in recent weeks providing a compelling entry point for shareholders with the lengthy investor horizon and risk tolerance for smaller companies.

Debra Fiakas is the Managing Director of Crystal Equity Research, an alternative research resource on small capitalization companies in selected industries.

Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.

February 19, 2017

A Better Battery Or Bust

by Debra Fiakas CFA

Last month BioSolar (BSRC:  OTC/PK) reported positive test results for its proprietary energy storage technology.  The company is developing an alternative anode material for lithium ion batteries using silicon-carbon materials.  BioSolar’s engineers are targeting dramatic improvement in anode performance and equally impressive reductions in cost.  If they are successful, it could mean longer lithium ion battery life, greater capacity and shorter charging time  -  the dreams of every manufacturer with an electronic product.

Most lithium ion batteries rely on graphite for the battery anode.  However, silicon anodes could offer as much as ten times more capacity as anodes made with graphite.  Unfortunately, silicon has a few downsides that make it unreliable as well as unaffordable.  BioSolar is working to overcome those downsides and make silicon anodes an affordable alternative by using a silicon alloy.

Biosolar is also working on the other important battery component  -  the cathode.  Existing lithium ion batteries are limited by the capacity of the cathode.  The company has developed a new cathode made from a conductive polymer that can withstand higher charge-discharge cycles.  This would extend the life of the lithium ion battery and lower the overall cost of operation.  In June 2017, the company filed an application for patent protection of its proprietary process and material for high capacity cathodes.

The company is not alone in the quest for a better lithium ion battery.  There are others experimenting with polymers and silicon-based materials for lithium ion energy storage.  For example, researchers at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, Wuhan University of Technology in China, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington are just four of several research and development groups publishing papers on their experiments with conductive polymers.  The activity could be a source of competition, support or distraction for BioSolar.  For example, the University of Leeds has licensed its technology to privately held Polystor Energy Corporation in the U.S., which planned to commercialize the Leeds polymer gel for use as the electrolyte in a lithium ion battery.  While Polystor would not have competed against BioSolar's anode or cathode materials, its progress or lack of progress could have an impact on investors' view of polymer technology in the energy storage sector.

BioSolar’s research and development efforts are led by its Chief Technology Officer, Dr. Stanley Levy.  With a dozen patents in his own name, Levy has been recognized by his peers for technical work on plastics and film development.  His prior experience includes stints at DuPont, Global Solar and Solar Integrated Technologies.

Besides the mechanical engineering background of Levy, BioSolar’s chief executive officer, David Lee, brings electrical engineering education and experience to team.  Lee founded BioSolar after working in various engineering positions at the electronics, space and defense units of TRW as well as management roles at RF-Link Technology, Inc. and Applied Reasoning, Inc.  A plus for BioSolar is Lee’s time in the trenches in marketing and sales, which will be needed to get the company’s technology turned into marketable products.

As a developmental stage company BioSolar has no revenue.  Its operations are limited to managing sponsored research activities.  BioSolar has received support for its research activities from the University of California at Santa Barbara.  For the rest of its work the company relies on cash resources to support its development plans.  Operating expenses have been near $600,000 per quarter.  One of the company’s most significant expenses is a research arrangement with North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University, which is conducting tests on BioSolar’s polymer and silicon-alloy materials.  

With only $244,776 in its bank account at the end of September 2016, any investor considering a position in BSRC might take pause.   Since the close of the September quarter the company entered into an arrangement for an unsecured convertible promissory note for up to $500,000.    Nonetheless, expect more capital raising efforts involving dilutive securities of some kind or another.  There is really no other way to entice investors to an early stage company than to offer a piece of the pie.  The company has not yet found sponsorship by a large investor or strategic partner, so capital raising activities appear to be limited to individual investors.

For investors with no interest in a private placement, there are shares quoted on the Over-the-Counter market.   At a nickel, the shares are price like options on management’s ability to reach the development milestone before running out of money.  It is a high risk proposition, but one that could yield exceptional returns if BioSolar is successful in getting its materials into a working prototype battery and the market recognizes some value the accomplishment.

Debra Fiakas is the Managing Director of Crystal Equity Research, an alternative research resource on small capitalization companies in selected industries.

Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.

February 16, 2017

Why We Can't Take Our Eyes Off Gevo

Jim Lane 

So, feel the bioeconomy backbeat and let the music flow. AY-YI YI-YA AAAY, Gevo (GEVO) just can’t stop dancin’.

(Whoops, that was Becky G‘s Can’t Stop Dancin’, not Gevo’s.)

But there’s something so cool in that technology that we can’t take our eyes off the company and its progress, even though looking at the balance sheet can feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. This week, Gevo executed a series of moves including signing up its first direct customer for hydrocarbons for the proposed expansion of its Luverne, Minnesota plant. The highlight was a five-year offtake agreement with Haltermann Carless, ETS Racing Fuels and EOS.

Let’s look into that.

In the first phase, HCS will purchase $2-$3 million worth of isooctane produced at Gevo’s demonstration hydrocarbons plant located in Silsbee, Texas. This first phase is expected to commence in 2017 and would continue until completion of Gevo’s future, large-scale commercial hydrocarbon plant, which is likely to be built at Gevo’s existing isobutanol production facility located in Luverne, Minnesota.

In the second phase, HCS will agree to purchase approximately 300,000 to 400,000 gallons of isooctane per year under a five-year offtake agreement. Gevo would supply this isooctane from its first large-scale commercial hydrocarbons facility, which is likely to be built at Gevo’s existing isobutanol production facility located in Luverne, Minnesota.

The LOI establishes a selling price that is expected to allow for an appropriate level of return on the capital required to build out Gevo’s existing production facility in Luverne, Minnesota.

What’s HCS up to? They’ll market and distribute Gevo’s products globally on a non-exclusive basis, and the intent of the two companies is to establish further offtake arrangements for other products such as Gevo’s alcohol-to-jet fuel, also known as ATJ, and its isobutanol.

Reaction from the principals

“Haltermann Carless and HCS will serve as a major and substantial offtaker of Gevo’s renewable isooctane from Gevo’s demonstration plant and a vital offtaker from Gevo’s first commercial hydrocarbon plant. Gevo and HCS agree to evaluate options to make the partnership most impactful and provide maximum credibility for Gevo’s next generation technology,” said Henrik Krüpper, Chief Sales Officer and member of the HCS Group GmbH’s Executive Committee.

“We are very pleased to establish this commercial relationship with HCS Holding, which is world renowned in the industry for the high quality of its performance fuels. We expect that they will be an important customer and partner for Gevo,” said Dr. Patrick Gruber, Gevo’s Chief Executive Officer.

“When we produce ATJ, we also produce other products such as isooctane and isooctene. We believe that a binding offtake agreement with HCS Holding is one more piece of the puzzle to validate our case for expanding the Luverne plant,” continued Dr. Gruber.

The Ritual Massacre of the Shareholders

And, there has also been the advanced bioeconomy’s annual ritual of the Reorganization of the Debt and the Massacre of the Shareholders.

These rituals are such a fixture nowadays at some of the most extravagantly interesting technology companies that you’d think there’d be a painting of the scene by Correggio hanging in the Louvre, adjacent to the Assumption of the Virgin.

