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.

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Looking for Silver Linings in Small Cap Energy Storage/Electric Power Market

All of us at Smallcapworld are optimists at heart, so when it’s time to write about battery companies, we look for the good story lines. It’s a “glass half full” philosophy.

PbC batteries courtesy Axion Power International

For that reason we are temporarily ignoring lithium ion battery maker A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE), which on May 11 posted a first quarter net loss of $125 million, more than twice the loss it reported in  the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first quarter a year ago. Quality problems and a slack demand for electrical cars are mostly the blame, according to press statements.

Perhaps we can put another lithium ion technology company, Valence Technology (Nasdaq: VLNC), in the same category, being that it is trading at the very bottom of its 52-week range (67 cents as of May 14 with upper end of range $1.34) for many of the same reasons as A123. As optimists, however, we might argue that these low valuations (A123 closed May 14 at 91 cents and was as high as $6.20 last June) may be good bargains. We shall see. If you want to know more about VLNC, listen to the company results conference call May 23 at www.valence.com).

So where are some silver linings in the small cap energy storage/battery market? Here are a few randomly chosen companies where you might find some hope:

San Diego-based Maxwell Technologies (Nasdaq: MXWL, http://www.maxwell.com) makes ultracapacitors and high voltage capacitors that provide energy storage and power delivery solutions for applications in many industries including transportation, automotive, information technology, renewable energy and industrial electronics. It also makes microelectronic products for satellites and spacecraft. While management reduced sales growth guidance durings its earnings call May 9, four insiders bought 48,000 shares at prices between $9 and $10.20, suggesting perhaps that they thought it was a good buy, according to Renewableenergyworld.com.  (http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2012/05/maxwell-technologies-mxwl-buy-or-steal). Market cap is about $233 million, 52-week range is $8.62-$21.49. MXWL closed May 15 at $8.26, up 21 cents for the day.

Reading, PA-based EnerSys (NYSE: ENS, http://www.enersysinc.com) is a little big for our blog (market cap is $1.52 billion) but we’re looking everywhere for some good news. We found it at Motley Fool (http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2012/04/10/1-reason-to-expect-big-things-from-enersys.aspx) which apparently believes that ENS inventory levels indicate the company may see increased demand on the horizon. ENS makes industrial batteries, battery accessories, chargers and power equipment. Its 52-week trading range is $17.35-$36.51. Daily trading volume is about 390,000 shares a day. It closed May 15 at $31.44, down 32 cents on the day.

Newark, NY-based Ultralife Corp. (Nasadaq: ULBI, http://www.ultralifecorp.com) operates in three segments: Battery and Energy Products, Communications Systems, and Energy Services. It makes a lithium 9-volt battery as well as various other rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries. Management confirmed its previous guidance of year-over-year revenue growth “approaching double digits,” according to Reuters. ULBI has a market cap of about $74 million and its 52-week trading range is $3.88-$5.50. It closed trading May 15 at $4.16, down 30 cents for the day.

New Castle, PA-based Axion Power International * (OTCBB: AXPW.OB, http://www.axionpower.com/) manufactures high-performance, low-cost lead-carbon (PbC(R)) batteries for a variety of markets, including for “mild” and “micro” hybrid vehicles, which are anticipated to be the commonest form of hybrid in the US within a couple of years (and already the most common in Europe). Its PbC batteries are as easy to manufacture as the older lead-acid batteries, but they use activated carbon instead of half the lead.  They are lighter and 100% recyclable (unlike lithium ion batteries), and have a higher charge acceptance and faster recharging rates, making them ideal for the growing  micro-hybrid and mild hybrid markets.  AXPW announced in April that Norfolk Southern had placed an initial order for the company’s PbC batteries for a battery-powered locomotive. AXPW has a market cap of $46 million and a 52-week trading range of $0.25-$0.84. It closed May 15 at $0.38, down 4 cents for the day.

Danbury, CT-based FuelCell Energy Inc. (Nasdaq: FCEL, http://www.fuelcellenergy.com) makes high temperature fuel cells for clean electric power generation. FCEL sells its products to electric utilities, independent power producers, universities, waste treatment facilities and other customers. The company has posted three consecutive quarters with “positive gross margins, revenue that beat expectation and a strong backlog, according to Seeking Alpha (http://seekingalpha.com/article/546321-fuelcell-energy-strong-quarter-and-a-shot-at-fuel-cell-profitability?source=yahoo). FCEL has a market cap of $151 million and a 52-week trading range of $0.80-$1.97. It closed May 15 at $1.09, up 5 cents for the day.

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

Focus Is on the Future for Fuel Cell Followers

Remember when the fuel cell ruled the world of alternative energy? Remember visions of the hydrogen fuel cell-powered automobile? It seems like decades ago that companies like General Motors were talking about fuel cells, not lithium ion batteries, as the alternative energy of the future. Well, that was before the success of the Toyota Prius proved to the world’s automakers that batteries and hybrid vehicles were not only efficient but highly marketable.

Fuel cell lovers should not fret. The hydrogen fuel cell has not completely lost its luster in the world of automobiles, according to the Wall Street Journal. It may be down, and the Obama administration may want to cut spending on hydrogen technology by $70 million next year, but many experts believe that, ultimately, fuel cells will be the alternative of choice to replace fossil fuels. And car makers like Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Toyota and GM still have fuel cell-powered vehicles in planning stages. Mercedes promises to have a fuel cell car in production by 2015, according to the WSJ report.

