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June 21, 2007

An Insider's Take on the Ethanol Industry

Biofuels: Panacea or Pandora's Box?

Last night, I attended a talk in the Rocky Mountain Institute's "Quest for Solutions" lecture series titled "Biofuels: Panacea or Pandora's Box?"  We were told that a video of the event will soon be up on RMI's website.  Most of us were probably there to hear Amory Lovins speak, and no doubt most of the news coverage of the event will focus on him.  Amory is a visionary as well as an engaging speaker, and Tom Foust of the National Renewable Energy Lab helped shed light on the science of biofuels, but for stock market investors, the speaker with the most useful insights was without a doubt Mark Wong, CEO of the private corn based ethanol company, Renewable Agricultural Energy (RAE). 

Here are some of his insights helped refine my perspective on the ethanol industry:

Ethanol Supply:

    There is currently an oversupply of ethanol on the market.  As evidence, Mr. Wong cited the fact that in recent months, ethanol blenders have been able to capture most of the federal government's tax credit, while in the past, most of this subsidy has gone to ethanol producers, a situation which attests to the increased bargaining power of blenders over producers which stems from the current overproduction.  He expects the current oversupply to worsen over the next couple years.   After the talk I asked him if he felt that his company could make a profit, given the oversupply he cites, and he felt it would be possible if oil says above $70 a barrel.  I told him that I wouldn't be surprised to see $90 oil before the end of the year and he agreed.

    If we can extrapolate RAE's economics to public ethanol companies, traders should think of ethanol stocks as leveraged bets on the oil price, similar to long term oil futures.  They are likely to swing between profit and loss mostly due to oil price movements, but the percentage change in profit or loss will be large compared to the percentage change in the price of oil.  Given that I think it is likely the price of oil will rise further (and possibly dramatically) this year, that would certainly be a reason for speculators to buy ethanol stocks, now that they have retreated from the massively inflated levels of 1-2 years ago.

Competitive Strategies:

    RAE is currently still in the process of adding ethanol plants.  Mr. Wong detailed several factors the company considers when choosing plant locations.  He mentioned the local supply of corn, access to rail transport, other uses of corn in the area, access to water, and local demand for distiller's grains, all unsurprising considerations.  Interestingly, RAE has chosen to reduce the ethanol yield they get from a bushel of corn in order to provide a better feed (in the form of distiller's grains with a higher percentage of carbohydrate) for livestock.  He didn't say it, but I infer that one factor in this decision is the current low profitability of ethanol.

    More surprising to me was his emphasis on the yield variability of nearby corn crops.  I would not have thought of this, and as such, I believe that it may be a useful too for gaining insight into the riskiness of public ethanol producers.  A producer working with a highly variable supply of corn feedstock would be considerably riskier than a producer with an assured supply.

The Future

    In the future, RAE plans to use anaerobic digestion on their lower value output streams to produce gas which can be used in the distillation process, which should increase the net energy benefits of their process.  Mr. Wong also brought up the idea of using fractination to separate the corn into various components before they process it, which he expects will allow them to improve process efficiency.  Prior to this, I had only considered fractination as an early step in the process of making cellulosic ethanol.  This interested me, because one of the pioneers in biomass fractination technology is PureVision, a private, Fort Lupton based company where I know the management, and this is an existing (as opposed to the nascent cellulosic ethanol market) where they can apply their technology.

DISCLAIMER: The information and trades provided here 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.

May 20, 2007

Ethanol Stocks: Risks, Challenges, & Opportunities

The Great Ethanol Debate: Shoddy Economics all 'Round.

Like many environmentalists, I'm not a big fan of the ethanol industry, especially corn ethanol.  From a net energy standpoint, even advocates agree that you only get a little more energy out than the energy you put in (Energy Return on Energy Invested or EROEI of 0.9 to 1.5, depending on whom you ask... some say it's much lower.)  At this point, most environmentalists simply decide that ethanol isn't sustainable enough for them, and go back to talking about photovoltaics (EROEI around 8, PDF) and wind (EREOI 30-70, PDF).  The last two are from my calculations from numbers given as energy payback  (As an aside, I think most of these measures of energy economics are crude and only give a partial picture.  We should really be looking at energy net present value (NPV) or internal rate of return (IRR), analogous to economics NPV or IRR which would apply a discount rate to future energy flows, for all the same reasons we don't look at payback or similar measures in economics.)

If we did take a net present value approach to energy return on investment, we'd find that ethanol started looking a lot better, because we can use the ethanol as soon as it is made, a process which could happen within a year of the first seed of corn being planted, in comparison to solar photovoltaics, which, if they have an energy payback of around 4 years and last 30 years, will end up having and "Energy IRR" of around 12% (this number is for conventional crystalline silicon: Thin film and concentrating PV have potential to be a lot better because of lower energy use in manufacture), compared to an "Energy IRR" for corn ethanol (using a median 1.2 EROEI figure and a one year lifecycle) of 20% (although the uncertainty in this number is much larger than the uncertainty in the number for PV.) 

So the bigger problem for me is not Energy Payback, but the environmental damage associated with the way we raise corn.  Energy isn't everything.  I feel that the "low energy return" argument does not hold a lot of water.  My main problem with corn ethanol lies in the negative externalities of corn production, such as high water use, fertilizer runoff, and soil mineral depletion.  And then there's always the food vs. fuel debate, where even the IMF is weighing in.  

Is the ethanol industry a good long term investment?