Imagine: The frightened shareholders in the tumbrils, the sad but determined executive team with a hang-dog “well, we have to do something” look, the debt-holder looking like Calvin Coolidge saying “well, they hired the money, didn’t they?”, while somewhere in the background a thousand points of light representing flared natural gas in the Bakken dump wisps of CO2 into the heavens, and an Angel of the Lord weeps in heaven, holding a tablet inscribed “how renewable fuels could save the planet”.

Back to reality, Gevo raised $11.87 million in a 6.25 million share offering, and given that the company recently executed a 1-20 stock split, it’s like more than 120 million of the old shares suddenly flooded the market.

$1.78 million of the proceeds go immediately to Whitebox, a senior debt holder, and the company will be paying down another $8 million in debt between now and mid-June, which means that, at the end of the day, the entire share offering was essentially a means by which Gevo converted roughly $10 million in debt to equity, as it moves to reduce its current $28 million debt load with Whitebox and begin to assemble a balance sheet that supports expansion of the company’s Luverne plant to make ATJ renewable jet fuel and hydrocarbons for the likes of HCS.

The Gevo dilemma

Of course, the question that hangs over the enterprise is that — now that Gevo has developed a stable technology for making isobutanol and has proven it out at Luverne, and developed a demo-scale technology for making renewable hydrocarbons at its Silsbee, Texas plant — how is it going to finance a business plan? That is, finance the construction of an expanded plant that can make enough molecules at enough scale to a) make a difference in the world and b) rescue Gevo from the financial trough into which it has fallen.

Since money is unlikely to fall from the sky like manna from heaven, the likely solution is an offtaker who steps forward out of the desire for the product.

We suspect the inflection point might be renewable jet fuel.

After all, airlines have seen enough pressure on their sustainability goals from regulators, have seen enough shaking heads when it comes to the prospects for a solar plane any time in the next 50 years, and enough companies that can produce jet fuel decide to make renewable diesel. Airlines and the companies in their supply chain have figured out that there’s little hope that, on the numbers, anyone is going to be supplying jet fuel so long as the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard offers big support for diesel and nothing for jet.

And they have also calculated that the technology case for making $3 renewable jet fuel is pretty good right now, and it might be time to lock in some long-term supply contracts and some long-term feedstock contracts.

Yes, airlines are enjoying low fuel prices now, but someone has to ask how long the public will permit concentrated amounts of CO2 to be vented at 35,000 feet, where it can do some damage — without extracting a carbon fee for skyfill.

After all, everyone pays for landfill. Just try and dump some garbage without paying a municipal fee. Landfill fees didn’t arrive with the Garden of Eden — someone thought them up when the public got good and tired of free and open dumping.

When a carbon fee arrives for skyfill — and there’s no certainty of it but history argues that it will — those airlines that have access to renewable fuels will have such a built-in price advantage that it’s quite difficult to see how the other airlines will ever be able to afford new jets — which cause balance-sheet woes for very large enterprises, in their own right, enough to make the Reorganization of the Debt and the Massacre of the Shareholders a ritual that a lot of companies might want to send a representative to the Louvre one day to see.

Gevo’s sufferings might be a harbinger of the suffering meted out to a lot of companies who bet against the public appetite for making polluters pay, once they can really smell the garbage wafting across every nostril back in town.



Jim Lane is editor and publisher  of Biofuels Digest where this article was originally published. Biofuels Digest is the most widely read  Biofuels daily read by 14,000+ organizations. Subscribe here.

February 15, 2017

Bioplastics Maker Avantium's IPO Plans

Jim Lane

Here’s our 10-minute version of the filing, slightly re-organized to make sense to Earthlings instead of aliens from the Planet Prospectus.

In the Netherlands, bioplastics maker Avantium is planning an initial public offering and listing of all shares on Euronext Amsterdam and Euronext Brussels. The company expects to raise up to €100 million (USD$106 million) and complete the offering by the end of the current quarter. More than half of the offering has already been secured via commitments from cornerstone investors.

Avantium’s YXY technology converts plant-based sugar into chemicals and plastics, including 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid, a precursor to the promising bioplastic polyethylene furanoate. Approximately €65–€75 million of the proceeds will be used to help fund the company’s first world-scale plant, a 50,000 tons per year FDCA production unit planned for Antwerp as part of a joint venture with BASF. The rest of the funds will be used to build pilot plants for the company’s Zambezi and Mekong renewable chemicals projects, as well general corporate purposes.

“With the commercialization of the YXY technology and other projects entering the pilot plant stage, access to equity capital markets will be the most logical step to effectively support our strategy and our ambitious plans for growth,” says Tom van Aken, Avantium CEO. “We look forward to the opportunities a public listing can bring.”

We Plan to Raise Gobs of Money

From the Filing: “Avantium aims to raise up to €100 million in gross proceeds from the Offering to support the YXY technology business and the other renewable chemistries projects.

The Company anticipates to use €65-75 million of the net proceeds of the Offering for the funding of the Joint Venture, enabling it to construct and operate the reference plant for the commercialization of the YXY technology.

Our Big Bright Green YXY Machine

From the Filing: “Avantium develops ground-breaking proprietary chemical technologies and production processes to convert biobased feedstock into high-performing, cost-competitive and sustainable products.”

“In 2011, Avantium was the first company to build an FDCA pilot plant with a production capacity of 15 tons FDCA per annum. This pilot plant enabled Avantium to test PEF through its partners and to continue its process development efforts to improve the economics of the process and strengthen its engineering package in preparation for the scale up to commercial and industrial scale.”

I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.

From the Filing: “Significant market opportunity driven by increasing demand for renewable chemicals used as building blocks for materials such as plastic bottles for beverages, films for food packaging and electronics, catalyzed for textiles, coatings and engineering plastics.”

With 311 million tons produced in 2014, plastics are essential materials in people’s everyday lives. This number is expected to double in the next 20 years and increase to approximately 1 billion tons by 2050. Rapidly increasing consumption, together with climate change concerns and the increasing demand for renewable, sustainable products and a circular economy, puts pressure on the use of fossil resources. Avantium’s market opportunity is driven by the increasing demand for renewable chemicals and materials, and increasing consciousness around the sustainability of products and production methods.

“The demand for renewable and sustainable materials is developing fast. Avantium is a pioneer in the area of renewable chemistry with a proven track record of developing advanced chemical catalyzed production processes. Since 2006, Avantium has been a leader in the development of novel chemical catalytic processes for the production of FDCA and PEF, derived from biomass feedstock. PEF is strongly positioned to become the next generation packaging material, based on its unique set of properties. It is a 100% biobased, 100% recyclable plastic with superior performance properties, making PEF an attractive alternative to PET and other packaging materials such as aluminum, glass and cartons.

We’re Not a One-Trick Pony

From the Filing: “Avantium has a leading position in providing advanced catalysis R&D services & systems to companies in the oil, gas, chemical and renewable industry, while simultaneously commercializing the YXY technology for making biobased chemicals and bioplastics.

