Warren Buffett’s ‘World’s Largest Solar Power Development’ Underway near LA

It’s being billed as the “world’s largest solar power development,” the joint construction effort started in January by Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican Solar and SunPower Corp. north of downtown Los Angeles in Kern and Los Angeles counties. Officially called the Antelope Valley Solar Projects, the 3,230-acre development in two co-located projects are scheduled to generate 579 megawatts, or enough energy to power 400,000 average California homes or about 2 million people.

MidAmerican Solar is a subsidiary of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which is controlled by Berkshire Hathaway. Warren Buffett is the primary investor, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

The two companies calculate that the electricity powered by the project will displace an estimated 775,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, which they say is equal to taking about 3 million cars off the road over the next 20 years. MidAmerican  owns the development and SunPower is the designer, engineer and contractor for the construction and will operate and maintain the project. Southern California Edison is the customer that will purchase the power when it is completed by year-end 2015.

One of the other big solar power stories  of the week, “The Incredible Shrinking Cost of Solar Energy “(http://www.juancole.com/2013/05/incredible-shrinking-projects.html notes that thanks to the “dramatic fall in the cost of solar power generation” solar is at grid parity in many parts of the world, including Germany, Portugal, Italy and Spain, as well in the southwestern U.S.

Other data points in these stories include:

  • The cost of the best Chinese solar panels fell in cost by 50 percent between 2009-2012. Over the next two years, cost reductions will “slow” to a 30 percent rate.
  • By 2015 solar panels are expected to fall to 42 cents per watt.
  • U.S. solar installations rose 76 percent in 2012.
  • Hybrid plants that include both solar and wind turbines dramatically increase efficiency and help integrate into the electrical grid.

Given some of the interesting developments in solar power, how have some of the solar stocks fared in the past few months?

San Mateo, CA-based SolarCity Corp. (Nasdaq: SCTY, http://www.solarcity.com/ designs, installs and sells or leases solar energy systems to residential and commercial customers, as well as electric vehicle charging products.  It closed March 15 at $16.74 with a market cap of $406.5 million. By April 12 it was trading at $19.97 with a market cap of $1.5 billion. SCTY closed May 8 at $24.16, up 50 cents for the day with a market cap of $1.8 billion. Its 52-week trading range is $9.20-$28.23.

Ontario, Canada-based Canadian Solar (Nasdaq: CSIQ, http://www.canadian-solar.com/ ), which sells a variety of solar products, closed back on March 15 at $3.50 with a market cap of $151 million. It closed April 12 at $4.07 with a market cap of $176 million. CSIQ closed May 8 at $5.29, down 17 cents for the day, with a market cap of $228 million. Its 52-week trading range is $1.95-$6.09.

San Jose, CA-based SunPower Corp. (Nasdaq: SPWR, http://www.sunpowercorp.com/), which makes a wide variety of solar products and systems and is one of the principals in the Antelope Valley Solar Project, closed back on March 15 at $11.80 with a market cap of $1.4 billion. SPWR closed April 12 at $11.06. It closed May 8 at $15.36, down 6 cents for the day, with a market cap of $1.8 billion. Its 52-week trading range is $3.71-$16.04.

China-based Trina Solar Ltd. (NYSE: TSL, http://www.trinasolar.com/) designs, manufactures and sells photovoltaic modules worldwide. Back on March 15, TSL closed at $4.11 with a market cap of $291 million. It closed April 12 at $4.19 with a  market cap of $335 million. TSL closed May 8 at $4.72, down 22 cents for the day. Its 52-week trading range is now $2.04-$7.67.

China-based Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. (NYSE: YGE, http://www.yinglisolar.com/ makes photovoltaic products including cells, modules and systems. YGE closed back on March 15 at $2.47 with a market cap of $387 million. It closed April 12 at $2.12 with a market cap of $324 million. YGE closed May 8 at $2.20, down 7 cents for the day, with a market cap of $356 million. Its 52-week trading range is $1.25-$3.68.

China-based Suntech Power Holdings (NYSE: STP, http://am.suntech-power.com/), the world’s largest producer of solar panels, closed at $0.70 back on March 15 with a market cap of $127 million. It closed May 8 at $0.51, down 7 cents for the day, with a market cap of $92 million. Its 52-week trading range is $0.30-$2.67.