Clearly, the debate on the possible benefits of corn ethanol is far from settled.  Regardless, ethanol has strong political support, and we can expect continued rapid increase in US ethanol production.  Does it follow that the industry will produce good returns for investors?  Will increases in production be accompanied by increases in profit, or will ethanol producers find they cannot sell their product at a price high enough to cover their full costs?  To answer that, we have to understand the competitive forces in play in the industry, which I will look at from Michael Porter's Five Competitive Forces Model.  The more and stronger competitive forces are at play, the less attractive the industry will be in terms of producing attractive returns on investment.  These forces are the threat of new entrants, the bargaining power of suppliers, the bargaining power of buyers, internal competition, and the availability of substitutes.

Threat of New Entrants

Corn ethanol production is easy to establish.  Distilling grain into alcohol has been around for all of human history, and while the techniques have been refined, the basic production process is well known.  The remarkable number of new plants being built testifies to this. This is a big strike against the long term profitability of the industry.  

Bargaining Power of Suppliers

The major suppliers to the ethanol industry are corn growers and the suppliers of process heat (often produced by natural gas, but more innovative firms are using gas from anaerobic digestion of manure from cows which also eat some of the distillers grain byproduct.)  In most cases, these are commodities, meaning that neither the suppliers nor the ethanol industry has any real bargaining power.  I consider this a modest negative for the industry, but may give competitive advantage to firms such as Archers Daniels Midland (ADM) and the Andersons (ANDE) who have vertically integrated supply chains, as well as firms who can use renewable sources of process heat to lock in energy prices.

Bargaining Power of Buyers

Ethanol is also a commodity, but it has the interesting property that it can't be shipped through the same pipelines as other liquid fuels because it's water soluble.  Hence, ethanol must be transported by truck, rail, and ship to markets that do not currently.  To me, this means that ethanol producers in the Midwest are likely to have a much harder time than ones in California, such as Pacific Ethanol (PEIX), and Hawaii, where they now have a 10% ethanol mandate, but little or no local production, despite their large sugar industry. 

Internal Competition

See my comments above about internal competition in the US industry, but the 800 pound gorilla here (especially for states on the East of Gulf Coast) is imported ethanol from Brazil.  For the moment, that internal competition is contained somewhat by the United States' punitive tariff, but if the political will to maintain that fails, Brazilian ethanol's better price structure (and better energy returns, since it's made from sugarcane) would be traumatic for the industry.  In my mind, the internal competitive outlook is not very good.

Availability of Substitutes

Ethanol is a substitute for both gasoline and MTBE.  At the moment, much of ethanol's momentum is due to the ban on MTBE.  However, many consider ethanol to be a poor substitute for MTBE because of it can increase smog formation in some circumstances.  If a better oxygenator were found for gasoline, the prospects for corn ethanol on the coasts would likely be bleak.  In its E85 formulation, ethanol is touted as a gasoline substitute, and until cellulosic ethanol becomes economic (which would lead to a new set of problems for corn ethanol, and might happen much sooner than  expected), we can reasonably expect that gasoline will generally be more prevalent than E85.  So the economics of ethanol hinge on the lack of another substitute for MTBE, which currently puts ethanol in a good position on the coasts, where MTBE was formerly used, be puts the industry at the mercy of gasoline price swings in the Midwest.

Conclusion

Regardless of how you feel about ethanol from an environmental or net energy perspective, the prospective ethanol investor should be very careful about investing in corn ethanol producers at random.  As I have argued here, vertically integrated producers, Californian producers, and producers who use renewable energy based processed heat may have a competitive advantage over a generic Midwest ethanol plant, but such competitive advantages seem slim and could rapidly vanish due to outside events. 

DISCLOSURE: Tom Konrad and/or his clients have positions in the following stocks mentioned here: ADM.
DISCLAIMER: The information and trades provided here 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.

May 14, 2007

3 Alternative Energy Stocks You Need to Know

In the face of a declining overall energy market today, three of our favorite alternative energy stocks posted strong gains on high volume.

The Oil Services HOLDRs ETF (OIH) was down 2% and the PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy ETF (PBW) was down 1.7%. Indeed, the vast majority of the energy stocks that we track were in the red. But bucking the trend were two energy stocks that we have profiled in the recent past and a third company that we will begin covering today.

First on the list is our favorite wind energy play, Welwind Energy International (WWEI). We recommended Welwind during October of 2006, when it was trading around $0.07. It closed today at $0.18, up 26% on 4X average trading volume. That is more than a 900% gain in the six months since we first initiated coverage on Welwind.

Next on the list of breakout stocks today is Nova Biosource Fuels (NVBF). Nova just announced a move from over-the counter to the AMEX, which will be effective on Monday, May 14. Nova recently held its official groundbreaking ceremony at the site of its planned biodiesel refinery in Seneca, Illinois. The plant is expected to have a 60-million-gallon per year biodiesel production capacity from locally generated, low-cost feedstocks, including rendered animal fats and oils and recycled vegetable and animal- based greases. Nova’s stock price increased by 4.5% today on 12X normal trading volume.

Our final stock is getting its first mention on Gold Stock Bull today. Despite being the darling of the ethanol investment community and attracting funding from none other than Bill Gates, we have been hesitant to recommend Pacific Ethanol (PEIX). We watched the stock quadruple during 2006 from $10 to nearly $45, but couldn’t see any fundamental justification for the rise and held off. PEIX has since retreated to around $15 in an overall downturn amongst ethanol producers.

So what is driving our optimism with Pacific Ethanol? A shift from hype to substance. The Sacramento, Calif.-based company swung to a first-quarter profit, earning $1.9 million, or 5 cents per share. During the same quarter last year, Pacific Ethanol lost $612,000, or 2 cents per share. This first-quarter profit was generated from revenue that more than doubled to $99.2 million from $38.2 million. Pacific Ethanol sold 37.5 million gallons of ethanol, almost twice as many as it did a year ago, and ethanol prices were up more than 20 percent.