“Besides the YXY technology which is deployed in the Joint Venture, two other projects have reached or are entering pilot plant stage – project Mekong and project Zambezi. Project Mekong is a one- step process for the production of MEG from glucose. Biobased MEG is chemically identical to fossil- based MEG. Today’s market for MEG is predominantly fossil-based and represents an annual turnover of over US$25 billion. Project Zambezi is a cost-effective process for the production of high-purity glucose from non-food biomass that can be converted into biobased chemicals. Avantium intends to start the construction of dedicated pilot plants for these projects in the next two years. Avantium’s project Volta comprises the direct use of electricity in chemical processes to convert CO2 into sustainable chemical building blocks. Avantium is working on electrochemistry since 2013. To further enhance the technology, Avantium acquired all assets and patents of Liquid Light in December 2016. Liquid Light’s assets have been transferred to Amsterdam, and are currently being integrated in Avantium’s laboratories.”

We Are the World

From the Filing: “Avantium has formed business collaborations with over 20 partners, including The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s leading manufacturer, marketer and distributor of non-alcoholic drink concentrates and syrups with more than 500 brands globally; Danone, a leading global food company; ALPLA, one of the world’s leading companies in the packaging solutions sector; and Mitsui, one of the largest international companies in Japan. The Joint Venture will continue the activities initiated by Avantium with Toyobo, one of Japan’s top producers of fibers and textiles, to cooperate in boosting PEF polymerization for a range of uses.”

We Have Offtake A-Go-Go

From the Filing: “Able to attract renowned global partners throughout the entire value chain, such as The Coca- Cola Company, Danone, Toyobo, ALPLA and Mitsui.”

From the Department of You Won’t Be Left Hanging

From the Filing: “Avantium has obtained significant commitments from reputable cornerstone investors, which also includes a number of existing shareholders and convertible bondholders; as a result, more than half of the Offering has been secured, assuming €100 million gross proceeds from the Offering…Provided there is sufficient demand, it is intended to allocate at least 10% of the shares to retail investors in the Netherlands and Belgium.”

The First Commercial: Thunderbirds are Go!

From the Filing: “Synvina, the joint venture with BASF, established on 30 November 2016 (the “Joint Venture”), intends to commercialize the YXY technology and build the first commercial scale FDCA (2,5- furandicarboxylic acid) reference plant in Antwerp with capacity of up to 50,000 tons per annum, to enable a global market pull for biobased materials from industry leaders.”

“The Joint Venture intends to build and operate the first commercial reference plant for the production of FDCA, the key building block for producing polyesters, such as polyethylene- furanoate (PEF), a 100% biobased and fully recyclable plastic. PEF has improved barrier properties for gasses like carbon dioxide and oxygen, leading to longer shelf life of packaged products. It also offers a higher mechanical strength, thus thinner PEF packaging can be produced and fewer resources are required. The end markets for packaging materials made of PEF represent an aggregate annual turnover of over US$200 billion.

We’ll Spending Your Money Making Stuff, not on Making Technology that Will Make Stuff Someday

From the Filing: “The remainder of the proceeds of the Offering will be used to build pilot plants for the two most advanced development projects in the renewable chemistries business (project Zambezi and project Mekong) and to operate these plants up to commercial stage, for other projects in renewable chemistries and for general corporate purposes in line with the Company’s business and strategy.”

We Get Along so Well, we could give lessons to the Trump Administration

From the Filing: “Proven 16-year track record in providing advanced R&D services and systems to a strong base of global blue-chip customers in the chemical, refinery and energy sector. Led by a committed, entrepreneurial and strong management team combining deep sector knowledge and industry experience. Avantium is led by Tom van Aken (Chief Executive Officer) and Frank Roerink (Chief Financial Officer). Van Aken joined Avantium in 2002 as Vice-President of Business Development and became Chief Executive Officer in 2005. He has led the company through the transition to become a focused chemical and cleantech company by divesting its pharmaceutical business and by the development of the YXY technology. Prior to joining Avantium, Van Aken held various commercial positions at DSM, primarily in DSM’s fine chemicals and life sciences business in the United States and the Netherlands. Roerink has been CFO at Avantium since 2007. Prior to that he held several positions at Unilever for over thirteen years. Lastly as Director of Mergers & Acquisitions for Unilever, prior to that he was Finance Director at Unilever Bestfoods in the United States. The Executive Board is supported by the Management Team members, Gert-Jan Gruter (Chief Technology Officer), Steven Olivier (Managing Director Catalysis) and Carmen Portocarero (General Counsel).

Yep, We Use Protection

From the Filing: “The Catalysis technology is protected by a portfolio of 19 patent families. Avantium has extensive experience and expertise in the high tech field of catalysis R&D, which generates a high level of repeat customers and the stability and profitability of its Catalysis business. As a first mover, Avantium has been able to build a strong and extensive IP portfolio: the YXY technology is currently protected by 38 active patent families covering each step of the production processes of FDCA, PEF and selected PEF applications in bottles, fiber and film.

We’ll get this done next month, or my name’s Vinod Khosla

From the Filing: “The Offering is envisaged to take place before the end of the first quarter of 2017, subject to market conditions. If and when the Offering is launched, further details will be included in the prospectus.”

The Bottom Line

It’s been nearly 4 years since the BioAmber IPO closed out a wave of industrial biotech initial listings — we’ve had some smaller flotations since then, but nothing like €100M since the days of Solazyme (SZYM) and Amyris (AMRS), in this space. Will the window open and at a good price. Stand by — but if offtake, well-financed commercial partners for a JV, share-buying commitments from partners and a hot technology making an uber-hot product set count for much with investors, this IPO ought to sail through. Stand by.

The Digest has one of those Multi-Slide Guides

Yep, we have the skinny on Avantium, here.

https://intended-listing.avantium.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/13FEB17_Avantium-announces-intention-to-launch-Initial-Public-Offering-and-listing-on-Euronext-Amsterdam-and-Euronext-Brussels.pdf

Additional reporting by Rebecca Coons, based on an earlier report that appeared in Nuu.

Jim Lane is editor of Biofuels Digest., where this article was originally published.  Biofuels Digest is the most widely read  Biofuels daily read by 14,000+ organizations. Subscribe here.

The Republican-Proposed Carbon Tax

by Noah Kaufman

A group of prominent conservative Republicans—including former Secretary of State James Baker III, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Walmart Chairman Rob Walton—met with key members of the Trump administration on Wednesday about their proposal to tax carbon dioxide emissions and return the proceeds to the American people. Such an economy-wide tax on carbon dioxide could enable the United States to achieve its international emissions targets with better economic outcomes than under a purely regulatory approach.

Attributes of the Republican Carbon Tax Proposal

While the details on the plan from the newly formed Carbon Leadership Coalition (CLC) are considerably less specific than a legislative proposal, this is a well-thought-out and ambitious plan that makes a good-faith effort at addressing many of the difficult choices on the path to enacting a carbon tax. Consider the following attributes:

  • Significantly reduces emissions. The group proposes a tax that would start at $40 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and increase over time. A paper released by CLC provides a useful summary of recent modeling efforts on the effects of a carbon tax on emissions. It concludes that the CLC proposal (including the effects of rolling back some regulations) would reduce greenhouse gas emissions roughly 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the upper end of the United States’ commitment under the Paris Agreement on climate change. It also implicitly recognizes concerns of the environmental community by calling for a rate that is high enough to provide greater emissions reductions than regulations already in place. WRI research shows that models tend to underestimate the emissions reductions from a carbon tax, so it seems likely that the United States would achieve its 2025 emissions target under this proposal.