St. Peters, MO-based MEMC Electronic Materials (NYSE:WFR, http://www.memc.com/) manufactures and sells silicon wafers and photovoltaic materials. Through SunEdison, it’s a developer of solar energy products. It closed March 15 at $4.53 with a market cap of $1 billion. WFR closed April 12 at $4.76 with a market cap of $1 billion. WFR closed May 8 at $5.33, down 6 cents for the day, with a market cap of $1.2 billion. Its 52-week trading range is $1.44-$5.70.

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Obama Budget Proposes Big Increases for Spending on Clean Energy

Photo courtesy of KMBC.com

Photo courtesy of KMBC.com

President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal made headlines this week mainly for its changes to Social Security, but the increases proposed in US government support for clean energy spending did not go unnoticed. Reuters News Service called the increases for electric cars, wind power and other green technology “dramatic,” particularly because they arrive in the face of Republican criticism.

While many government agencies get slimmed down in the budget proposal, the Department of Energy would get an 8 percent increase to $28.4 billion next year, Reuters reported. Included are a 75 percent increase in spending on advanced vehicles to $575 million and a 29 percent increase in spending on the ongoing effort to integrate solar and wind power into the national electric grid, Reuters reported. Support for biofuels would increase by 24 percent.

“These increases in funding are significant and a testament to the importance of clean energy and innovation to the country’s economic future,” the Obama administration wrote in the budget proposal, according to the Reuters report.

While Republicans have criticized the US backing of companies like Solyndra, a solar panel maker that went bankrupt, and Fisker Automotive, a hybrid sports care maker which is struggling and laying off employees to hold off bankruptcy, President Obama has maintained that clean energy is a key to the country’s future.

Government support for the clean energy industry “has nearly doubled (the US) energy generation from wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources” since Obama took office in 2008 and maintaining this level of support “could lead to breakthroughs in the years to come,” Reuters reported.

We’ve been following several wind and solar energy companies, including:

Newbury Park, CA-based Sauer Energy (OTC: SENY, http://www.sauerenergy.com/) is a development stage company developing vertical axis wind turbines for commercial and residential uses. Formerly BCO Hydrocarbon Ltd., the company disposed of its oil and gas interests and in July 2010 purchased Sauer Energy and in May 2012 purchased Helix Wind Corp. Back on Dec. 24 it was trading for $0.24. It closed April 12 at $0.10, down 1 cent for the day. Its market cap is now $9 million and 52-week range is $0.08-$0.39.

China-based China Ming Yang Wind Power Group (NYSE: MY, http://www.mywind.com.cn/) is a wind turbine manufacturer focused on designing, manufacturing, selling and servicing megawatt-class wind turbines. Last July, MY announced it was considering a joint venture with China-based Huaneng Renewables Corp. to develop wind power and solar power projects in China and overseas markets. MY stock closed Dec. 24 at $1.21. It closed April 12 at $1.35, up 1 cent for the day. Its market cap is now $169 million and 52-week trading range is $1.06-$2.47.

Chatsworth, CA-based Capstone Turbine Co. (Nasdaq: CPST, http://www.capstoneturbine.com/) develops and markets microturbine technologies, including technologies used to provide on-site power generation for wind power. It closed Dec. 24 at $0.91 with a market cap of $278 million.CPST closed April 12 at $0.93, down 4 cents for the day. Its market cap is now 282 million and 52-week trading range is $0.73-$1.20.

San Mateo, CA-based SolarCity Corp. (Nasdaq: SCTY, http://www.solarcity.com) designs, installs and sells or leases solar energy systems to residential and commercial customers, as well as electric vehicle charging products.  It closed March 15 at $16.74 with a market cap of $406.5 million. SCTY closed April 12 at $19.97, down 41 cents for the day. Its market cap is now $1.5 billion and 52-week trading range is $9.20-$21.40.

Ontario, Canada-based Canadian Solar (Nasdaq: CSIQ, http://www.canadian-solar.com/ ), which sells a variety of solar products, closed back on March 15 at $3.50 with a market cap of $151 million. It closed April 12 at $4.07, down 3 cents with a market cap of $176 million. Its 52-week trading range is $1.95-$5.15.

San Jose, CA-based SunPower Corp. (Nasdaq: SPWR, http://www.sunpowercorp.com/), which makes a wide variety of solar products and systems, closed back on March 15 at $11.80 with a market cap of $1.4 billion. SPWR closed April 12 at $11.06, up one cent for the day. Its market cap is now $1.8 billion and its 52-week trading range is $3.71-$13.88.