Pacific Ethanol’s share price responded by climbing 9.1% on 6X normal trading volume. Despite fears by some investors of an oversupply in ethanol during the back half of 2007, we believe PEIX will continue pushing higher. We have a price target of $22 for 2007, which is a 47% increase from the current price. The chart below shows clear support at $15 and we believe a bounce off this price floor is imminent.

Pacific Ethanol currently has one plant operational, one plant about to open and three other plants under construction. The operational plant is located in Madera, California and has a capacity of 35 million gallons per year. It is the largest ethanol plant on the west coast.

Their second plant is being constructed in Boardman, Oregon and will also have a capacity of 35 million gallons per day. Construction is scheduled to be completed in the next few months.

Pacific Ethanol also has begun construction on three 50 MGY name plate capacity production plants that will open mid 2008. Magic Valley, Idaho will serve growing markets in the Intermountain West, while Pacific Ethanol’s Stockton, California and Imperial Valley, California plants will help meet the growing demand for ethanol in California.

The energy bill passed by Congress in 2005 requires an increase in ethanol use by refiners to 7.5 billion gallons by the year 2012. With Democrats now controlling both houses and looking likely to take over the presidency, we can only expect additional government incentive for alternative energies such as ethanol.

A significant portion of Ethanol demand is coming from the fact that states across the country have banned MTBE (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether), a fuel additive formerly required to increase octane levels of gasoline. MTBE has found its way into drinking water and many believe is cancer-causing. Ethanol is the only other commercially viable additive that will bring gasoline into compliance with state and federal clean air regulations. Consumption and production of ethanol has continued rising at a record pace and should be considered as part of any investment portfolio.

Good luck and happy investing!


Jason Hamlin is Founder of Gold Stock Bull, a site that has been tracking the secular bull market in gold and silver since its inception, back in early 2002, as well as the emerging bull market in energy since it took off in early 2004.

April 24, 2007

New York, New York!

While New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg was busy unveiling a package of measures aimed at making NYC green (including reducing CO2 emissions by 30% by 2030), the state's Governor, Eliot Spitzer, was making his reservations about corn ethanol known, as reported in the Globe & Mail.

This adds yet one more (powerful) voice to the chorus of those skeptical about the viability of the corn ethanol industry.

The article also notes that Dr. Dan Kammen, an influential Berkeley academic and advisor on climate change to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is also among those who doubt that corn ethanol is the best route to follow to deal with climate change. This likely means that at least one of Arnie's advisors on the politically-sensitive issue of climate change is advising caution on corn ethanol.

Finally, the article recognizes that even powerful foes in high places might not be able to curtail the progression of the "ethanol juggernaut".

Corn ethanol is a classic case of an investment story where one could be labeled as preferring "to be right rather than rich". As far as I go, I see enough red flags to convince me that there is something fundamentally flawed here. But I would definitely be interested to hear more from the "other side". In the meanwhile, I prefer to put my limited supply of money behind things that look fundamentally stronger.


April 11, 2007

Current Structure of the US Ethanol Industry "Problematic", Says the IMF

The International Monetary Fund released its Spring 2007 World Economic Forecast today.

Fuel Vs. Food

There is a short sub-section in Appendix 1.1 ("Recent Developments in Commodity Markets") that I thought might be worth sharing with you. If you download the PDF version of the report and scroll down to page 44, you will find the said sub-section under the heading "Food and Biofuels".

In it, the IMF notes that food prices (as measured by its own food price index) rose by 10% in 2006, driven partly by a poor wheat crop in certain countries but also by (mandated) demand for biofuels in the US and Europe (see graph below).


The report notes that, looking ahead, the prices of crops like corn and soybeans, which are the main feedstocks for ethanol (US) and biodiesel (Europe), respectively, should: (a) continue to rise and (b) begin moving in line with the price of crude oil, which is currently the case with sugar because of its role in the Brazilian ethanol industry.

About the recent news that US farmers are planning to plant more corn acreage next year, the IMF has this to say:

"For 2007, the United States Department of Agriculture is estimating a record corn crop, as planting areas increase by 10 percent from 2006 at the expense of soybeans and cotton. Still, demand fueled by the increase in domestic ethanol production capacity is expected to outpace the production rise."

IMF economists also point out that the price of "partial substitutes" such as wheat and rice, as well as the price of meat and poultry, should trend upwards as a result of higher corn and soybean prices. Finally, high crude prices could place further upwards pressure on the price of corn because corn farming in the US is highly energy intensive.

The IMF - Not Especially Bullish on Corn Ethanol

It is the sub-section's final paragraph, in my view, that best captures IMF's view of current US and European biofuels policy. It reads as follows:

"While on a small scale biofuels may be beneficial by supplementing fuel supply, promoting their use to unsustainable levels under current technology is problematic, and long-term prospects for biofuels depend heavily on how quickly and efficiently second-generation substitutes (such as plant waste) can be adopted. Many energy market analysts also question the rationality of large subsidies that benefit farmers more than the environment.

While new technology is being developed, a more efficient solution from a global perspective would be to reduce tariffs on imports from developing countries (for example, Brazil) where biofuels production is cheaper and more energy efficient."

This reaffirms some of the contentions that were made on this site in the past:

(a) The way the US is proceeding with its approach to ethanol will inevitably place inflationary pressures on domestic and global food prices, which will result in tensions at home and abroad.

(b) The main reasons for pursuing ethanol in the manner in which it is being pursued in the US right now are, in order: (a) placate the farming lobby and earn valuable political support in America's hinterland; (b) placate the wean-America-off-foreign-oil lobby; (c) placate the soft environmentalist lobby; (d) combat climate change...oh, wait a minute...I guess no one's settled that thorny energy balance question yet, have they?

