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June 30, 2009

Clean Energy Stocks Shopping List: Five Electricity Transmission Stocks

We may be headed into a renewed market slump.  If so, it will pay to wait before buying, but when the time does come to buy, here are 5 electric transmission stocks I have my eye on.

Tom Konrad, Ph.D., CFA

On June 2, I wrote that I thought the market was near its peak.  That day, the S&P 500 closed at 944.74.  On June 12, it closed up 0.15% at 946.21, and has since trended down, currently trading down 5% as I write.  I expect further declines this year, either with the market heading straight down from here, or bouncing around for a while, possibly for a few months, before declining in earnest.

This article continues my Clean Energy Stocks Shopping List series, which I started with the intent of occupying myself while I wait for the market to fall.  Like most people, I find it difficult not to buy when I find a company I'm interested in, even if I don't like the valuation.  I find planning my future purchases lessens the need to use the cash I've been accumulating now, and possibly will be of some help to readers in the meantime.  So far, I've brought you five clean transport stocks, and five energy efficiency stocks.  I have enough others for about three more lists, which you will be able to find here as they are published.

When I'm done, you should have enough to put together a diversified portfolio of companies involved in what I consider the most promising clean energy sectors.  In other words, don't expect any Algae Biofuel stocks (I like the industry, but not the stocks) or Hydrogen Fuel Cell Stocks (I'm skeptical about the economics of the technology.)

I'm not skeptical about either the electric transmission industry or the technology.  As a century-old industry, it contains many mature, profitable companies, but the need to build out and enhance our existing (and rather decrepit) electric grid in order to integrate renewable energy means that there are also exciting opportunities for growth.  Here are five.

Equipment Providers

#1 General Cable (BGC) produces exactly what you'd expect: cable of all sorts, for electrical transmission, wiring, and communications.  If you believe (as I do) that the long term decline in the use of fossil fuels will mean the increasing electrification of the economy, General Cable is the one company I'd point to as most likely to benefit from the trend.   The company is solidly profitable, with a forward P/E of 10, almost $4 of cash per share, and strong operating cash flow.

#2 ABB Group (ABB) is a global technology  firm based in Switzerland with products focused on electrical transmission and distribution, and one of two global leaders in High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission (the other is Siemens (SI).)  HVDC is the best currently available technology for transporting large amounts of electricity over long distances, and is essential to the hoped for European Destertec Project, and would likely be necessary if we were to use concentrating solar power in the US Southwest as dispatchable power to balance variable renewable energy in the rest of the US.

On a more prosaic level, ABB also has technology to improve the efficiency of electricity distribution as well as transmission. The company currently trades at a P/E of 12.6, has $3 cash per share on the balance sheet, strong operating cash flow, and pays a dividend over 3%.

Service Providers

The companies which will contract to build out the new electric infrastructure seem most likely to be able to leverage the build-out to achieve high levels of growth, and hence large gains in stock price.  Here are three:

#3 Pike Electric (PIKE) performs service and upgrade of electric transmission and distribution throughout the US.   Although the company has a strong balance sheet and cash flow, analysts expect earnings to drop significantly next year.  If lower earnings materialize, we can expect significant price deterioration (especially in the context of an overall market decline,) and may be able to purchase this stock at an attractive valuation.  The forward P/E is currently over 17 at a stock price of $11.60.  The relatively high valuation makes Pike likely to be hit hard by a general market decline, leading to an excellent buying opportunity.

#4 MasTec (MTZ) not only builds and maintains transmission and distribution infrastructure, they also provide those services for fiber optic communications networks, as well as wind farms.  Mastec is less well capitalized than ABB and General Cable, but still has a strong balance sheet and cash flow, and it currently trades at a more attractive valuation than Pike, with a P/E of only 11.6.  As such, it's an interesting wind and transmission play.

#5 Quanta Services (PWR) No stock list of mine is complete without Quanta Services, which was once described to me by an industry insider as the company to call if you want to put steel in the ground on a transmission project.  Quanta has a strong balance sheet (strong cash flow, $2.65 cash per share, and a current ratio of 3.3,) but its high growth means that it trades at the relatively rich forward P/E ratio of 18.6.  Like Pike, a general stock market drop should hit Quanta disproportionately, providing an excellent buying opportunity.

DISCLOSURE: Tom Konrad and/or his clients own BGC, ABB, SI, PIKE, MTZ, and PWR.