China-based Trina Solar Ltd. (NYSE: TSL, http://www.trinasolar.com/) designs, manufactures and sells photovoltaic modules worldwide. Back on March 15, TSL closed at $4.11 with a market cap of $291 million. It closed April 12 at $4.19, up one cent, with a  market cap of $335 million. Its 52-week trading range is now $2.04-$7.99. 

China-based Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. (NYSE: YGE, http://www.yinglisolar.com/) makes photovoltaic products including cells, modules and systems. YGE closed back on March 15 at $2.47 with a market cap of $387 million. It closed April 12 at $2.12, down 5 cents, with a market cap of $324 million. Its 52-week trading range is $1.25-$4.12.

China-based Suntech Power Holdings (NYSE: STP, http://am.suntech-power.com), the world’s largest producer of solar panels, closed at $0.70 back on March 15 with a market cap of $127 million. It closed April 12 at $ 2012, and then rose to $1.87 in early January, but has been falling since. STP closed March 15 at $0.75, udown 12 cents for the day, with a market cap of $135 million. Its 52-week trading range is $0.30-$2.96.

St. Peters, MO-based MEMC Electronic Materials (NYSE:WFR, http://www.memc.com) manufactures and sells silicon wafers and photovoltaic materials. Through SunEdison, it’s a developer of solar energy products. It closed March 15 at $4.53 with a market cap of $1 billion. WFR closed April 12 at $4.76, down 6 cents, with a market cap of $1 billion. Its 52-week trading range is $1.44-$5.70.

Mary Lisanti: Continued Corporate Earnings Growth in 2013 (When the Federal Government Resolves the Budget)

Mary Lisanti is president and portfolio manager of AH Lisanti, an investment management company currently focused on small cap growth companies. She is a 33-year veteran of small cap growth research and investing. For the first 12 years she was a small cap analyst and strategist on Wall Street. During the past 18 years, she has managed small cap portfolios at premier asset management companies. As CIO of ING Investments LLC, (1998-2003) she was responsible for building the active equity management team, and assets under management in her area grew from several hundred million to several billion dollars. Prior to ING, Mary was at Strong Capital Management as Senior Portfolio Manager for both the Small Cap Growth and Mid Cap Growth Strategies and was Managing Director and Head of the Small/Mid Cap team at Bankers Trust Company. Mary was named Fund Manager of the Year in 1996 by Barron’s. She was named #1 small cap analyst in 1989 by Institutional Investor’s All-Star Research Team. In addition, she was ranked #2 and #3 in 1987 and 1986 respectively.

Mary-headshot

I had the pleasure of talking to Mary just before the New Year’s holiday at her office near Rockefeller Center.  We had first met in the late 1980s when she was interested in a technology company that proposed the radical idea of a keyless car ignition or computer security system using a fingerprint.  Interesting how what seemed futuristic now seems almost as old hat as, well, men on the moon.

JA:  How are you feeling about the year ahead?

ML:  Undecided.  I’ll give you some positives and some negatives.  One big positive is that corporate profit growth will still be decent.  Corporations are at very high profit margins, but when you break down what’s going on, there’s no reason they shouldn’t go higher.  Virtualization – the use of cloud computing, and other aspects of today’s high tech should help them cut costs.  For that trend to stop, two things would have to happen: a long period of negative revenue growth, accompanied by fast-rising wages.  Neither of those things is happening.

That will be a positive for the market.  Corporate profits are growing 8-10% and we believe that can continue, and that is widely dispersed across the board.  Small caps can grow even more,we believe, although again there will be wide dispersion in individual results.  This will be a classic stockpicker’s market.

The biggest negative for the market is that we cannot seem to govern ourselves.  That weighs on multiples.  That’s why, four years into this recovery, multiples are still low, particularly when you take into account where interest rates are and how  GDP growth, although below trend, continues to chug along at 2% or so.  In that scenario, logic would have it that multiples would be in the range of 18-19, but they are not.  Why not? I believe it is because of our inability to govern. Politicans are behind the curve;as they usually are, in addressing our structural issues to bring the long term deficit issues under control. Will they address the longterm issues or not?  If they do so now, it will require only modest changes to entitlements and spending. The extent to which we address those issues will affect the performance of the market going forward.