  • Benefits for poor and middle classes. As WRI research has shown, a carbon tax’s effects on household finances are most heavily dependent on how the revenue is used. According to the CLC proposal, all tax proceeds would be returned to the American people on an equal basis via quarterly dividend checks. CLC chose this approach because of its transparency and because the longevity of the policy would be “secured by the popularity of dividends.” In addition, this tax-and-dividend approach would be highly beneficial to poor and middle-class households, who would receive far more in dividends than they would spend on the tax. (Of course, these households—and all households—would also benefit from cleaner air and reduced risks of climate change.) High-income households, on the other hand, would be better off if the revenue were used in other ways, such as to lower other taxes.

  • Addresses concerns about U.S. competitiveness and international action. A core pillar of the CLC proposal is a “border carbon adjustment.” Exports to countries without comparable policies would receive rebates for carbon taxes paid, while imports from such countries would face fees contingent on the carbon content of their products. The border carbon adjustment would protect the competitiveness of energy-intensive companies and those that are subject to foreign competition. It would also encourage all U.S. trading partners to adopt similarly stringent policies, which is necessary to achieve meaningful global progress on climate change.

  • Cost-effectively reduces emissions. As economists will tell you, putting a price on emissions is the most cost-effective way to reduce them because it encourages producers and consumers to seek out the lowest-cost opportunities to reduce their emissions. Economic models show that for decarbonizing the U.S. economy, economic outcomes are far better with a carbon tax as the centerpiece of policy efforts as compared to a strictly regulatory approach.

  • Offers potential for bipartisan support. Transforming to a low-carbon economy is an objective that Democrats widely support, but it will require new and comprehensive legislation that attracts Republican support as well. Prominent Republicans are supportive of the CLC proposal because it embraces both free markets and limited government with its plan to eliminate regulations that are no longer necessary with the existence of the carbon tax (“Less Government, Less Pollution,” as CLC puts it).

More Details Eventually Needed

The CLC proposal will need to gain support from policymakers currently in office for it to become proposed legislation. If it does, important details will need to be filled in. Examples include:

  • Details of the regulatory reform. The CLC plan involves replacing much of EPA’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions. Environmental groups are likely to push for mechanisms to ensure that the emissions reductions needed to meet climate goals are sufficiently certain; the Environmental Defense Fund recently described options for combining such “Environmental Integrity Mechanisms” with a carbon tax. In addition, the policy should avoid eliminating regulations that are not duplicative with a carbon tax. For example, WRI research has explained why supporting the research, development and deployment of the next generation of low-carbon technologies will lead to more cost-effective decarbonization in the long-run.

  • Support for coal communities. While the near-term effects of a carbon tax on the vast majority of American households and businesses would be small, communities of coal industry workers (and others whose livelihoods are tied to a high-carbon economy) are already struggling. In order to avoid making the situation worse, certain policy measures must be in place to help rebuild these economies. Whether by allocating tax revenues to economic development in these communities (just a small sliver of the tax revenue could provide enormous help) or though separate legislation, support for workers in the fossil fuel industry should be a key consideration in designing our country’s decarbonization strategy.

There is strong support for carbon taxes among the American public and in the business community, including more than two-thirds of all Americans and more than half of Republicans. Nearly 40 countries and more than 20 sub-national jurisdictions are now pricing carbon.

Despite this support, political gridlock and the powerful corporate opposition have obstructed policy action at the U.S. federal level. Overcoming these entrenched interests will require courageous politicians. This proposal deserves serious attention from the Trump administration and policymakers on both sides of the aisle.

Noah Kaufman is an economist for the U.S. Climate Initiative  at the World Resources Institute.  The focus of his work is on carbon pricing and other market-based climate change solutions.

February 08, 2017

What Good Is Shareholder Advocacy?

By Marc Gunther. 

Last week, ExxonMobil added Susan Avery, a physicist, atmospheric scientist and former president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutions, to its board of directors.

Shareholder advocates, led by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which has been organizing shareholder campaigns at ExxonMobil for nearly two decades — yes, two decades — welcomed the appointment.

Tim Smith, the director of environmental, social and governance (ESG) shareowner engagement at Walden Asset Management, said in a news release: “This action by the board is encouraging for shareowners and we want to commend Exxon for this prudent and forward-looking decision.”

For shareholder advocates — investors who represent public pension funds, socially-responsible money managers, unions and church groups, and exercise their rights as owners to try to influence corporate behavior — this is about as good as it gets. ICCR and its allies have for three years called on ExxonMobil to elect an independent director with climate change expertise. They’ve won.

But will the planet notice? Of course not. No new director, not even a climate scientist –and there’s a difference between being a scientist and an advocate — will persuade the board or top executives of ExxonMobil to turn a company that says it is “committed to being the world’s premier petroleum and petrochemical company” into, say, a wind or solar firm. In a long profile of ExxonMobil published just this week, Steve LeVine of Quartz concluded: “Exxon is, and will long continue to be, foremost an oil company.”

Shareholder advocates will continue to push ExxonMobil, and the company will continue to do what it chooses to do, a dynamic that underscores the problem with shareholder advocacy: It’s all about persuasion. Those hundreds of shareholder resolutions that are filed every year with big companies? They are all precatory — a fancy legal term that means expressing a wish or request — and so corporate managers are free to ignore them, and often do, even in the exceedingly rare cases which a majority of shareholders vote for a resolution.

I say this not to disparage shareholder advocates. I’ve long admired such titans of the shareholder advocacy movement as Robert A.G. Monks (who I profiled in 2002 for FORTUNE) and Nell Minow, as well as Tim Smith, who led ICCR for many years, and their allies at nonprofit As You Sow, . But in these times, it’s important for social-justice advocates, nonprofit groups and those who fund them to take a hard-headed look at their strategies, to see what’s working and what is not. As Kevin Starr, who heads up the Mulago Foundation, argued recently:

That means that you get absolutely clear on what you’re setting out to accomplish, identify the outcome(s) that would signify impact, connect the dots from your work to all the way to impact, and strip away all the stuff that doesn’t get you there. You measure what’s critical to delivery, behavior change, and eventual impact, and you continually iterate based on what you measure.

How many social-justice advocates, nonprofits and foundations do this? Not enough, I’m certain. Which brings us back to shareholder advocacy.

It’s hard to measure the impact of shareholder advocacy, or any advocacy, for that matter. Often, shareholder advocates work on issues that also attract attention from politicians, regulators, activist groups, business-friendly NGOS, corporate social-responsibility insiders and consumers. When change happens, it’s hard to tease out cause and effect.

