by Tom Konrad Ph.D., CFA
Investing in the past is a good way to lose money. Just ask
anyone who has been investing in coal stocks since Obama we
A glance at the chart above shows that the VanEck Vectors Coal
ETF (KOL) is down about 50% over the last four years, even while
the broad market (as represented by the SPDR S&P 500 ETF
(SPY)) has gained almost 50%. But even if we knew this was
going to happen, should investors have rushed into the energy
sectors most loved by liberals: That is, Wind, Solar, or Clean
Energy Stocks in general?
Hindsight says "Yes, No, and No," which is hardly a comforting
response to a an investor looking to understand what might happen
over the next four years. Wind stocks were up 90%, as shown
by the First Trust ISE Global Wind Energy ETF (FAN).
Solar stocks were volatile, and ended basically flat,
significantly lagging the market as a whole, as embodied in The
Guggenheim Solar ETF (TAN).
Finally, the PowerShares Clean Energy (PBW),
a widely held basket of clean energy stocks.
What Obama Did
Shortly after the election in 2012, a reporter with USA Today
called to ask me why wind and solar stocks had not taken
off. As you can read
in his article, I told him that essentially, one
presidential election would not transform the economy. I
predicted legislation promoting alternative energy or attacking
coal was off the table- an easy prediction to make, given
Republican control of Congress. I also predicted that Obama
would continue doing "Pretty much what he [had] been doing for
the" previous three years: doing what he can through
rule-making. Which is what he did.
What many may find surprising is that Obama's rule-making was
only a minor factor in the recent decline of coal stocks.
His administration's most important energy policy, the Clean
Power Plan remains tied up at the Supreme Court. True,
advocates like the Institute for Energy Research (IER) will
point at two other regulations, the Mercury and Air Toxics
Standards (MATS) and the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR.)
What Obama Didn't Do
The coal industry is like a coddled
child sent out into the world: It's not flexible or tough
enough for a real-world job, it's bankrupt from credit card
debt, and it still has not learned to clean up its room.
The coal industry's problems with MATS and CSAPR hint at the
underlying cause of the industry's troubles. The industry is
like a coddled child sent out into the world: It's not flexible or
tough enough for a real-world job, it's bankrupt from credit card
debt, and it still has not learned to clean up its room.
Take these points in reverse order. MATS, CSAPR, and even
the Clean Power Plan are regulations telling coal plants to be a
little less dirty than they are, but not nearly as clean as any of
their power generation siblings: natural gas, nuclear, wind and
solar. Like any wayward child, coal promised to clean up its
room... remember "Clean Coal?"
Fantasies like Clean Coal and hiring a professional housekeeper
to keep a child's room tidy might have been affordable before
technology innovation in natural gas drilling, solar, and wind
started cutting into the price of power.
But even without affordable clean coal, MATS is not
causing the wholesale closure of coal plants, according to
the nonpartisan Energy Information Administration.
Technology has recently been sending the price of power in the
opposite direction: down. Ten years ago, coal power could
legitimately call itself a source of cheap (if not clean)
power. Now, technology innovation have left coal choking on
its own fumes, while clean coal (a.k.a. IGCC) and nuclear as
simply too expensive to compete without subsidies, as shown by in
analysis by financial advisory firm Lazard.
Lazard found that, without subsidies, the cheapest sources of
- Energy efficiency, at $0 to $50 per MWh
- Wind, at $32 to $77 $ per MWh
- Utility scale solar, at $43 to $70 per MWh and
- Combined Cycle Gas, at $52 to $78 per MWh
Coal was far behind, with the cheapest coal costing almost as
much as the most expensive wind, solar, and combined cycle gas at
$65 per MWh. The cheapest nuclear and clean coal (IGCC) were
far behind, at $97 and $96.
Keep in mind that these are unsubsidized numbers. If the
Obama Administration declared a war on coal, it's the invisible
hand of economics that won all the battles. And that is why
new capacity additions are overwhelmingly wind, solar, and natural
Adding to the poor economics of coal power, the coal mining
industry racked up debt like an irresponsible teenager with a
credit card at the worst possible time. Arch Coal borrowed
heavily to fund acquisitions in 2011,
to fund acquisitions in Australia. And these are just
two in a string of bankruptcies that have left nearly every big
coal firm in bankruptcy or emerging from it. They also play
back into the theme of coal not cleaning up its own room: Coal
producer bankruptcies are shifting
the costs of cleaning up mines to the states.
Baseload: An Unwanted Suitor
Coal advocates like to point out that "the sun does not always
shine and the wind does not always blow." They then go on to call
solar and wind power "unreliable" and claim that the grid cannot
operate without backup power always at the ready. Coal and nuclear
power plants are what is called "baseload" power: they run at a
near constant level. That's not the same as being reliable:
Reliable people show up when they say and do what they say they
are going to do.