It is psychologically important to multiples: if you can slow the growth in spending at least a bit, you give people more confidence.  In the Clinton years they managed to slow the rate of growth in spending, and Clinton left office with a surplus.  I believe we will spend most of 2013 arguing about entitlements and other budget issues.  Next year it will be the Democrats saying no to entitlement reform, just like this year it was Republicans saying no to taxes.  I don’t know how much it is possible to get done, because it is being done in a fishbowl and from ideological positions that don’t accommodate compromise.

If they do not get something done, I fear that US debt will get downgraded again.

JA:  And would any of the DC politicians feel responsible if that happened?

ML:  I do not believe so, no.  Politicians, in my opinion, are in the business of passing the blame.  If there were another downgrade, it would affect President Obama’s legacy, and I don’t think he wants to be the president who oversaw two debt downgrades in his time in office.  Both sides will have an incentive to compromise and hopefully they will.  The biggest risk to all of us, and to the market, is that the dollar loses a bit of its luster as the currency of last resort.

When you look at Japan and China and Europe, they are getting their act together with regard to being attractive places to invest and could even potentially be attractive as reserve currencies in a few years.  My biggest concern is that we permanently change corporate behavior: if you have a climate of uncertainty for long enough you make people afraid.  Business overall has been clear with Washington that the uncertainty is damaging.  R&D tax credits, farm and agriculture bills, accelerated depreciation – Congress has been handling these as though they were annual issues, and they’re not.  They affect multi-year planning.  When the R&D tax credit was put in place in the early 1980’s, it was in place for 4.5 years.   That would be better—it would give businesses the ability to plan longer term..

These and other things are casualties of this ideological warfare in Washington.

JA:  What do you see as strengths in 2013?

ML:  It is an enormous positive that housing is recovering, and the recovery should continue, assuming Washington does not cut the mortgage deduction..  Unemployment is declining, although it is declining too slowly.  And we have cheap sources of energy.  . A number of industry sources believe that we will be energy independent in the next decade or so, which is a huge positive for our manufacturing competitiveness.

When you look at these things, once we make it through this budget and debt-ceiling problem, things look a lot better.

Governments all over the world have been spending money to fix the problems that caused the recession, and odds are that things will not fall apart again soon.  Over the past several years, we have had a major issue every year that has “terrified” us: last year it was the potential breakup of the Euro and Greek debt default, and this year it was the budget crisis in the U.S. Beyond the budget crisis, I do not see an issue that has the potential to scare investors as much as these two issues have. We should enter a period of more “normalcy,” where macro issues take a backseat to fundamental issues, and that change should allow multiples to increase. But belief in a more stable future will come slowly.

JA:  What should we look for in 2013 when we look at investments?

ML:  As small cap growth investors, we look for earnings growth.  But one of the great positives in this market is that there are many ways to make money in the market.  When I came into the business in the late 1970s, you could make get 7-8% returns several ways.  You could make money with yields –- those companies with no earnings growth offered very high dividend yields, say about 7%; those companies with earnings growth offered more modest dividends, say 2-4% dividends and 4-5% annual growth in earnings.  Growth stocks offered  very little in the way of dividends, but you could get capital appreciation as earnings would increase 10% to 15%.annually. Then, as we moved through the great bull market of the 1980’s and 1990’s, we got to the point where dividends were out of favor and capital appreciation was the only way to make money.. Now dividends are back and once again there are multiple ways to make decent returns in the stock market, depending upon one’s tolerance for risk..That is very, very positive for the equity markets.

JA: How about sectors?  Any of special interest, or any you would avoid?

ML:  There are good companies in every sector.  I would not recommend the utilities, but there are very good opportunities in materials, energy, consumer products and services, industrials and financial services,  In most of these the small caps usually have something unique about the way they do it, or the technology they apply to it.

Tech spending is not forecast to be up much in 2013.  There will be winners and losers.  We need to keep in mind that the corporate world is moving toward Software as a Service, which allows them to stop buying perpetual licenses, and to pay as they use software.  They are going from buying licenses and maintenance contracts, and now are basically paying just for what they use.  Same with cloud computing.  So they are going from spending $20,000 on software and a server to paying $1,000 month.  So even though tech spending is forecast to be close to flat, the companies that will be winners will have SaaS and cloud computing.  These trends will hold down spending.  It’s hard to see how the semiconductor companies are going to prosper in that environment, unless it is the specialty chipmakers who are specialized in populating ever-smaller chips with ever-larger amounts of circuitry for tablets and smart phones – or those companies that are specialized in the ability to manage the signals for those tablets and phones.  But other than those two, I don’t see a lot of growth there.  And I would be careful about traditional license-oriented software companies.  .