Some notable achievements

That said, shareholder advocates have notched some notable achievements. In the 2000s, first at Dell, later at Apple, and eventually through much of the computer industry, they persuaded companies to take back and recycle electronics. According to The Shareholder Action Guide, a new book from Andrew Behar of As You Sow, the group wangled a meeting in 2007 with Steve Jobs, then Apple’s CEO. Jobs was, no surprise, caustic and negative at first, but he eventually conceded that Apple did not want to be seen as an environmental laggard. Not long after, Apple announced a broad set of environmental commitments known as “A Greener Apple.” Score one for engaged owners.

More recently, Natasha Lamb, who leads shareholder engagement at Arjuna Capital, a sustainable investing firm, led a series of successful engagements with technology companies, including Apple, Intel, Amazon, Expedia, and eBay, around the issue of gender pay equity. All have promised to close the gap between what they pay men and what they pay women. This year, Arjuna will take the campaign to finance and consumer products firms. “There’s a critical mass of companies that are doing it, and the other companies see the writing on the wall,” Lamb told me.

Such victories have led As You Sow’s Behar to declare, with some exuberance:

We believe that most of the world’s environmental and human rights issues can be resolved by increased corporate responsibility and that shareholders are the single most powerful force for creating positive, lasting change in corporate behavior.

Say what? Shareholders are “the single most powerful force” for changing companies? More powerful that governments, activists, consumers and workers? Forgive me, but I’m skeptical.

Having paid on-and-off attention to shareholder advocates for years, my impression — and yes, it’s an impression, not a peer-reviewed study — is that they have been stymied more often than not. For much of the mid-2000s, for example, shareholder advocates pushed Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to use more recycled content in their plastic bottles. They got some tepid commitments, but as oil prices fell, so did the interest in using recycled instead of cheaper virgin plastic. US recycling rates have been flat for years. Shareholder persuasion can’t overturn economics.

On the issue of CEO pay–long the No. 1 agenda item for many shareholder advocates–there has been scant progress. Just the opposite, in fact: The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute reported last year that from 1978 to 2015, “inflation-adjusted compensation of the top CEOs increased 940.9 percent, a rise 73 percent greater than stock market growth and substantially greater than the painfully slow 10.3 percent growth in a typical worker’s annual compensation over the same period.”

Nell Minow, who has worked on corporate governance issues since the 1990s, says: “Every effort to contain CEO pay has been (throwing) gasoline on the fire.”

Making the business case

There’s a pattern here, as Arjuna’s Natasha Lamb explained:

Shareholder engagement works when the change requested by the investor is in the company’s self- interest. In the absence of that, if it’s only about the right thing to do, that’s not enough. It’s got to be the smart thing to do. There’s got to be a business case.

To be more specific, there’s got to be a business case that appeals to corporate managers, who have an annoying but predictable tendency to pursue their own self-interest, even when it conflicts with the long-term interests of the company. This is key. You may be able to make a very good business case for curbing CEO pay, but try making it to a CEO. He or she is unlikely to be persuaded.

So what are the chances that shareholder advocacy can move the needle on the all-important issue of climate change? The advocates argue that climate change creates risks to oil companies like Exxon or Chevron, citing global efforts to curb carbon emissions. Says Lamb: “If a cap is put on the amount of carbon we can burn as a planet, and they can’t sell two-thirds of their assets, that’s a detrimental risk to their business.” This is a legitimate worry for long-term investors, particularly pension funds such as CalPERS or CalSTRS that are investing today on behalf of workers who will be collecting pensions a half century from now.

The trouble is, the executives who run ExxonMobil or Chevron don’t operate with a 50-year time horizon, even though they invest capital in oil and gas infrastructure that may be around for nearly that long. They’re thinking about the next five to 10 years, for obvious reasons. (The average tenure of a FORTUNE 500 CEO is about five years.) Boards don’t seem to be any better. And while Shell, Total and Statoil have all invested in renewable energy, they are driven by near-term market opportunity, not shareholder pressure. Short-term thinking may be the biggest obstacle to effective shareholder advocacy.

The other obstacle is that the world’s biggest institutional investors vote no or abstain on the vast majority of the environmental, social and governance resolutions filed by the shareholder advocates. BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity all support management, and not the advocates, just about all the time.

This may come has a surprise because Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, which the world’s largest asset manager, loves to pontificate about corporate sustainability and long-term thinking. What’s more, in a recent report, the BlackRock Institute recommended that “all investors should incorporate climate change awareness into their investment processes.” Yet, as The Times recently reported, Block Rock “voted against every shareholder proposal relating to diversity, environment, governance and social concerns over the last year, according to Proxy Insight.” Every single one.

Resolutions about resolutions

Shareholder advocates have taken notice, so they are now filing resolutions at Black Rock (as well as at other big asset managers) that accuse BlackRock of putting its reputation at risk because of its “perplexing and troubling” votes on environmental and social issues, as the Financial Times reported.

Resolutions about resolutions, in other words. It brings to mind a cat chasing its own tail.

[BlackRock’s behavior is perplexing only if you overlook the fact that big-company CEOs are among its big customers. BlackRock manages corporate pension funds and 401-K plans. When there’s business to be done, why annoy a customer or potential customer over a trivial matter like global warming?]

In fairness, the new set of shareholder resolutions at asset managers won’t do any harm, and they could do good. If BlackRock worries about its reputation, it may begin to align its proxy voting with its sustainability rhetoric. And then, the fossil fuel companies may pay more attention to shareholder resolutions. And then? Well, I’m not sure what is supposed to happen after that.

Someday we’ll find out, I suppose. It could be a long wait.


Marc Gunther writer for Fortune, GreenBiz and Sustainable Business Forum co-chair, Fortune Brainstorm Green 2012 and a blogger at www.marcgunther.com.  His book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, has been published as an Amazon Kindle Single. You can buy it here for $1.99.

February 07, 2017

The Trump Trade

by Garvin Jabusch

The first two weeks under the Trump administration have been a shock to the system. With the change in administration, how will you approach your stock portfolio(s)?

For starters, your fundamentals should remain unchanged. For me, that means looking for great companies in expanding markets that are enabling long-term economic growth, and reducing systemic risks. Of course, this also means buying these stocks at low valuations. Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett were right about ‘wonderful companies at fair prices.’ That is never going to change.

With that said, let’s look at what has changed and what to do about it.

Unpredictability -- that’s the first quality worth noting about the new White House team’s leadership style. Trump’s comments and actions concerning topics such as open global trade, immigration and the US-China relationship will cause uncertainty, to which markets usually do not respond well. George Soros recently emphasized this point, adding, “Uncertainty is at a peak, and actually uncertainty is the enemy of long-term investment. I don’t think the markets are going to do very well.” 

It is true that in the short time since Trump’s election, markets have rallied. Traders perceive that uncertainty has actually decreased because the election cycle is over, and they believe a Trump administration will benefit business by removing regulations. The possibility of fiscal stimulus via infrastructure -- something a Republican Congress never let Obama do -- has also rallied markets. But as we witnessed on 1/30 and will likely continue to see, uncertainty's retreat will prove to be an illusion. 

For example, markets have largely appeared to accept the positive business aspects of Trump’s rhetoric but equally, so far, to discount the negatives, such as the possibility of a trade war. Trump also promises to roll back financial oversight and regulations such as Dodd-Frank, which raises the specter of possible asset-bubble deflation, a la 2008. Good markets should not be confused with a stable investing environment.