DISCLAIMER: The information and trades provided here and in the comments are for informational purposes only and are not a solicitation to buy or sell any of these securities. Investing involves substantial risk and you should evaluate your own risk levels before you make any investment. Past results are not an indication of future performance. Please take the time to read the full disclaimer here.

June 29, 2009

What's Next For The US Natural Gas Fund (UNG)?

Charles Morand

Natural gas is the one commodity that has mostly resisted the rally ushered in some three months ago by a growing consensus that the worse may be over for the economy.

A number of reasons have been put forward to explain this, including record storage levels and a growing supply base being unlocked through shale gas production in North America.  

Yet natural gas' future looks bright: (a) it burns a lot cleaner than coal, making it a superior alternative to meet base- and peakload power requirements in a carbon-constrained world; (b) it is receiving growing attention as bridge fuel between gasoline-powered internal combustion engines and electric vehicles; (c) there is ample supply of it in the U.S. and Canada, making it popular with the energy independence crowd.

The near-term picture, however, is bleak...and it could be about to get bleaker. According to analysts at Citigroup Global Markets, trading activity at the US Natural Gas Fund (UNG) may be 'artificially' propping the front-month NYMEX contract. The storage situation is apparently bleak enough to warrant yet lower prices, begging the question: when, if it all, will the chickens come home to roost?

Although the combination of a bright future and depressed prices make natural gas - through UNG - an interesting investment idea for light-green alt energy investors with a time horizon beyond 12 months, there could be further price declines on the way. Right now may yet be a little early to pull the long trigger...


June 28, 2009

A123's Planned IPO Moves to the Front Burner

John Petersen  

After six months of regulatory silence and $100 million in new funding, A123 Systems amended the SEC registration statement for its proposed IPO on June 23rd. While this latest filing may simply be A123's way demonstrating its ability to raise matching funds for a scaled back ATVM loan request of $1 billion and pending applications for $438 million in direct Federal grants, my sense is that the proposed IPO will probably come to market in early September. Since ATVM loans will require 20% cost sharing and direct Federal grants will require 50% cost sharing, the IPO will probably be a good deal larger than the $175 million contemplated by A123's original filing.

I'm very interested in A123's IPO for several reasons. First, it will be underwritten by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Lazard, which will give us the first clear picture of how the top-tier investment banks and institutional investors value pure-play energy storage companies. Second, the emergence of A123 as a sub-sector leader will encourage lesser Li-ion battery developers to adopt comparably transparent disclosure metrics that will make it much easier to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses. Third, the existence of a large, adequately capitalized and business driven leader in the Li-ion sub-sector will probably dampen some of the unbridled optimism we've seen in the markets for transition stage Li-ion battery developers. Finally, the A123 IPO is likely to launch a renaissance of interest in a basic industrial sector that's been undervalued and ignored for years.

I spent some time over the weekend studying A123's draft prospectus and was able to glean important current data that tends to highlight the yawning economic chasms that Li-ion technology must bridge before it can compete in applications where the end-user has a choice. During the first quarter of 2009, A123's cost of goods sold was $1.89 per watt hour, which does not compare favorably with an average cost of roughly $0.20 per watt hour for lead acid batteries. Likewise A123's $41 million investment in property, plant and equipment that can manufacture up to 151,000 kWh of batteries per year is at least an order of magnitude greater than the capital cost of lead-acid battery manufacturing facilities.

I fully expect that capital outlays and manufacturing costs for Li-ion batteries will both decline dramatically over the next ten years. For the short- to medium-term, however, I expect gross profit margins in the Li-ion sub-sector to remain narrow and sales revenues to ramp-up slowly as Li-ion battery chemistry and manufacturing methods progress through two or three generations of technological change. It all boils down to baby steps; learning to crawl, then toddle, then walk and then run. The bumps, bruises, skinned knees and tears are all part of the learning process.

As regular readers know, I come from the lead-acid side of the battery business and believe that over next ten years the bulk of the expected revenue growth in the energy storage sector will flow to established manufacturers of inexpensive lead-acid batteries that can do the required work for a reasonable cost even if they are bulkier and heavier. Over the longer term, I expect leading Li-ion battery developers like A123 to overcome a myriad of cost, performance, safety, cycle-life, abuse tolerance and raw material constraints that I've written about in other articles, and ultimately usher in a golden age of cheap energy storage for applications ranging from portable power, to vehicles with plugs, to a smart grid that smoothly integrates a host of emerging power generation technologies. The changes won't come overnight and they will be expensive, but by 2020 the world will be very different from the one we live in today.