JA: What about healthcare companies?

ML:  Interesting.  It’s hard to guess how ObamaCare will play out.  There are some longterm secular trends in healthcare that are worth keeping in mind.  Keep your eye on the value proposition: better, faster, cheaper, more automated.  One of the most interesting areas is the second generation biotechs.  Think about AIDS, for instance.  Over the last 25 years it has become a livable disease – that is, we haven’t cured it, but we can make it possible to live with it, and to do well, not just to survive for a few more months.  Now the industry is working to make cancer livable in the same way; there are whole new classes of drugs that enable people to live with cancer, and not to just be blown away by it in a short time.  Possibly we are spending the same amount of money making cancer livable as we used to, but now we’re spending it over a longer period, and not all at the end of life.  Diabetes monitoring, for instance – the closer we get to continuous glucose monitoring, the better for diagnosis and treatment; One of our investments is Dexcom (DXCM), which has a promising technology for that.  All those big diseases are interesting, and medicine is getting its arms around them too.

JA: How about healthcare IT?

ML:  It has historically been mostly about billing and insurance, but now the future is to move on to quality of care.  Since we have had health insurance as a society, the focus has been on what you might call “industrial metrics,” such as how many patients you can process.  Now the quality of the outcome is more important, and best practices are more important.  There will have to be penalties for readmissions of the same patient.  Mobile apps for monitoring things like blood pressure, glucose, heart problems and blood gases – these things are going to become standard practice over the next 5 to 10 years.

JA:  You mentioned the impact of technology on industry.

ML:  There are lots of new beginnings now, along with outmoding of old things.  Software as a service and the use of the cloud – this is the biggest piece of cost to cut.  If you can cut your IT costs you have overall better margins, and better processes too.  And industrial automation is interesting too.  The first generation of automation concentrated on, for instance, lasers to cut steel.  Now automobiles are being made with lighter materials, so new lasers are needed, lasers to cut nonsteel materials.  Aerospace is an interesting area for this.  Two things that are driving aerospace are new materials that lower weight and cost, and a continuing cutback on oil-based materials.  There is a bit of a renaissance going on in aerospace.

One of our investments is IPG Photonics (IPGP) for the new lasers needed to deal with new lighterweight materials.  Another is Polypore International (PPO), which is making the membranes needed for new electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. By the end of 2013, they are expected to be supplying membranes for 24 models of cars.  That goes back to the fact that fuel efficiency standards by 2025 will be at 54.5 mpg.

Another of our investments is Aspen Technology (AZPN), which basically supplies SaaS for factories and plants.  If you are a refinery, for instance, you are required by law to take your systems down every so often for maintenance and test for a number of things such as safety and pollution.  Doing that manually is difficult; it can be done, but it is hard, and if you are global it is harder.  Aspen automates all of that, and they are in a field by themselves basically.

JA:  And energy?

ML:  The shale revolution will be a big job creator, and the move toward natural gas for vehicles is important.  Fleets will be moving to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), and we believe the infrastructure will be built out for CNG refueling.  Federal Express, UPS and the other big fleets will be the drivers.  We are interested in Westport Innovations (WPRT) for the CNG engines.  And we are watching Clean Energy Fuels Corp (CLNE) for the CNG supply chain, but big oil will be the installer.  We also believe solar will become economical to use, with panels on the roofs, for instance, of warehouses, and power being sold back to the grid when it is not needed.  Between the increased supply of natural gas, shale energy, coal, oil and renewable, we can get to be energy independent.

JA:  How about housing?

ML:  Housing is fascinating.  What happened with housing is what happened with autos.  Now after a period of low sales, we probably need as a nation to do some catching up.  We could need 1.7 million new housing starts for a couple of years.  That would double the current rate.  The Echo-boomers (who used to be called Generation Y) are starting to buy houses; their demand for houses is growing at 5% per year, and will grow at 10% per year soon.  My personal opinion is that this housing cycle will be a long one, similar to what we saw after the housing collapse in the mid 1970’s. In the first few years, we will see a catchup in pricing, but after that we believe housing prices will probably go up a couple of percentage points per year. If they implement the rules on mortgages that are being talked about, the housing market will become a lot steadier and more stable, more like the Texas market, where they tightened the downpayment requirement and favor 30-year-fixed mortgages.  That will be positive for the housing market and for consumer confidence.