Beyond Soros, other qualified observers, such as Eliot A. Cohen and Ruth Ben-Ghiat have noted that there is enough personal and political capriciousness swirling within this White House that the consequences could extend far beyond market implications. We should not make the mistake of not taking seriously the administration’s actions over its first two weeks.

So, portfolio defensiveness is clearly warranted. What that means for an individual investor’s portfolio, I leave to your best judgement.

Yet the inevitable market volatility will present opportunity, both in buying oversold securities as opportunities arise, and also in making investments that benefit from volatility itself.

Trump’s worldview often contradicts global momentum, and this can present buying opportunities. Energy policy is a prime example of this. The global transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energies is now clearly underway. Nevertheless, the Trump administration's attempts to prolong the fossil age a few more years may meet with some success. It is possible that gas and oil may be about to enter their last, large bull run. If this is the case, some investors may see this as a short-term opportunity, before the much bigger opportunity in being short fossil fuels indefinitely (or until it’s time to cover). For those looking to grow their portfolios beyond the next couple of years, a much larger opportunity appears -- companies that are trailblazing toward the interconnected, sustainable economy.

Trump’s actions also spell out the need for diversification in light of U.S. political risk. While Trump has removed all references to climate change from whitehouse.gov, approved the Keystone XL and DAPL pipelines, canceled all EPA grants, and caused the CDC to cancel its climate change and health conference, he can’t stop the global momentum of renewable energy (worth a post on its own -- stay tuned).

So, how does an investor respond? As a fund manager, this looks objectively to me like any other case of political risk in a given country, underscoring the importance of a diversified portfolio. Saudi Arabia has policies against beer? Vatican City has ethical restrictions on imports of contraceptive devices? Maybe place less weight on companies trying to sell those products into those markets. Obviously, these examples are extreme to the point of absurdity, but they illustrate my point about political risks and diversification, because both beer and condoms have huge markets in other geographical areas that can be exploited for investment return. My examples are also less than apt in that there is today a booming market in the U.S. for both wind and solar but, considering both the words and actions of Trump and his administration, it seems only prudent to capitalize on renewable energies’ opportunities in companies with large global distribution networks and thus are not overly reliant on U.S. distribution. Canadian Solar (CSIQ), Vestas Wind Systems (VWDRY), and JinkoSolar (JKS) come to mind. Renewable energies worldwide are booming, and if the U.S. chooses not to participate fully in these industries, at least our portfolios can.

There may be opportunities in renewable infrastructure under Trump’s watch, as he pushes to develop transmission capacity from windy middle America to the coasts.

We are now, as much as at any time in recent memory, embarking upon an uncertain landscape, both culturally and economically. More than ever, investing requires a long view into how the economy is most likely to evolve, regardless of short- and medium-term gyrations, wild and scary as those may become.

In short, that means figuring out what’s next. What’s next in energy? In tech? In consumer goods? The way to earn returns over the long term entails investing in firms that are leading the way to the future, holding and accumulating shares through volatility, and looking for value.

Note: A version of this post appeared previously on Worth.com.

Garvin Jabusch is cofounder and chief investment officer of Green Alpha® Advisors, LLC. He is co-manager of the Shelton Green Alpha Fund (NEXTX), of the Green Alpha Next Economy Index, the Green Alpha Growth & Income Portfolio, and of the Sierra Club Green Alpha Portfolio. He also authors the Sierra Club's green economics blog, "Green Alpha's Next Economy."

February 06, 2017

Broadwind Catches a Breeze

by Debra Fiakas CFA

Two weeks ago wind tower builder Broadwind Energy (BWEN:  Nasdaq) announced $28 million in new orders.  Plans are to deliver all the towers within the year, giving a nice boost to the top-line for a company that recorded $170.3 million in sales over the last reported twelve months, well below the same period the year before.  In addition to wind towers, the company produces gearing mechanisms used in the oil, gas and mining industries.  Unfortunately, demand from these customers has been weak in recent periods.

The company has had some difficulty in establishing a profitable business model.  Losses for Broadwind have been epic in size and by the end of the last full fiscal year 2015, the retained deficit had ballooned to $308.8 million.  However, the last two reported quarters carried a glimmer of hope for the company as both ended solidly in the black.  The two analysts who have published estimates for Broadwind expect the company to reach $184.7 million or $196.7 million in total sales (an average of $190.7 million) in the current fiscal year.  They are also expecting a profit, at least in terms of cash earnings, of $0.12 per share.

Broadwind has survived its many years by generating positive operating cash flows even when reported earnings were negative.  In the twelve months ending September 2016, the company converted 14.8% of sales to operating cash flow.  Performance could get even better going forward.  The company has a cost reduction strategy in place that is still expected to realize new efficiency in continuing operations.
The decision to jettison the unprofitable Services segment is also an important step toward a healthy business model.  Most of the assets related to the Services segment have already been sold by the end of 2015, but $513,000 still needs to be mopped up.  What remains of the Services segment resulted in a net loss of $908,000 in the first nine months of 2016.  

Broadwind remains a small company with many challenges in its markets, but the company has made considerable progress toward becoming a growing and profitable business.  The oil and gas industry has come through a difficult period.  With a change in political thinking in Washington DC, the tight and squeaky shoe may now be on the foot of renewable energy. 

Wind energy has made great strides over the past couple of years.  By the end of September 2016, there was 75,700 megawatts of wind power generating capacity installed in the U.S.  Wind now represents 4.7% of the total electricity generating capacity in the U.S.

It is not likely that even the myopic views on the environment and climate issues held by the Trump administration can reduce the installed presence.  However, new projects could be in jeopardy if capital flows dry up as investors shy away from sectors that seem out of favor in the Oval Office.  Thus even though Broadwind just got a boost in new orders for wind towers, investors should temper expectations.

Debra Fiakas is the Managing Director of Crystal Equity Research, an alternative research resource on small capitalization companies in selected industries.

Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.

February 04, 2017

What Happened To Solar In 2016, And What To Expect In 2017

by Shawn Kravetz, Esplanade Capital

What happened to solar industry fundamentals in 2016?

  • Global demand shattered records growing ~40% to ~80 GW
    • The U.S. grew ~75% to ~14 GW with solar accounting for 40-50% of new generation capacity in 2016 (vs. close to 0% in 2004 when Esplanade started investing in solar.)
    • China installed 34 GW, a massive but volatile figure with record H1 installations giving way to an air pocket in the third quarter followed by a fourth quarter rebound
  • Solar now competes against natural gas, coal, and other wholesale electricity sources not just in the US but throughout the world
    • Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that utility scale solar produceselectricity at ~$45/MWh with no fuel price risk versus coal at $50-$90/MWh
    • Major global corporations such as Apple, Google, Amazon, and Wynn Resorts are shifting almost entirely to renewable sources to power their energy-intensive businesses

Why did solar indices get halved in light of record demand?