(c) Not letting emerging markets export ethanol tariff-free to the US is bad economically for a lot of people, from poor Brazilians to middle-class Americans

(d) Cellulosic ethanol is the only way forward if biofuels are ever to displace oil in a sustainable manner

To Conclude...

"Old news!", you might say...well you're right, except for this: it's one thing when I or some other insignificant blogger bashes (or celebrates) corn ethanol; it's quite another when the top economic think-tank in the world tells you that it sees real long-term viability problems with the way that this industry is currently structured.

To be sure, it's not like the IMF dedicated a large amount of space to this issue, and I'm quite certain that most of the economists who participated in producing this report don't loose sleep over it at night. But the strong terms used in that little sub-section further reinforce what the corn ethanol bears have been saying: enjoy it while it last, because it's not structured to be sustainable in its current form for much longer...and I'm not talking about environmental sustainability here.

DISCLOSURE: The author does not hold a position in any company involved in biofuels

February 06, 2007

An Interesting Way To Play Cellulosic Ethanol

Last Friday (Feb. 2), the Globe & Mail's business section (the G&M is Canada's top national newspaper) ran an interesting piece by a senior business writer on cellulosic ethanol. I wish there was a way to view this article for free, but, unfortunately, the G&M charges for access to certain of its articles, and this is one of them.

The gist of the argument is as follows: (a) forget corn-based ethanol, the future lies with cellulosic (yyaawwnn...); (b) deep down inside, Bush knows this; (c) to make cellulosic ethanol competitive, you need super-enzymes that speed up the process of breaking down the cellulose and transforming the biomass into a liquid fuel; (d) because of 2 companies' super-enzymes, the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol will go from about $2.25 a gallon today to $1.07 by 2011; (e) it will be possible, then, to convert about 1 billion tons of biomass into liquid fuel annually, which will equate, in energy terms, to about 3.5 billion barrels of oil, and this without any adverse impact on the food supply.

Sounds interesting? It's because it is. Those of you who visit this blog often know that I belong to the camp of those who maintain that corn-based ethanol is nothing but a distraction.

The 2 companies identified in the article as holding the enzymatic key to unlocking the potential of cellulosic ethanol are: Novozymes, a subsidiary of Novozymes AS [OTC:NVZMF.PK]; and Genencor, a subsidiary of Danisco AS [OTC:DNSOF.PK].

Although both subsidiaries are based in California, both parent companies are Danish and their primary listings are on the Copenhagen exchange (Danisco AS [Copenhagen:DCO.CO] and Novozymes AS [Copenhagen:NZYM.CO]). The Pink Sheets listings are less than ideal...




Novozymes and Genencor have, respectively, a 40% and a 20% share of the global market for enzymes used in ethanol production.

The article concludes with this prediction by Michael Pacheco, director of the National Bioenergy Center in Golden, Colorado: production of cellulosic ethanol could reach 60 billion gallons by 2030, or 30% of total US gasoline consumption.

Besides the US, cellulosic ethanol will undoubtedly, once it can be produced on a cost-competitive basis, spread to other ethanol majors, most notably Brazil.

January 18, 2007

Ethanol, NAFTA, Tortillas and Walmart?

Author Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is the founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, and a Contributing Editor to AltEnergyStocks.com.

Quick, what do Ethanol, NAFTA, Mexican Tortillas and Walmart have in common? Don't know? Well here's the story.

I am fascinated by the discussion about ethanol feedstocks issues. There has been a lot of talk about corn production for ethanol either crowding out beef or food production, or driving up the price of food, or failing to supply the demand for ethanol.

I have stated before on Cleantech Blog and other sites that I believe corn is a lot more substitutable than the anti-ethanol and cellulosic ethanol advocates give it credit for. Our take: that the corn price rise from ethanol demand will not be as steep as the worst case, that the industry will find more acreage than expected for corn, and that costs will fall, in part because corn producers (and beef producers) are highly flexible and relatively global. Also that cellulosic processes are a lot harder and will take a lot longer to make economic than expected, and that the end result will be corn ethanol for a long time.

But the subject just keeps rolling - quoting an Inside Greentech interview with David Aslin of 3i:

"Leaving the issue of food substitution out for a moment, as your article pointed out, the sheer acreages that are going to be required are daunting.

There was a dramatic increase in 2006 in corn plantings over the prior year, and the industry forecasts an additional 10 million acres in 2007 in response to the need for fuel. How much of that is going to be available for food if all these ethanol plants being constructed actually come online, and at what price? (Heck, there's way too much corn syrup in U.S. food industry products anyway, so if we take a bit of the excess sugar out of people's food, that won't be a bad thing for the nation's health!)"

At the same time, we have also been saying that corn ethanol is inherently a high cost fuel ($1.50-$2.50/gallon direct cost on a btu basis compared to $0.50-0.60/gallon for gasoline on a direct cost basis - read our blog, and please don't email me arguing the price of crude is over a $1/gallon, it's the COST of finding and producing that crude, not the price the oil companies can sell it at, that matters), with lots of new supply coming on that is going to hurt the economics of US ethanol producers like VeraSun, Aventine, etc.

But this is a whole new angle - the political ramifications of our ethanol industry driving up prices for our neighbors food supply.

One of my friends, the CEO of a fuel cell startup who happens to read Cleantech Blog, emailed me an article today. Basic gist - the Mexican government is concerned that ethanol demand is driving up the price of tortillas! And is trying to decide what to do about it. As they describe the impact:

"Prices for white corn used to make tortillas have been hit the hardest. Although local corn prices are typically volatile around harvest time, which mostly falls in the second half of the year, traders say the farm gate price for white corn saw an unprecedented rise of up to 45 percent in 2006 compared with the year-ago levels in the Mexican market.