There is nothing better for consumers than to have their biggest asset become more valuable every year.  Three years ago if you hadn’t already lost your job, you were still afraid you might lose it.  Your 401(k) and your house were devaluing.  This recovery is more like the late 1970s than the 1990s.  People got burned in the mid-70s and it took a long time to feel better.  When we are operating at full potential, we should have 3-1/2% to 4% GDP growth, and that will come eventually.

JA:  And in 2013?

ML:  I think GDP this year will be 2-1/2% overall because of federal and state problems, but corporate GDP growth will be a good bit better than that, assuming there is a budget deal at some point.  The first half of the year if we watch the government argue about spending, it could be a bit of a damper on growth.  If we regain faith that the politicians will be able to compromise and come up with some answers, the market will go higher.  Having our debt downgraded shook everyone’s confidence.    So the market is at 12-13 times earnings as a result.

If we get a budget deal we could get much stronger investor confidence, but in the short term, our ability to govern ourselves is the big issue.  Once that is resolved, the market will lift.

JA:  Thanks, Mary.

For AH Lisanti:  For financial intermediary use only.  Not for use with investing public.

The information provided should not be considered a recommendation to purchase or sell any particular security.  It should not be assumed that any security transactions, holdings, or sectors discussed were or will be profitable, or that the investment recommendations or decisions we make in the future will be profitable or will equal the investment performance discussed herein.  The views expressed reflect those of the portfolio manager as of 12/31/2012.  The portfolio manager’s views are subject to change at any time based on market and other various conditions. The performance reflected herein is not representative of performance of AH Lisanti individually managed accounts or comingled vehicles that AH Lisanti advises.

 

U.S. Division of Chinese Automotive Components Maker Outbids Others for A123

Photo of Wanxiang America courtesy of siteselection.com

Photo of Wanxiang America courtesy of siteselection.com

As a follow-up to our recent posts about the auction of the assets of bankrupt battery maker A123 systems, it was announced this week that Wanxiang America Corp, the U.S. arm of China-based Wanxiang Group Corp. was the winning bidder at $256.6 million. The deal must still be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which supervised the auction, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., a group overseen by U.S. Treasury that regularly reviews any sale that results in a foreign country or person gaining control of a U.S. business.

The hearing in the bankruptcy court was scheduled for Dec. 11.

If approved, Wanxiang would receive A123’s automotive battery business, grid energy storage division and other commercial business assets including U.S. facilites in Michigan, Massachusetts and Missouri. The government business previously owned by A123 is being sold to Navitas Systems, a company spun off from Sun Microsystems, for $2.25 million.

Johnson Controls, one of the bidders that lost out in the auction, told the Wall Street Journal that it is still interested in A123 if the regulators do not approve the deal with Wanxiang. Johnson Controls bid “about $250 million” for A123, according to the WSJ.

Wanxiang Group Corp. is the largest automotive components maker in China. A123 Systems has been the sole battery supplier for Anaheim, CA-based Fisker Automotive. Fisker has halted production of its $100,000 hybrid Karma because of a shortage of A123 lithium ion batteries.

Report: Investments in Smart Grid Technologies to Reach $200 Billion by 2015

New investments to so-called Smart Grid technologies to replace the current decades-old electrical grid technology will total $200 billion worldwide by 2015, according to a recent research report by Pike Research, a market research firm that specializes in global clean technology markets (http://www.pikeresearch.com/newsroom/smart-grid-investment-to-total-200-billion-worldwide-by-2015).  While smart meters are “the highest-profile component of the Smart Grid,” the investments will mostly go to “grid infrastructure projects including transmission upgrades, substation automation and distribution automation,” said Clink Wheelock, Pike’s managing director.

If accurate, that opens up a whole lot of potential revenue for a wide variety of companies large and small. Some of the bigs include Qualcomm, Duke Energy and JDS Uniphase, just to name a few. But several small caps are thriving in different niches of the market. Here are a few randomly chosen companies involved in this market.

Newton, MA-based Ambient Corporation (Nasdaq: AMBT, http://www.ambientcorp.com/) provides utilities with solutions for Smart Grid initiatives. It has designed a secure, flexible and scalable smart grid platform called the Ambient Smart Grid communications and applications platform. Ambient announced Oct. 4 that it was establishing a European subsidiary to focus on the “growing and vibrant” European market. AMBT has a market cap of $83 million and a 52-week trading range of $4-$9.75. It closed Oct. 9 at $4.89, down 11 cents on the day.