  • The extension of the US solar investment tax credit late in 2015 ignited a sharp but short-livedDecember rally thereby starting 2016 at elevated levels
  • In April 2016, former industry darling SunEdison filed for bankruptcy casting a cloud over the sector including buyers of solar project assets
  • In June 2016, Tesla bid to acquire sister-company SolarCity in what many, including Esplanade, believed a bailout of another financially stressed former industry bellwether
  • Record demand catalyzed outsized midstream capacity expansions ensuring oversupply and supply chain price collapse in H2 16 as Chinese demand waned
  • Trump’s victory further torpedoed the sector at the end of 2016 as his campaign pronouncements against renewable energy injected further uncertainty into investors sentiment
  • Various policy and macroeconomic factors – most notably rising interest rates - also nipped at benchmark performance as well

What do we foresee in 2017 (big picture)?

  • Our intelligence suggests that Trump very likely ignores renewables (at least at theoutset) and certainly has not aired any plans to dismantle an industry that employs more than coal
    • While Trump presents medium-term risks to the status quo, we do not expect any meaningful changes in the near-term
    • In fact, the new administration has already publicly confirmed their preference to maintain current federal renewable policies
  • Globally, we expect front-end loaded demand in 2017 with perhaps the first annual decline in Esplanade’s history due to:
    • Chinese demand potentially exceeding record H1 2016 levels but likely to collapse after the June 30, 2017 subsidy step-down
    • US demand likely declining as utility scale procurement cycle resets after record 2016 installations
    • India emerging as the newest mega-market but only partially offsetting China and US headwinds
    • Japan’s gradual decline mitigated by emerging market growth
  • Like demand, we expect value chain pricing to remain relatively stable (and possibly up) in H1 2017 but face pressure in H2 as China demand wanes
  • Continued escalation in interest rates could factor slightly on 2017, but we estimate that current rates neither create nor destroy demand given that most solar debt is benchmarked to LIBOR not Treasuries
  • LIBOR has already increased 100-150 basis points since January 2014 while solar installations continued to break records in 2014-16 despite higher borrowing costs.
Shawn Kravetz is President and Chief Investment Officer of Esplanade Capital LLC, an investment management company he founded in 1999.  The firm manages private investment partnerships including Esplanade Capital Electron Partners LP, launched in 2009, which intends to be the world’s premier private investment fund dedicated to public securities in solar energy and those sectors impacted by its emergence.. 

February 02, 2017

Ten Clean Energy Stocks For 2017: January Jump

Tom Konrad Ph.D., CFA

The year got off to a spectacular start for my tenth annual Ten Clean Energy Stocks model portfolio. (You can read about the performance in 2016 and prior years here.)  The portfolio and its income and growth subportfolios were up 9%, 8%, and 14%, respectively.  Clean energy stocks in general also did well, with my three respective benchmarks up 2 to 3% each.  (I use the YieldCo ETF YLCO as a benchmark for the income stocks, the Clean Energy ETF PBW as a benchmark for the growth stocks, and an 80/20 blend of the two as a benchmark for the whole portfolio.)  The Green Global Equity Income Portfolio (GGEIP), an income and green focused strategy I manage returned 5%.

Detailed performance is shown in the chart below:

10 for 17 jan total return

I attribute the impressive January numbers to several factors.
  1. Despite anti-climate rhetoric, renewable energy has reached a tipping point, and investors are beginning to realize that (as I said in a recent interview on CNBC Asia) the Trump Administration will be less of a headwind for clean energy than a reduced tailwind.
  2. A rebound from December tax-loss selling (SSW-PRG and ASPN).
  3. Expected good new materializing (ABY)
  4. Unexpected good news (NEP).
I'll look into these faqctors in detail in the individual stock discussion below.

Stock discussion

Below I describe each of the stocks and groups of stocks in more detail. 

Income Stocks

Pattern Energy Group (NASD:PEGI)

12/31/16 Price: $18.99.  Annual Dividend: $1.63 (8.6%). Expected 2017 dividend: $1.64 to $1.67.  Low Target: $18.  High Target: $30. 
1/31/17 Price: $19.74.  YTD Dividend: $0.  Annualized Dividend: $1.63.  YTD Total Return: 3.9%

Pattern is a Yieldco owning mostly wind projects in North America.  With little news in January, the stock advanced along with other Yieldcos recovering from a Trump-inspired sell off.

8point3 Energy Partners (NASD:CAFD)
12/31/16 Price: $12.98.  Annual Dividend: $1.00 (7.7%). Expected 2017 dividend: $1.00 to $1.05.  Low Target: $10.  High Target: $20.
1/31/17 Price: $13.54.  YTD Dividend: $0.  Annualized Dividend: $1.00.  YTD Total Return: 4.3%

Solar-only Yieldco 8point3 reported fourth quarter earnings on January 26th.  Although the company upped their guidance and distribution, analysts were not thrilled.  The YieldCo is considering refinancing some of its company level, interest-only debt using project-level amortizing debt.  In terms of safety of the stock, this is a good move because it eliminates refinancing risk.  However, amortizing debt requires payment of both interest and principal, which will reduce cash available for distribution. 

The concern is that this might lead to a future dividend cut, unless the company can continue to grow enough to offset the future principal payments.  Management thinks it can, since they issued guidance for 12% distribution growth in 2017.

Hannon Armstrong Sustainable Infrastructure (NYSE:HASI)
.

12/31/16 Price: $18.99.  Annual Dividend: $1.32 (7.0%).  Expected 2017 dividend: $1.34 to $1.36.  Low Target: $15.  High Target: $30. 
1/31/17 Price: $18.28.  YTD Dividend: $0.  Annualized Dividend: $1.32.  YTD Total Return: -3.7%

Real Estate Investment Trust and investment bank specializing in financing sustainable infrastructure Hannon Armstrong drifted lower despite a lack of news.  I continue to consider it very attractive at this level.

NRG Yield, A shares (NYSE:NYLD/A)
12/31/16 Price: $15.36.  Annual Dividend: $1.00 (6.5%). 
Expected 2017 dividend: $1.00 to $1.10.  Low Target: $12.  High Target: $25. 
1/31/17 Price: $16.25.  YTD Dividend: $0.  Annualized Dividend: $1.00.  YTD Total Return: 5.8%

NRG Yield (NYLD and NYLD/A) drifted higher along with other YieldCos on a lack of significant news.  Two activist investors have revealed a stake in NRG Yield's parent, NRG Energy (NRG).  While they will be pushing for changes at NRG, I don't expect any significant changes at NRG Yield until its stock price recovers to the point where it again has the ability to raise equity without diluting existing shareholders.

Atlantica Yield, PLC (NASD:ABY)
12/31/16 Price: $19.35.  Annual Dividend: $0.65 (3.4%). Expected 2017 dividend: $0.65 to $1.45. Low Target: $10.  High Target: $30.
 
