January 10, 2007

ALT Energy Stocks: The Future of Ethanol

For any renewable fuel to make a dent in the current oil paradigm, it is going to have to make sense to investors over the long haul. According to two writers for Alt Energy Stocks website, the fast growing ethanol industry offers some food for thought as well as food for energy. Rapid growth may result in some shortterm investment profits, but fear of a dot com type bust for some developers is very real. I invite you to read the original stories, but here are my abridged versions...

Are Ethanol Companies Risky Investments?
by Neal Dikeman

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!

The Future of Alternative Fuels: Ethanol
by Charles Morand

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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