Grains traders have forecast tortilla prices to rise between 20 percent and 25 percent during the last quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007. "

My friend's commentary on the subject:

"Even more funny, in the story I heard on NPR, Wal-Mart Mexico is taking advantage of the tortilla price run up to undercut independent tortilla shops. But besides the humor, there may be something here. I think the Mexican government is just out in the lead. I’ve seen at least one piece predicting that additions to ethanol production have been under estimated and that significant corn feedstock shortages will occur in 2008."

Now, nobody's talking NAFTA yet, but one of the things free trade does is globalize commodities. I'm just waiting for the next reverse "giant sucking sound" attack on NAFTA to follow this corn price rise. Or worse, some blogs are bound to start complaining that corn ethanol is racist, and anti-Mexican. To an economist like me, this price rise is just a perfect example of how globalization can even out the impact of something like ethanol demand on corn prices by spreading the effect across multiple markets and multiple commodities (and drive a new energy commodity export business - see our recent blog) - an example of my point that corn ethanol has longer legs than the cellulosic guys would like. But I'm sure that's not how it'll get reported.

Though you do have to admit - our ethanol craze could make Mexican tortillas too expensive to eat? That's kind of funny.

January 09, 2007

The Future of Alternative Fuels: Ethanol

Besides a slew of clean car announcements connected to the North American International Auto Show, the alt energy topic that has made media and blog headlines most often over the past week has been alternative fuels. We are thus going to run a 2-part series on alternative fuels this week as follows: ethanol today and coal-to-liquids tomorrow.

ETHANOL: INVESTOR FRIEND OR FOE?

I’m going to start this post with a statement of opinion: I don’t really like corn-based ethanol (as an investment), I never have, and, as a result, I haven’t followed this space as closely as I probably should have. AltEnergyStocks.com Contributing Editor Neil Dikeman, in a November post, did a great job of outlining key concerns investors should have with ethanol as an asset class. However, whether one likes ethanol or not, it was without a doubt one of the top alt energy stories of 2006, and will remain a biggie in the years ahead.

Industry Growth: Some Numbers

Ethanol is an interesting beast because, from one point-of-view, it’s merely the new-kid-on-the-block of a decades-long US agricultural policy. Let’s face the facts: US farmers are not, without massive subsidies and trade protection, competitive on a global basis. In a free global market, nobody would want US crops because they’re plain too expensive. Luckily, with the help of US tax-payers, the US farm industry has been able to survive, and, in many cases, thrive. But the US agricultural complex has, in the past few years, come under increasingly intense pressure from America’s trading partners, and cracks in the system are unavoidably beginning to show. Ethanol provides a partial route out of these troubles; redirect the expensive corn away from international markets to US-based ethanol processing facilities, put in place the right regulatory framework to boost ethanol demand, and keep the low-cost ethanol producers like Brazil at bay with tariffs. The result? A booming ethanol industry that is fundamentally transforming the economics of corn farming in the US.

Consider this quote from a recent Bloomberg article on biofuel demand and feedstock prices:

“The 110 factories now producing ethanol in the U.S. have boosted their annual capacity by 12 percent in the past six months, to 5.3 billion gallons, according to the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington. An additional 6 billion gallons of capacity will be added in the next two years as 79 new plants or expansions of factories are completed, the association said.?

The industry’s capacity will thus grow by 113% by the end of 2008, a significant number.

And then there are those who are disputing these growth forecasts, saying they are gross underestimates. Lester Brown, a known environmental commentator, argues that the Department of Agriculture’s projections that ethanol producers will, as a result of industry growth, consume 60 million tons of corn by 2008 are wrong, and says he instead expects ethanol manufacturers to consume 139 million tons of corn by then, more than double (by the way, the Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown’s outfit, produced this very cool table of ethanol distilleries in the US by aggregating data from multiple industry sources. I don’t know of any other such resource).

However way you look at it, if the ethanol industry is truly responsible for the current rise in corn demand and associated run in corn prices, it is doubtful US farmers will be able to scale up production enough to keep pace with the kind of refining capacity growth discussed above, and prices should thus spike. The result of this will be that the food-Vs-fuel debate, which was mostly academic only 18 months ago, will intensify, pitting farmers and the ethanol industry against environmentalists and other concerned citizens. Another impact of this will be that high feedstock costs will eat away at producers’ margins, as there will be limits to what the market will tolerate in terms of price increases, especially if oil gets cheaper.

Ethanol: The Politicians’ Favorite Kid

There are early signs that the new Democratic Congress wants to forge ahead with the budding ethanol economy. This article from the Green Car Congress provides details on a proposed piece of legislation that, if adopted, would grant significantly more regulatory certainty to the ethanol industry than to just about any other alternative energy industry in America. A nation-wide renewable fuel standard with a 2030 timeframe is something the wind and solar industries could only ever dream of, and this despite the growing controversy surrounding corn-based ethanol. Besides the concerns outlined above, there also remains the fundamental question of whether or not, on balance, more energy is required to bring a unit of ethanol to market than that unit yields once consumed. A recent MIT study does not provide a conclusive answer to that question.

It has become clear that, among alternative energy sources, ethanol is the political favorite. Like the parent who, for one reason or another, loves a kid more than its siblings, Federal legislators have embraced ethanol, and are giving it visibly more motherly love than its available sister solutions, namely tougher fuel efficiency standards and plug-in hybrid technology. But politicians shouldn’t kid themselves; ethanol, it seems, is not the win-win solution to air pollution, climate change, foreign oil dependence and a dying farming sector that some had hoped. Something tells me that a battle is now brewing, and an anti-ethanol lobby, or at least a put-a-moratorium-on-further-ethanol-growth lobby, could emerge sooner rather than later.