San Jose, CA-based Echelon Corporation (Nasdaq: ELON, http://www.echelon.com/) is an energy control networking company. Echelon technologies currently connect more than 35 million homes, 300,000 businesses and 100 million devices to the smart grid. ELON offers a wide variety of products focused on smart buildings, smart cities and the smart grid and it recently announced that two of its products were granted China State Grid approval. ELON’s market cap is currently $166 million and its 52-week trading range is $2.50-$7.43. It closed Oct. 9 at $3.88, down 5 cents on the day.

Irvine, CA-based Lantronix (Nasdaq: LTRX, http://www.lantronix.com/) makes products that make it possible to access and manage electronic products over the Internet or other networks. The company offers smart machine-to-machine connectivity solutions and other miscellaneous products that offer remote access, control and printing for data center, enterprise manufacturing, branch office and home applications. LTRX has a current market cap of $27 million and a 52-week trading range of $1.15-$3.40. It closed Oct. 9 at $1.82, down 12 cents for the day.

Calabasas, CA-based National Technical Systems * (Nasdaq: NTSC, http://www.nts.com/) is a diversified engineering services company, providing a wide range of testing and engineering services to the aerospace, defense, automotive, telecommunications and energy industries worldwide. NTSC now offers a comprehensive certification program for Smart Grid devices that includes areas identified by major utility companies as vital for new products in Smart Grid networks. NTSC’s market cap is now $86 million and its 52-week trading range is $4.02-$8.80. It closed Oct. 9 at $7.48, down 8 cents for the day.

* Denotes client of Allen & Caron Inc., publisher of this blog

Solar Inverter Companies Facing Same Issues as Solar Panel Makers

In the solar power business, the inverter is the second major component after the solar panel itself. And like the solar panel business, the solar inverter business is also facing a shakeout due to decreasing margins and increasing competition, according to Forbes.com blogger Tom Konrad (http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/print/article/2012/06/solar-inverter-shakeout-3-survivors-2-buyers-a-loser-and-a-wildcard), who conducted a mini-survey on the issue from a group of green money managers. His

Photo of Power-1 Aurora courtesy savingenergyonline.com

posts also run on Seeking Alpha.

The inverter is the device that takes the DC power generated by the solar module and turns it into AC power to be fed into a home or business. But inverters are becoming increasingly commoditized, according to the money managers. The inverter companies who survive this shakeout will be those that can diversify their business, build market share and maintain a strong balance sheet as the global market expands, which it is likely to do over time.

The consensus is the undercapitalized companies, while apparently fewer in the solar inverter business than in the panel business, are going to have to last somehow as new low-cost Asian entrants join this market.

So who are the inverter companies to watch? Here is a short list, along with some of the comments from the money managers in Konrad’s article.

Camarillo, CA-based Power-One (Nasdaq: PWER, http://www.power-one.com) also manufactures wind energy inverters and a variety of other electronic components it sells to computer and storage customers. The managers say Power-One is well capitalized with a strong balance sheet. PWER’s market cap is not about $551 million and its 52-week trading range is $3.51-$8.23.  It closed June 27 at $4.52, up 9 cents on the day.

Boston-based Satcon Technology Corporation (Nasdaq: SATC, http://www.satcon.com) makes inverters called PowerGate Plus, Equinox and Solstice, among others. It is struggling, according to Konrad and his sources, due to shrinking sales and poor operating margins. SATC’s market cap is now about $33 million and its 52-week trading range is $0.18-$2.75. SATC closed June 27 at $0.23, up 1 cent on the day.

Germany-based SMA Solar Technology AG (OTC: SMTGF, http://www.sma.de/en.html) is global in scope and offers inverters under the brand names Sunny Boy, Sunny Tripower, Sunny Central and Sunny Tower brand names, among others. Like Power-One, SMA is well capitalized with little debt, according to the money managers. SMA’s current market cap is $1.1 billion and its 52-week trading range is $30.25-$110.50. It closed June 27 at $31.25, down $3.15 for the day.