While I'm not so old that I avoid buying green bananas, I expect to be cold, dead and buried long before competition from Li-ion batteries results in a year on year decline in global sales of lead-acid batteries. Nevertheless, A123's upcoming IPO is certain to focus the market’s attention on the storage sector in a whole new way. Since I've been around long enough to know that a rising tide of investor sentiment lifts all of the boats in the marina, I think astute investors ought to be doing their boat shopping now.

June 26, 2009

Automotive Batteries, Short-term Revenue Growth Favors Lead-acid By 6 To 1

Last week, an article in Green Car Congress summarized a market forecast that Dr. Menahem Anderman presented at this month's Advanced Automotive Battery Conference in Long Beach, California. In his presentation, Dr. Anderman evaluated the market for HEVs in 2011, projected a $1,230 million market for automotive NiMH batteries, and projected a $320 million market for automotive Li-ion batteries. The following graph comes from Green Car Congress, is based on data from Dr. Anderman's AABC presentation, and shows both unit sales and market value of the Li-ion batteries that will be used in HEVs by 2011 (click on the graph for a larger image).

It's sobering if not downright depressing when you get to the middle of the article and read about Dr. Anderman's analysis of the gasoline prices required for HEVs to make economic sense.

Based on a five-year net present value analysis, Dr. Anderman concluded that:
  • Stop-start hybrids make economic sense in the $5 per gallon range;
  • Mild and strong hybrids require a gasoline price of roughly $7 per gallon; and
  • PHEVs and full EVs require a gasoline price of about $10 per gallon.
When he performed an eight-year present value analysis, Dr. Anderman concluded that:
  • Stop-start hybrids make sense in the $3 per gallon range;
  • Mild and strong hybrids make sense in the $5 per gallon range;
  • PHEVs require a gasoline price of roughly $7 per gallon; and
  • Full EVs still require a gasoline price of about $10 per gallon.
I know very few people that can perform a net present value analysis. I know even fewer who go looking for a new car with the idea that they're going to drive it for five to eight years. Given the dismal economics of mild and strong hybrids and the ghastly economics of cars with plugs, I believe the high-end market for the next several years will be limited to the image conscious affluent who are willing and able to pay big premiums to make a statement. While Dr. Anderman's forecast of 40,000 Li-ion powered HEVs in two years strikes me as a very ambitious target, I'm willing to set aside my reservations for purposes of this article and assume that manufacturers of automotive Li-ion batteries will be guaranteed revenues of $320 million in 2011.

While most would agree that $320 million of total revenue by 2011 sounds impressive, it loses a bit of luster when you consider that advanced lead-acid battery manufacturers can expect $900 million to $1.8 billion of incremental revenue by 2011 from the widespread implementation of stop-start technology as standard equipment.

I've used the following graph from an October 2008 Frost & Sullivan presentation in a couple of recent articles, but it bears repeating because the law of large numbers is the fundamental reason that short term revenue growth in the automotive battery market favors lead-acid by 6 to 1 over Li-ion. The long blue segments represent the stop-start market that will be dominated by advanced lead-acid batteries because they can do the required work, they cost 60% to 75% less than NiMH and Li-ion alternatives, and they are the only batteries that can be manufactured in sufficient numbers to serve the short-term needs of automakers. The red, green and violet segments represent the high priced "centerfold" alternatives favored by EV advocates, reporters, politicians and public relations managers who would rather sell a sweet dream than grapple with economic reality.

In How Short-Term Supply Constraints Will Impact Booming HEV Markets, I explained that Frost & Sullivan based their original forecast on European CO2 emission standards but did not account for President Obama's subsequent acceleration of domestic CAFE standards. That change alone will push growth that would normally have occurred between 2015 and 2020 into earlier years and could easily double the growth rates Frost & Sullivan expected last fall. So with that background in mind, let's run the numbers.

Currently automakers spend between $50 and $100 for the commodity lead-acid batteries they use for starting, lighting, ignition and accessories; call it an average of $60. Since stop-start hybrids put far more stress on the battery, the advanced lead-acid batteries needed for stop-start vehicles will probably cost the automakers $250 to $300 per vehicle; call it an average of $260. That means the battery cost increment for a stop-start vehicle will be in the $200 range.