Investing in Ethanol: All is not Lost

I’m not suggesting investors steer clear of ethanol altogether here; I’m merely pointing out that, while some people are hailing the growth in the ethanol industry as the next Klondike, there are some very significant and immediate concerns with corn-based ethanol that will have to be addressed. These concerns could, under a bearish scenario, stunt growth in the sector, or at least threaten the profitability of more vulnerable players.

But all is not lost. In my view, corn-based ethanol is one of those transition technologies that will play a key part in America's energy mix for some time, but that will slowly dwindle into irrelevance as better solutions come on-stream. The best plays on ethanol should therefore do well, for a time. While I’m not familiar enough with any of the top ethanol pure-plays to make an authoritative call, certain larger companies have certainly benefited from the ethanol boon so far. ADM [NYSE:ADM], Monsanto [NYSE:MON], and Syngenta [NYSE:SYT] are all names that come to mind. Seeking Alpha’s Ethanol section is a good resource for the would-be ethanol investor.

You should also keep an eye on firms that are working on cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol holds great promises, as evidenced by the fact that Goldman Sachs took, in May 2006, a $30 million position in cellulosic ethanol firm Iogen of Canada. But cellulosic ethanol is at least 5 years away.

In short, I’m sure ethanol, as an asset class, can and will make you money. The ethanol investor will, however, have to be cautious, as the waters ahead are not free of trouble.

(DISCLOSURE: I do not have positions in any of the stocks discussed in this article)

November 12, 2006

Are Ethanol Companies Risky Investments?

By Neal Dikeman, Partner, Jane Capital Partners LLC, and Founding Contributor, Cleantechblog.com. He has no investments in or financial incentive related to ethanol or ethanol stocks.

Are ethanol stocks risky long-term investments? We think they are. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of ethanol blended fuels for a whole host of reasons, I just don’t like ethanol as an investment. Here are six solid reasons to be very, very cautious.

1. Demand vs. supply – As with most regulatory driven markets, the demand has come on very fast behind the advent of renewable fuel standards, fuel subsidies, and the phasing out of MTBE resulting in ethanol’s rise as an oxygenate of choice. As a result the demand has far outstripped the historically available supply, and while supply plays catch up the industry has done well. However, as any student of refinery cycles knows, the moment supply catches up with demand at point “n? (and it will), the “n+1? ethanol production will put tremendous price pressure on the market and drive the industry into its first down cycle. (Keep in mind, all those announcements about new ethanol plants are driving growth – but at the same time driving the industry straight for its own readymade cliff).

2. Massive commodity price risk – Ethanol companies, like refineries, typically find themselves at the mercy of massive commodity price cycles. Unfortunately for ethanol producers, they stand at the mercy of several price cycles – corn (which ethanol producers are driving up the cost of), natural gas (the primary fuel), gasoline and crude. When the confluence of cycles is in their favor - life is very good, but when it is bad, it will be very, very bad. Now, for grins, just imagine a bad cycle confluence at the same time supply outstrips demand.

3. Market size pressure – Also, the current volumes of ethanol are a few percentage points of total refining volumes, barely worth fighting over if you are an oil company (a typical ethanol plant is about 5% of the size of a typical refinery) – but if ethanol ever comes near the DOE’s 30% by 2030 goals, do you really expect the oil companies to give up market share easily – especially when they already own most of the blending and distribution? Trust me, it’s not going to be Exxon, BP, Shell, and ChevronTexaco that get crushed in the stampede (and probably not Ag giants like ADM). Just because ethanol succeeds does NOT mean ethanol companies will.

4. Technology change – As the industry matures, and each of these cycles and concerns comes into play, the emphasis on survival will move more and more to low cost and high efficiency – early players with older less efficient (and often smaller) plants may actually be at a disadvantage. On the technology side, I have recently seen technology programs working in everything from more efficient distillation columns to less energy intensive better water removal, to advanced catalysts. And as mature players take notice (oil giant BP is establishing a $500 million Environmental Bioscience Institute for R&D in part in this area), even the winners of the current land grab phase may not actually make money long-term.

5. Ethanol is fundamentally a high cost fuel – As a fuel, ethanol is a fundamentally higher cost feedstock and processing cost than gasoline – just because the oil industry sells gasoline for higher than the ethanol industry can produce it, does NOT mean ethanol is cheaper (an analysis which is so apples to oranges as to be difficult even to begin to dissect)!. I know a number of well known analysts and investors have come out stating the opposite, but the numbers don’t lie. From Is Ethanol Controversial? Should it Be?, by Vinod Khosla - “Ethanol production costs in the US today are about $1.00 per gallon before any subsidies or taxes, substantially cheaper than the production cost of gasoline, even if oil was to decline to the mid-40’s.? They of course are forgetting that when looked at on a comparable cost basis – the full cycle actual cost to make gasoline from crude is on average up to half the comparable cost of ethanol from corn. Just because oil prices are high does NOT mean gasoline is expensive to produce, in large part it means oil companies that own reserves are making lots of profits. It is correct to say that when crude is at $60/barrel, it is economic to produce ethanol (and along with subsidies sell it for a tidy profit), but ethanol will be for now, our highest cost fuel. [Note: Look for our upcoming article on Cleantech Blog detailing the cost comparison]

6. Valuations – Bottom line, these are cyclical refineries producing a commodity product, not technology companies, and refineries typically trade at a TEV/EBITDA of the mid single digits, and a PE in the high single digits to low teens. Currently the ethanol market trades at hefty premiums to the pureplay oil refiners – a recent check had the average of VeraSun (VSE) & Aventine (AVR) trading at 80% higher PE and 110% higher Enterprise Value/EBITDA than the average of Sunoco (SUN), Tesoro (TSO) , and Valero (VLO) .