1/31/17 Price: $21.40.  YTD Dividend: $0.  Annualized Dividend: $0.65.  YTD Total Return: 10.6%
 
 
Althoughthe news feeds have been silent on the subject, I tweeted some big news at Atlantica Yield on January 13th:
Breaking: $ABY Atlantica Yield receives forbearance from DoE. Should allow annual dividend increase to at least $1.15. Bought @ $19.70
The news came from a 6-K filing with the SEC.  The forbearance means that funds which had been previously trapped at Alanitca's Mojave and Solana project subsidiaries can now be used at the company level to pay distributions to shareholders.  They related to ownership stakes of its former parent, Abengoa in Atlantica Yield which were reduced because of Abengoa's bankruptcy.  Atlanica is still working on obtaining similar forbearances for its ACT and Kaxu projects in Mexico, but the Mojave and Solana account for the majority of the outstanding forbearances in terms of the cash flow of the underlying projects.

As I said in the tweet, I anticipate that the next quarter's dividend will be at least $0.29 ($1.15 at an annual rate) up from $0.16.  The remaining forbearances should allow Atlantica to increase its quarterly distributions to at least $0.36 ($1.45 annually.)  I expect the stock to rise further when the anticipated dividend increase is announced.

NextEra Energy Partners (NYSE:NEP)
12/31/16 Price: $25.54.  Annual Dividend: $1.36 (5.3%). 
Expected 2017 dividend: $1.38 to $1.50.  Low Target: $20.  High Target: $40. 
1/31/17 Price: $31.53.  YTD Dividend: $0.  Annualized Dividend: $1.41.  YTD Total Return: 23.45%

NextEra Energy Partners released its fourth quarter earnings on January 27th.  Not only did it extend its 12% to 15% distribution growth outlook for the next five years, but the company's parent, NextEra (NEE) agreed to reduce its Incentive Distribution Rights (IDR) from 50% of incremental distributions to 25%.  With more of the money going to NEP shareholders, it seems much more likely that NEP will be able to achieve its aggressive distribution growth target.

Other Income Stocks

Covanta Holding Corp. (NYSE:CVA)
12/31/16 Price: $15.60.  Annual Dividend: $1.00 (6.4%).  Expected 2017 dividend: $1.00 to $1.06.  Low Target: $10.  High Target: $30. 
1/31/17 Price: $16.1.  YTD Dividend: $0.  Annualized Dividend: $1.00.  YTD Total Return: 3.2%

Waste-to-energy developer and operator Covanta drifted upwards without significant news.  The stock did have a hiccup on January 9th when it was revealed that county officials in Maryland were investigating a fire at one of its facilities in December.  I don't expect this investigation will have a significant impact on the company's profitability going forward. 

The company is preparing to commence operations at its newest facility in Dublin, Ireland in March.

Seaspan Corporation, Series G Preferred (NYSE:SSW-PRG)
12/31/16 Price: $19.94.  Annual Dividend: $2.05 (10.3%).  Expected 2017 dividend: $2.05.  Low Target: $18.  High Target: $27. 
1/31/17 Price: $22.70.  YTD Dividend: $0.51.  Annualized Dividend: $2.05.  YTD Total Return: 16.4%

The stock and preferred shares of leading independent charter owner of container ships recovered strongly in January in what I believe was a rebound from tax loss selling.  They have fallen back significantly in the first couple days of February when Morgan Stanley initiated coverage of the common shares at "Underweight." 

The reasoning behind this rating rests on a probably cut in the common's dividend which I also anticipate.  A dividend cut for the common shares will only make the preferred dividends safer, hence the sell-off in SSW-PRG is unjustified, and this is a good opportunity to buy the preferred if you did not get a chance before it rose at the start of the year.

Growth Stocks

MiX Telematics Limited (NASD:MIXT).
12/31/16 Price: $6.19.  Annual Dividend: $0.14 (2.3%).  Expected 2017 dividend: $0.14 to $0.16.  Low Target: $4.  High Target: $15. 
1/31/17 Price: $7.14.  YTD Dividend: $0.  Annualized Dividend: $0.14.  YTD Total Return: 15.3%

Vehicle and fleet management software as a service provider MiX Telematics rose in January, perhaps in anticipation of strong quarterly results to be announced on February 2nd.  I have not finished reviewing these results as I write, but they were very good.

Aspen Aerogels (NYSE:ASPN)

12/31/16 Price: $4.13.  Annual Dividend and expected 2017 dividend: None.  Low Target: $3.  High Target: $10. 
1/31/17 Price: $4.66.  YTD Total Return: 12.8%

Aspen Aerogels rebounded from last year's lows most likely due to the abatement of tax loss selling, since there was no news of any significance.  The company will release its fourth quarter results on February 23rd/

Final Thoughts

All in all, it was a great January for my model portfolio.  The shock of the Trump victory last November caused clean energy stock to sell off regardless of what the new President and the Republican Congress are likely to do now that they are in control of government.  This sort of panic selling leads to opportunities for calmer investors, and I think this is part of the explanation of my outsized one month gains. 

The pleasant surprises in NextEra Energy Partners' and MiX Technologies' earnings, and the anticipated good news from Atlantica Yield added to the gains.  I can only hope that so many of my predictions (not to mention dumb luck) will continue to go my way for the rest of the year.

Disclosure: Long HASI, MIXT, PEGI, NYLD/A, CAFD, CVA, ABY, NEP, SSW-PRG, ASPN, GLBL, TERP.  Long puts on SSW (an effective short position held as a hedge on SSW-PRG.)

DISCLAIMER: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results.  This article contains the current opinions of the author and such opinions are subject to change without notice.  This article has been distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product.  Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

February 01, 2017

Climate Bonds 2016 Highlights

by the Climate Bonds Team

A record year with green bond issuance of USD 81bn, up 92% on 2015 figures

 green bond trends 2016

The Trends

A maturing of the green bonds market, diversification across issuers, products and use of proceeds are the main trends identified in our Green Bonds Highlights 2016 summary.

The Big Numbers

92% – growth on 2015 making 2016 the most prolific year to date

USD 11.8bn – November issuance, the largest month on record

24 – number of countries with green bond issuers

27% – proportion of Chinese issuers

241 – number of labelled green bonds issued (median size USD133.7m)

>90 – number of new issuers

>50 – number of repeat issuers

USD 4.3bn – largest single green bond ever issued from the Bank of Communications (China)

1st Sovereign – Republic of Poland became the world’s first sovereign issuer

regional trends

China the Big Mover

Green bond debt raised by Chinese entities rose from 8th in 2015 to 1st place in 2016, accounting for more than a quarter of the 2016 global total.

This follows increasing awareness of environmental issues in China which has been followed through to policy and financial decision-making.

More information on major developments is available in English and Chinese in our special China Green Bonds Market 2016 report.

Read More Highlights

There’s more to read in the full summary, download it here.

The Last Word - Three things to watch for in 2017

More issuance from sovereign and sub-sovereign issuers as governments try to mobilise green investment and support market liquidity.

Policy developments will push green finance even further as the G20 nations prioritise climate action. This will also encourage greater harmonisation of green bond guidelines across markets.

Over-subscription of green bonds and tight pricing will remain and we expect to see more issuers from lower rating bands coming to market.

——— The Climate Bonds Team includes Sean Kidney, Andrew Whiley,Bridget Boulle, Jonny Wyatt, Beate Sonerud and Camille Frandon Martinez.  
 The Climate Bonds Initiative is an "investor-focused" not-for-profit promoting long-term debt models to fund a rapid, global transition to a low-carbon economy. 

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