Fort Collins, CO-based Advanced Energy Industries (Nasdaq: AEIS, http://www.advanced-energy.com/) is well-positioned because inverters are only a small part of its business. Its market cap is currently about $525 million and its 52-week trading range is $7.56-$15.07. AEIS closed June 27 at $13.21, up 1 cent on the day.

Petaluma, CA-based Enphase Energy (Nasdaq: ENPH, http://www.enphase.com) is growing due in part to its technological advantage: it makes microinverters that simplify the installation and also are “better at optimizing system output,” according to the article. Because it is growing and has advanced technology, it’s considered a wildcard and an acquisition candidate, some say. ENPH currently has a market cap of about $238 million and a 52-week trading range of $4.90-$9.57. It closed June 27 at $5.85, down 14 cents on the day.

Sold! EBay Buys into Alternative Energy Fuel Cell Power

Fuel cells made headlines in the major financial publications this week with the announcement that eBay is planning to build a new data center in Utah powered by, yes, alternative energy fuel cells. The new eBay data center will use approximately 6 million watts of power generated on-site by fuel cells made by Sunnyvale, CA-based, privately-held Bloom Energy, according to the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/technology/ebay-plans-data-center-that-will-use-alternative-energy.html?scp=1&sq=james%20glanz%20ebay&st=Search).

eBay logo courtesy of LiewCF.com

While the new center, which will also serve eBay’s payment service PayPal, will be hooked up to the electricity grid as a backup, the news is considered a major victory for alternative energy backers, fuel cell believers and the environmental industry in general which has long complained that Internet companies are too often relying on coal power to run their data centers.

The Times’s story notes that fuel cell arrays are being used by major corporations including AT&T, Kaiser Permanente and Wal-Mart but nothing of this scale. Nearly all comparable data centers now draw the majority of the power from the grid.

Bloom Energy’s version of fuel cells are “essentially large batteries whose charge is maintained by by the hydrocarbon energy contained in natural gas,” according to the Times. Since the price of natural gas has plummeted in recent years, fuel cells have become more economically competititve, the story notes. And since the charge in the Bloom Energy cells is maintained by chemical reactions, not combustion, important efficiencies are gained. Another advantage is the fuel cells generate energy on-site, meaning no energy is dissipated as it travels along transmission lines.

All great news for environmentalists, Bloom Energy and, hopefully, eBay. But does it translate to hope for the mostly struggling small cap fuel cell companies? Based on investor reaction to the news, there seemed to be little benefit, at least initially.

Lathan, NY-based Plug Power Inc. (Nasdaq: PLUG, http://www.plugpower.com/) manufactures fuel cell systems for industrial off-road markets and stationary power markets. The PLUG stock, which was as high as $9 in early 2011, has traded much lower in recent months. Its 52-week trading range is now $1.11-$2.71 and its market cap as of June 21 was about $44 million. Roth Capital cleantech analyst Phillip Shen initated coverage of PLUG a year ago with a buy and a price target of $4. PLUG stock closed June 21 at $1.12, down 2 cents for the day.

Danbury, CT-based FuelCell Energy Inc. (Nasdaq: FCEL, http://www.fuelcellenergy.com/) makes a variety of fuel cells and its stock trades actively, more than 2 million shares a day on average. But apparently its second quarter numbers showing revenues down 15 percent from a year ago has soured investors. Its 52-week trading range is $0.80 to $1.95 and it closed June 21 at $1.06, up 2 cents on the day.

British Columbia-based Ballard Power Systems (Nasdaq: BLDP, http://www.ballard.com/) manufactures and sells fuel cells and fuel cell materials for the automobile and other markets. News from Ballard included business partnerships with Brazilian and European bus companies. But the company this week announced a revision in 2012 revenue and adjusted EBITDA downward due in part to contract negotiaations with a Brazilian customer. The stock, which was a high as $2.42 in April 2011 has dropped in recent months. It closed June 21 at $1.12, down 5 cents. Average daily trading volume is now about 124,000 shares.

Ontario, Canada-based Hydrogenics Corp. (Nasdaq: HYGS, http://www.hydrogenics.com) designs, develops and manufactures hydrogen generation and fuel cell products based on water electrolysis technology and proton exchange membrane technology. HYGS recently announced a significant order for a “power to gas” project for energy storage in Germany. The 52-week trading range of HYGS is $4.47-$7.10 but the stock trades lightly, about 7,500 shares a day. Its market cap is about $38 million. HYGS closed June 21 at $5.85, down 42 cents for the day.