Are these all possibly reasons pure plays like VeraSun and Aventine are trading at one-third and one-half off their 52 week highs respectively (See our earlier Cleantech Blog article on VeraSun’s IPO)?

Conclusion – In the short run ethanol stocks are in a land grab phase ramping to meet demand, and some of these stocks may do well while demand still outstrips supply and the industry is still small, but when this dynamic changes – watch out as the margin pressure will be brutal, and could turn already aggressively valued stocks into a dot bomb style free fall as per gallon profits get crushed. So, make your profits while you can!

May 26, 2006

Xethanol to Acquire Plant in Georgia

Xethanol Corporation (XTHN.OB) announced that its CoastalXethanol subsidiary has signed a letter of intent with Pfizer, Inc. to purchase Pfizer's pharmaceutical manufacturing complex located in Augusta, Georgia. While details are yet to be finalized, CoastalXethanol and Pfizer are working together to complete the transaction.

The state of the art, 40 acre site includes: an 89,100 square foot manufacturing facility, a 25,000 square foot warehouse facility, 7,300 square feet of laboratory space, and 16,000 square feet of offices and conference rooms. CoastalXethanol intends to retrofit the site to produce 35 million gallons per year of ethanol. The facility will produce ethanol from cellulosic and other biomass waste streams generated by industrial producers in the surrounding areas. [ more ]

May 16, 2006

Green Star Products to Construct Total Bio-Refineries

Green Star Products Inc (GSPI) announced its plans to construct total Bio-Refinery Complexes for production of both biodiesel and biomass ethanol at each facility.

The first Bio-Refinery is planned to be in North Carolina (see GSPI press release dated April 20, 2006) and the location of the second facility is to be announced soon in the northwestern sector of the United States.

Each GSPI-designed Bio-Refinery will have a start-up production of between 10 or 20 million gallons per year with quick expansion capabilities. The facility infrastructure will be capable of expanding to 60 million gallons per year (and further expansion capabilities could reach 100-million gallons per year), ranking them among the largest fuel production facilities in the world. [ more ]

May 11, 2006

ADM to build 275-million gallon ethanol facility

Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM) said it will build an ethanol plant with 275-million gallon annual capacity in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as it looks to expand production of the alternative fuel.

The expansion comes on top of ADM's plans to build a 275-million ethanol plant in Columbus, Nebraska. [ more ]

Pacific Ethanol Completes Permitting for Planned Ethanol Plant in Boardman, Oregon

peix_logo.gifPacific Ethanol, Inc. (PEIX) announced that it has received all necessary permits to begin construction on a 35 million gallon per year ethanol facility at the Port of Morrow, located on the Columbia River near Boardman, Oregon. The Company further stated that it expects to begin construction, which should take approximately 12 months, within the next thirty days.

The Oregon ethanol facility will provide ethanol for the Pacific Northwest gasoline markets, helping to increase supply in that area and provide a CO2-reducing fuel for the transportation sector. It is expected that the plant's distillers grains will be sold to the local Oregon and Washington dairy and feed markets. [ more ]

April 27, 2006

ADM raises capacity of N. Dakota biodiesel plant

Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM) s increasing the capacity of a biodiesel plant under construction in North Dakota to 85 million gallons a year, a company spokesman said on Wednesday.

ADM originally announced the plant in Velva would produce 50 million gallons of biodiesel a year using canola oil. ADM decided to increase capacity to take advantage of economies of scale, said Greg Webb, vice president of public affairs. [ more ]

Green Plains Renewable Energy, Inc. Announces Commencement of Construction of Its 50 Million Gallon Ethanol Plant

gpre_logo.gifGreen Plains Renewable Energy Inc. (GPRE) announced that its project in Shenandoah, Iowa is progressing as planned. The Company received its air permit from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources late last week. Fagen Inc. has set up their on-site construction offices and anticipates construction of the plant to begin early next week. The Company anticipates that the Shenandoah plant will begin producing ethanol in the Spring of 2007. [ more ]

Groundbreaking Set for Clymers Ethanol Plant

Andersons Inc. (ANDE) will conduct a groundbreaking ceremony April 27, 2006, at 11:30 a.m. for its 110 million gallon ethanol plant in Clymers, Indiana.

When completed by the first quarter of 2007, the Clymers plant will be the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River. Along with the 110 million gallons of ethanol, the plant will produce 350,000 tons of distillers dried grains, an animal feed ingredient. [ more ]

April 25, 2006

Ethanol Stocks Reviewed On Seeking Alpha

With oil and gasoline prices rising ever higher, investors are shifting attention to alternative energy stocks as a promising high-growth sector. A particular area of interest is ethanol stocks and forthcoming ethanol IPOs. Here are companies recently reviewed on Seeking Alpha [ more ]

Archers Daniels Midland Company (NYSE: ADM)
Pacific Ethanol (PEIX)
Xethanol (XTHN)
VeraSun (VSE)
MGP Ingredients (MGPI)
Aventine Renewable Energy (AVR)
Green Plains Renewable Energy (GPRE)
Andersons Inc. (Nasdaq: ANDE)
Veridium Corporation (VRDM)

April 24, 2006

Veridium Receives Order from South African Ethanol Producer for Corn Oil Extraction Technology

Veridium Corp. (VRDM.OB) announced its receipt of an order from Ethanol Africa for the use of Veridium's patent-pending Corn Oil Extraction System(TM) at Ethanol Africa's new Bothaville, South Africa ethanol production facility.