A quick eyeball of the Frost & Sullivan graph shows forecasted sales of 4.5 million stop-start vehicles by 2011, which works out to about $900 million in incremental revenue for lead-acid battery manufacturers, or roughly three times Dr. Anderman's forecast for Li-ion. If accelerated CAFE standards double global demand for stop-start vehicles, the incremental revenue for lead-acid battery manufacturers will be closer to $1.8 billion, or roughly six times Dr. Anderman's forecast for Li-ion.

Li-ion battery developers Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI), Ener1 (HEV) and Valence Technologies (VLNC) have a combined market capitalization of $935 million and will be vying with a host of established domestic, European and Asian competitors for a piece of $320 million in total revenue.

In comparison, lead-acid battery manufacturers Exide Technologies (XIDE), C&D Technologies (CHP) and Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) have a combined market capitalization of $340 million and will be vying with their traditional competitors for a share of $1.8 billion of incremental revenue.

Benjamin Graham
said, "In the short term, the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine." The voting is based on hopes, dreams and expectations. The weighing is based on revenue growth, earnings and other business fundamentals. Any time I can identify one industry sub-sector that trades at one-third of the market value of its more glamorous cousin but is likely to enjoy three to six times the short-term revenue gains, I have to believe the undervalued sector will reward investors handsomely as the weighing machine returns to balance.

DISCLOSURE: Author is a former director and executive officer of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and holds a large long position in its stock. He also holds a small long position in Exide (XIDE).

John L. Petersen, Esq. is a U.S. lawyer based in Switzerland who works as a partner in the law firm of Fefer Petersen & Cie and represents North American, European and Asian clients, principally in the energy and alternative energy sectors. His international practice is limited to corporate securities and small company finance, where he focuses on guiding small growth-oriented companies through the corporate finance process, beginning with seed stage private placements, continuing through growth stage private financing and concluding with a reverse merger or public offering. Mr. Petersen is a 1979 graduate of the Notre Dame Law School and a 1976 graduate of Arizona State University. He was admitted to the Texas Bar Association in 1980 and licensed to practice as a CPA in 1981. From January 2004 through January 2007 he was a director of Axion Power International, Inc. a public company involved in advanced lead-carbon battery research and development.

June 24, 2009

Clean Energy Stocks Shopping List: Five Energy Efficiency Stocks

Stocks may be expensive now, but they won't be forever.  Five energy efficiency plays to buy when they're cheap again in efficient HVAC, desalination, thermal imaging, and lighting.

Tom Konrad, Ph.D., CFA

This article continues my Clean Energy Stocks Shopping List series.  In the first, I looked at five clean transport stocks I'll be looking to buy when the market falls.  In the second, I took a step back, and outlined why it makes sense to wait for better prices than to buy these companies now.  Here are five stocks I'll be looking to buy  in my all time favorite sector, Energy Efficiency.  Future articles in this series will be found here.

#1 Energy Recovery, Inc. (ERII)

Much has been written about how energy and water are increasingly becoming interlinked problems, with the production of energy (especially biofuels) and the pumping, sanitization, and desalination of water requiring increasing amounts of energy.  One way to invest in this theme is by investing in wind stocks or solar photovoltaic stocks, since these technologies require little or no water to generate electricity.  

Another way would be to invest in water rights or water suppliers, or a water ETF.  I have long avoided this method, because I consider water to be far too politically sensitive.  People have a deep distaste of companies making money from water, and this often leads to politicians expropriating water company assets or changing the rules so that owners of water rights don't make "unreasonable" profits from them.  With all this political risk surrounding water, the only way I feel comfortable investing is through an equipment supplier which can make a profit by selling equipment to utilities.  Once the sale is made, the profit can be booked, and there is much less ongoing political risk than there would be by investing directly in such a utility.

Energy Recovery, Inc. is such a company.  They sell systems which greatly reduce the energy used in desalination, making this both an energy efficiency play and a water play.  Better, they are currently profitable, and have an extremely strong balance sheet and good cash flow.  However, its valuation ratios are all quite high because of high expected growth. I'm waiting for the price to fall before I buy any more (I'm currently short a few August $5 puts.)

#2 and #3 LSB Industries and Waterfurnace Renewable Energy (WFI.TO / WFFIF.PK)

I wrote about these two geothermal heat pump companies last December, and Waterfurnace is one of my Ten Clean Energy Stocks for 2009.  Since I wrote those articles, Energy Secreta