A person who is always there, never goes away even when you want
a little privacy, and is always doing things for you even when you
don't want anything is more likely to be called an unwanted suitor
We're actually pretty good at predicting the weather, especially
over large areas and a few days or hours in advance. While
wind and solar power on the electric grid does vary over time, it's
usually there in approximately the quantity we expect. It
would be a great complement to say that a large coal or nuclear
power plant was "as reliable as the sun coming up in the
morning." The "Equivalent Forced Outage Rate- Demand" (EFORd),
a measure of how often a power plant is out when it's needed, is
about 4% for nuclear, 7.5% for coal, and 10% for gas plants [pdf
2008-2012 data]. So coal power is there most the time (even
producing power at 3am when everyone is asleep and it may not be
needed.) Yet even this unwanted suitor fails to show up about
one time in 13 when he's really needed.
Solar arrays and wind turbines also go down unexpectedly, but the
small size (relative to coal) of solar arrays and individual wind
turbines means that they don't all go out at once. A single
250 MW coal plant produces approximately the same amount of energy
as 400 typical 1.5MW wind turbines, or 100,000 to 200,000 home solar
arrays. Some of these will be down at any time, but they won't
all go down at once, especially if they are scattered over a wide
In this sense, solar and wind are far more reliable than coal.
It's true that solar and wind need to be supplemented with more
flexible generation, energy storage, or flexible demand response in
order to match the patterns of electricity demand. But
baseload power also needs flexible power resources to match the
normal fluctuations of demand, and to stand by at the ready for that
one time in 13 when you're hoping it will be there, but it isn't.
What The Next President Can't Do
The heated rhetoric from fossil fuel advocates and
environmentalists alike served to hide the very real economic
problems coal power has had in adapting to the new reality of
falling technology costs for solar and wind and falling fuel
prices for natural gas generation.
The continued decline in the cost of wind and solar generation
guarantee that these technologies will continue to be the leading
forms of new power on the electric grid. In turn, their
variability will make it more expensive to run baseload power
stations such as coal and nuclear, making them even less economic
than they already are.
The free market is much more powerful than
Donald Trump has repeatedly promised
to 'save' the coal industry. If elected, he is certain
to be even less effective at reviving coal than Obama was at
killing it. The free market is much more powerful than any
president, and coal simply cannot compete in a free market.
If Hillary Clinton is elected, she will almost certainly be
accused of putting more coal miners out of work as she tries to
promote renewable energy, but she will not deserve the blame or
the credit any more than Trump or Obama.
The true blame and credit for the changes in the way we produce
and use electricity fall squarely on technological progress and
How Investors Can Survive and Even Thrive in the Future of
Investors who observed the gridlock in Washington, D.C.four years
ago, and rightly concluded that Obama would be ineffective at
reigning in fossil fuels were correct. Nevertheless, they
have lost most of the money.
Would they have done better if they had plowed their money into
solar and wind? Not if they bought a solar ETF like TAN or a
clean energy ETF like PBW.
Conservative investors (in the financial sense of the word:
risk-averse) investors had an additional problem. The future
of energy may lie in solar, wind, and other energy technology, but
technology companies are not conservative investments. The
technological innovation driving the rapid price declines for wind
and solar is a problem for incumbent companies as well.
Today's leading solar manufacturer is tomorrow's has-been, a fact
I pointed out in 2009. In the same article, I also said my
top pick at the time was a company that few people would think of
as "green:" a Toronto-listed bus manufacturer called New Flyer (NFYEF.)
At the time, New Flyer was trading at C$9 and paid a C$0.62 (7%)
annual dividend. Today, seven years later, the stock trades
at C$43, the dividend has been maintained and recently increased,
and my readers and I still own it.
In 2012, I could not give the USA Today reporter a similar
conservative income pick in what I told him was my favorite energy
sector at the time, energy efficiency: Such stocks did not
exist. That changed in early 2013 with the IPO of Hannon
Armstrong Sustainable Infrastructure (HASI.)
interviewing the CEO of Hannon Armstrong, I said, "I can't
help but be enthusiastic about the company," which was then
trading at $11.75, slightly below the IPO price. HASI was
about to start paying an annual dividend which I estimated would
exceed 15 cents a quarter (5%). The company quickly increased its
dividend to $0.22 a quarter that December, than to $0.26 in 2014,
and $0.30 last year. I expect it to increase the quarterly
dividend to at least 34 cents this year, or 5.9% at the current
price. Did I mention the stock price has doubled?
How do I find conservative income stocks that double or quintuple
in a handful of years, while solar and coal investors are losing
their shirts? Not just by understanding the
technology. Anyone who understood solar technology in 2009
would have rightly predicted the enormous growth of the industry -
from 2% of new generation capacity in 2010, to 64% in the first
quarter of 2016. But if they had taken that prediction,
ignored my warning
and bought the Guggenheim Solar ETF (TAN),
they would have lost 77% of their money, despite Obama's attepts
to promote the solar industry. Even coal investors would
have done better with the VanEck Vectors Coal ETF (KOL): It "only"
fell 64% over the same period.
It takes knowledge of economics, technology, and the whole energy
system to successfully navigate the Future of Energy.
Knowing who is going to win the election in November might help on
the margin, but neither Trump nor Clinton can roll back the
progress of technology nor battle with Adam Smith's Invisible Hand
of the market.
Disclosure: Long NFYEF, HASI
Tom Konrad Ph.D., CFA is a freelance writer and portfolio
manager specializing in income stocks positioned to benefit from
ongoing changes in the energy economy.