Veridium's proprietary new Corn Oil Extraction Systems(TM) extract high grade corn oil from an ethanol by-product called distillers dried grain ("DDG"). Veridium's technology has the capability of removing up to 75% of the corn oil from within the DDG in two stages. [ more ]

I have been finding more signs that this looks like its a real company and not just a shell to take advantage of the recent surge and popularity in Alternative Energy and Ethanol. I'm still not completely convinced, but the stock has been performing very well with over 200% gains this month.

April 19, 2006

Veridium Updates License for Exclusive Rights to CO2 Bioreactor

Veridium Corp. (VRDM.OB) announced its execution of an amended license agreement with Ohio University ("Ohio") for its patented bioreactor process for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuelled combustion processes.

Veridium's original license with Ohio provided for non-exclusive rights to the technology for the purpose of processing exhaust gas streams from electrical utility power generation facilities, and exclusive rights to the technology for applications involving all other sources. The amended license agreement increases the scope of Veridium's license to provide for exclusivity in all applications, including electrical utility power generation facilities. [ more ]

April 12, 2006

ADM and Siouxland Ethanol Announce Marketing Agreement

Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM) and Siouxland Ethanol LLC are pleased to announce the formation of an ethanol marketing agreement. As part of this marketing agreement, ADM will market all ethanol produced by Siouxland Ethanol at its forthcoming 50 million gallon Jackson, Nebraska facility. Construction has begun and the plant is expected to be operational in early 2007. In addition to producing ethanol, the plant will produce an estimated 165,000 tons of distiller grains on an annual basis. [ more ]

Clearfish Research Profiles Pacific Ethanol (PEIX)

Pacific Ethanol (PEIX) is building a refinery in California for corn based ethanol production in the heart of the California agricultural and dairy land (the biggest agricultural and dairy producer in the country). The refinery is supposed to come on line in Q4 2006, and there are plans for 4 more subsequent refineries. As there is unlikely to be any increased ethanol demand in California (see background above), the supply capacity they are bringing online must be able to disrupt the current out-of-state supply and/or undercut the current prices. They are one of the biggest distributors of that alternate supply in the state, and that is their main business right now. [ more ]

April 11, 2006

Ethanol Producers Climb to New Highs

Shares of ethanol producers extended their recent rally Monday, as oil refiners continued their rush to substitute ethanol for a toxic gasoline additive before the summer driving season shifts into gear.

The enthusiasm for ethanol is tied to the fate of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), an additive mixed into gasoline to reduce pollution. However, studies have found that MTBE to be carcinogenic if it seeps into a water source.

States are increasingly banning MBTE due to contamination concerns. Companies wishing to comply with new laws -- and worried about the potential for legal liability -- are turning to ethanol as a replacement for the additive. [ more ]

April 03, 2006

Baron's Thinks Archer Daniels Stock to Rise on Ethanol Harvest

Barons profiles Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM) in the April 3rd edition. They feel that ADM shares are poised to climb further, literally fueled by its dominance of the ethanol market as investors seek alternative energy investments.

Archer Daniels was believed to have secured a 50-cent per gallon increase in ethanol contract pricing to $1.85 per gallon in recent negotiations. Given ethanol price rises seen in the commodities market, Archer Daniels could reap significant further increases in its next round of talks for October contracts. [ more ]

March 31, 2006

Ethanol shortage could up gas prices

USA Today Money comments about a potential for future increases in gas prices and also shortages in Ethanol.

"Gasoline prices will be unusually high and shortages might occur this summer, because the U.S. ethanol industry can't keep up with the demand for fuel-grade alcohol to mix with gasoline, the head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration told a Senate committee Wednesday." [ more ]

On Wednesday of this week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee met to discuss ethanol as a substitute for MTBE, a clean-air additive in gasoline. This potential change will increase the cost of refining and also greatly increase the usage ethanol. Refiners currently use MTBE and are now are discontinuing it because MTBE can taint water supplies and Congress has refused to protect them from MTBE lawsuits. Ethanol is the only readily available substitute.

Veridium Receives Order to Increase Ethanol Production Efficiencies

Veridium Corp. (VRDM.OB) announced its receipt of an order from a Wisconsin based ethanol producer for the second stage of Veridium's patent-pending Corn Oil Extraction Systems(TM).

Veridium's proprietary new Corn Oil Extraction Systems(TM) extract high grade corn oil from an ethanol by-product called distillers dried grain ("DDG"). Currently, the majority of ethanol production is based on a dry milling technique that utilizes more than 1 billion bushels of corn to produce 3 billion gallons per year of ethanol. The dry mill process converts the starch from the kernel of corn into sugar and then the sugar into ethanol. The balance of the corn (non-starch components) then goes through a dewatering and dehydration process where the byproduct is sold as a commercial feed ingredient called DDG. DDG contains the majority of the corn oil that was present in the kernel. Today, the 1 billion bushels of corn currently used in the dry mill ethanol process contain roughly 300 million gallons of corn oil that is currently sold for about $0.03 per pound as commercial feed. The new Veridium technology presents another option - cost effective conversion of the oil in the ethanol by-product into biodiesel. [ more ]

February 16, 2006

ADM Selects Columbus, Nebraska as First Location for Ethanol Expansion

Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM) announced that it has selected Columbus, Nebraska as the first location for its ethanol capacity expansion. The Company will build a dry corn milling plant with an initial annual capacity of 275 million gallons adjacent to the existing ethanol plant in Columbus.

In September, ADM previously announced that it planned to expand ethanol capacity by 500 million gallons through the addition of two dry milling plants at existing ADM ethanol facilities. Construction, expected to be complete in early 2008, is subject to applicable governmental approvals. [ more ]


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