Archive for biofuels

What I told Bill Paul

Mea Culpa, I’ve been falling behind keeping this blog updated… but most of you probably realize that the real stuff goes on at AltEnergyStocks these days. Over the last two weeks, I wrote a series of companion pieces to a series of articles that were published on energy Tech Stocks, based on a long interview Bill Paul, the writer did with me. Here’s an index to them (and they each contain links to the interview articles.)

1. Large Scale Electricy Storage

2. Plug-In Hybrids and Battery Stocks

3. & 4. Improving Transmission and my Ambivalent stance on Biofuels

5. Light Emitting Diode (LED) Stocks

6.Cellulosic Ethanol and Sustainable Forestry.

7. Alcoa and Blue Chip Stock Picks

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Corn is For Ethanol, Grass is for Cows

Last year my wife and I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s
Dilemma
, and it changed we eat.  My wife was greatly affected by how animals are mistreated in production farming, while I was attracted by the health
benefits of eating grass fed beef
and other foods grown in the manner to which they are evolutionarily adapted, as well as by the lower degree of harm to the environment.  We haven’t become all-natural, all-organic, all-the-time at the Konrad household, but we’re now much more willing to pay more when we have the opportunity to do so for food which we consider healthier and more environmentally and morally sound.  For a world-class tightwad like myself, being willing to pay more is a considerable step.

In any case, the book also got me thinking more sympathetically about the ethanol industry, because it serves as a relatively benign outlet for the mountain of corn produced by America’s insane farm policies.   I find rising price of corn and other grains is more a cause for celebration than despair, because I see current prices more as a return to sanity rather than a likely cause for starvation.  Even in the third world, low agricultural productivity is (in part) due to a lack of incentive to compete with subsidized first world production, rather than an inability to grow enough food.  The market for corn has been massively distorted by oversupply caused by too many subsidies.  Ethanol represents a new source of practically inexhaustible demand which is restoring balance to a market too long out of kilter.

One practice which the massive flood of cheap grain begat was feeding corn to cattle.  In my AltEnergyStocks
column this week, I look at one way I think the market may be starting to find its equilibrium again.  As corn prices rise, there will be less incentive to fatten cattle in feedlots (or Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations, CAFOs ad Michael Pollan calls them), and more to feed them grass.  I believe that long before we can perfect the art of using energy crops such as switchgrass to make cellulosic ethanol on a commercial basis, the rising price of corn will make it economic to feed those same energy crops (i.e. grass) directly to cattle, more than doubling the amount of corn currently available to the ethanol industry.

Click here to read the entire column.

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How to avoid Stock Scams

My AltEnergyStocks column this week talks about signs to look for to help you aviod falling for stock scams. Investment scams foolw whatever trend is hot at the moment, and right now, that’s renewable energy. Here’s how to make sure your money is helping to reduce our carbon footprint, not financing some shyster’s trip to the Bahamas.

As an example, I take a look at US Sustainable Energy, a biofuel company that shows some worrying signs….

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An insider’s take on the Ethanol Industry

I have a sequel to my article on the competitive landscape of the corn ethanol industry up today on Alt Energy Stocks. In it, I discuss insights I gained from a talk by Mark Wong, President and CEO of Renwable Agricultural Energy, a private corn ethanol producer.

Here’s the link.

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A Hard Look at the Ethanol Industry

My weekly column for AltEnergyStocks again doubles as part of my study for the second CFA(R) exam.  The Equity valuation part of the curriculum contains a chapter by Michael Porter on analyzing competitive pressures in an industry.  I decided to apply it to the corn based Ethanol industry, and, as often is the case, it changed my way of thinking about the industry.  I’ve never been bullish, because I worry about a classic commodity squeeze: both ethanol and the main feedstock (corn) are commodities, and are subject to forces outside the industry which effect their prices.  For instance, if corn harvests were to be poor because of drought or pests, at the same time that oil prices fell, many ethanol producers would be forced out of business because their costs exceed their selling prices.

I also went on a little rant about the typical measures of Energy Payback and Energy Return on Energy Investment (ERoEI) often used in the industry.  These measures are often used to criticize ethanol, but it is a weak criticism, because they do not take into account the time value of energy: namely that a kWh of electricity today is a lot more useful than a kWh produced 30 years from now.  We should instead be thinking in terms not only of how much energy we have to use to get energy out, but also in terms of how soon we get that energy.

I propose a couple measures, of Energy Net Present Value (ENPV) and Energy Internal Rate of Return (EIRR) which I think would give us a clearer view of the undying energy economics (and hence the potential economic profitability) of various energy production technologies.  But that is a column for another week.

This week, here are my thoughts on competition in the corn Ethanol industry, and how it might affect your investments.

If you have a subscription, there’s also an excellent article in the NYTimes on ethanol in Hawaii.  I think it ties in well to this one, and the one I wrote last July about renewable energy in Maui.

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Blue Sun Biodiesel

Many of you know of Blue Sun Biodiesel from one of my more popular posts Why I Bought a Jeep where I talk about my decision to buy a Jeep Liberty diesel (which I run on biodiesel) as a cost effective alternative to a hybrid SUV.   That article was first published in the Colorado Renewable Energy Society blog, which led Blue Sun cofounder John Long to contact me, I ended up doing due diligence for a client for a private placement with them.  Blue Sun Biodiesel

I liked Blue Sun’s business model and management, but had reservations about the price they were asking… evidence for good management, because if they had been offering a price I liked, they probably weren’t asking enough… I’m very cautious when valuing private equity; there’s a lot that can go wrong and no exit if it does.  My client decided to make a substantial investment despite my reservations.  Events have now proven him correct. 

On January 29, Blue Sun announced that they were merging with M-Wave in a move which essentially gives them a back door to a Nasdaq stock market listingSarbanes-Oxley, by making conventional routes to going public much more difficult, has made this route much more popular in recent years.   Blue Sun shareholders will own 87.5% of the merged company and gain access to a much broader pool of equity to fuel their expansion plans.  As the quality leader in biodiesel, they are one of the few stand alone companies that have a chance against agricultural giants such as ADM and Bunge. 

Blue Suns’s other advantage over the giants is thier emphasis on quality.  As Texas producers know, it’s very important to have biodiesel of consistent quality, and Blue Sun sets the gold standard.  Unlike most biodiesels, Blue Sun’s actually reduces NOx emissions (along with particulates, VOCs, etc., and increased lubricity, which reduces maintenance costs like other biodiesels), as well as having a lower cloud point, due to their proprietary additives and use of higher quality oil as feedstock.

As a side note, there was a rumor going around the Colorado Cleantech Initiative last Tuesday night that this was the biggest private equity deal in Colorado history.   Jeff Probst, Blue Sun president was there, but he didn’t know for sure how the deal stacked up to previous deals.

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Holistic Approaches to Energy Problems

H. L. Mencken said, “For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong.”  When it comes to solving the problems of peak oil and global warming, I also think that the loudest barking is up the wrong tree.  We look for the quick fix, trying to find a substitute energy source that allows us to change the way we do things little as possible, when the real problem is actually what we’re doing, not how we’re doing it.   We need holistic solutions, not quick fixes.

Too abstract?  Here are some concrete examples:

 Problem: Peak Oil

Quick fixes: Ethanol and slight increases in vehicle efficiency standards.

Holistic solutions: Change our driving culture and infrastructure, by changing the way car use is priced from fixed charges to a per mile basis (“Pay as you drive”).   Removing subsidies to use cars when other forms of transport are available, and redesigning our cities to make them easier to get around on foot, bike, and public transport.  Like other holistic solution, all these steps increase safety and reduce congestion, reduce obesity and associated health problems, as well as reducing the use of gasoline.

Problem: Wind and Solar are intermittent resources, but coal produces too much CO2 and natural gas prices are rising rapidly.

Quick Fixes: Nuclear power and “Clean” Coal.

Holistic Solutions: Shift our demand for electricity to times when it is available, by using time of use pricing, energy storage and demand alignment, and distributed energy storage such as plug in hybrid vehicles.

Investing opportunities:On thing that’s striking about these examples is it’s much easier to find investment opportunities in the quick fixes than in the holitistic solutions.  To invest in ethanol, you can just buy ADM or one of the multitude of ethanol stocks that have been going public recently, but I have yet to come up with a satisfactory way to invest in better urban planning (except buy a house in a walkable community, which is something I’m planning on doing this summer.   Stapleton is the community.  I currently live there, but I’ve been renting and waiting for the end of the housing bubble.  I actually don’t think that housing is going to go up again any time soon, but I’m tired of waiting.) 

The investment landscape is a little better when it comes to energy management.  Itron and Siemens both have divisions that help utilities manage their grids better, and there are many battery and other energy storage companies to choose from.  Still, it’s a lot harder to pick through battery companies than to just buy a nuclear powered utility or uranium miner.

Holistic solutions, by their nature, have weak boundaries… the benefits tend to be diffuse, and spread over society as a whole, so it is difficult to charge fairly for them.  This, I think, is why there are so few companies pursuing them when they can pursue a quick fix that they can charge for up front.  

Companies have an obligation to their shareholders to make money.  It’s our job, as human beings, to work towards regulations that make it easier for companies to make money with holistic solutions that actually solve the problem than it is to make money with quick fixes that just cover the problem up.

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