The lure of hydrogen remains strong, according to the WSJ, because fuel cell technology, which combines oxygen from the air with hydrogen from the car to create electricity, has advantages:

  • Hydrogen-powered cars will be able to travel about 240 miles before refueling, compared to the about 100 miles for battery-powered electrical cars. 
  • It only takes about three minutes to refuel compared to much longer for plug-ins.
  • Fuel cells are more effective for bigger vehicles like SUVs or tractor-trailers.
  • Progress has been made in making fuel cells smaller; manufacturing costs are declining.

While some of the big name stocks (General Electric, United Technologies) are involved in the fuel cell business, several small cap companies remain focused on fuel cells in some capacity, including:

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. Revenue has been growing for Ballard (market cap now at $132 million), but the company still has a way to go to be profitable. The stock price ran up as high as $2.42 in April but has since dropped to about $1.56 with an average daily trading volume of 400,000 shares.

Danbury, CT-based FuelCell Energy Inc. (Nasdaq: FCEL, http://www.fuelcellenergy.com/) makes a variety of fuel cells and just received a $129 million order from POSCO Power, which is more than 1.5 times last year’s sales, according to The Motley Fool. That order, which came in late May, provided a jolt of energy for its stock, running the price up to $1.90 a share and it has been as high as $2.41 in the past year. It has since dropped down to $1.33.

New York-based Ener1 Inc. * (Nasdaq: HEV, http://www.ener1.com/) is focused on developing lithium ion batteries and battery systems, but also has a fuel cell subsidiary called EnerFuel. The idea is to ultimately create a hybrid system out of its fuel cell and lithium ion technologies for extended range electric vehicles or to provide back up power or point-of-use storage for homes and businesses. The stock has a 52-week range of $1.06 to $5.90 and is currently trading at about $1.13.

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 small ($30 million market cap) announced this week that it would supply 161 of its GenDrive fuel cells to Kroger for its fleet of electric lift trucks, which move products on facility floors. Also this week, Roth Capital cleantech analyst phillip Shen initated coverage of PLUG with a buy and a price target of $4. PLUG stock, which was as high as $9 in January, has dropped to $2.27.

* Denotes a client of Allen & Caron, publisher of this blog

Batteries Now, Fuel Cells Later?

The news this morning: although we are enthusiastic about today’s battery–powered EVs, the fuel-cell-powered vehicle will be an important part of the mix in the future.  (http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/04/h2fcv-20090423.html).  

Many in the media seem to accept that EVs will be powered by either the current dominant technology (the Nickel Metal Hydride or NiMH battery), or the myriad variety of Lithium-ion batteries that are being designed and flogged in Asia, Europe, and North America.  But not every early winner finishes a winner.  Ask the Mets or the Cubs about that.

The Lithium-ion industry is grabbing the largest share of battery or batterylike stimulus dollars.  The Watertown, MA-based privately held and venture-backed A123 Systems (http://www.a123systems.com/)  has applied for $1.84 billion in subsidies, and the New York-based but Indianapolis-centered company, Ener1 Inc (Nasdaq:HEV, http://www.ener1.com), has applied for $480 millon, and was recently advanced to the finalist stage by the feds.  That’s all well and good — if the li-ion battery is not a mirage shimmering on the automotive horizon. 

There are some issues with li-ion batteries, and they are no secret.  The most well-known issue is that some of them have exploded, taking transporting aircraft and people’s laps down with them.  EVERY li-ion battery maker says they have fixed that problem.  Nobody wants to drive a car whose powertrain might blow up, after all.  Also li-ion batteries can have problems starting in cold temperatures (which is why li-ion vehicles still have a lead-acid battery for starter purposes). 

But if you look around, there are other technologies that “coulda been a contender” (with apologies to Marlon Brando) — and may yet be.  Perhaps the most obvious is the lineal descendent of the battery in the car you drive now — the “good old” lead-acid battery.  But wait! 

There are several companies that are modernizing the lead-acid battery, many of them working within the auspices of the US-based Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium (http://www.alabc.org/)  .  That would include the R&D-stage Firefly (http://www.fireflyenergy.com/),  and Axion Power* (EBB: AXPW, http://www.axionpower.com) , which recently snared a deal with one of the world’s largest battery companies, Alpharetta, GA-based Exide Technologies (Nasdaq: XIDE, http://www.exide.com).  Both companies use forms of the element carbon to revolutionize and improve the performance of batteries.  It’s hard to tell a lot about Firefly batteries because they haven’t been sold commercially, but Axion batteries, branded as PbC(r) batteries, are the heart and soul of the Exide distribution deal, and are also being used in demonstration projects by widely diverse groups including NYSERDA and an industry consortium designing and building solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles.  Axion has also been the recipient of DOD and DOE research funds, as well as industry grants to test and develop their proprietary technology, which basically replaces half the lead in a battery with nanocarbon that is analagous to the substance that is in your Brita water filter.

There are other tortoise-like technologies bringing up the rear behind the hare-like li-ion companies.  Some are pretty exotic — steam-powered assists, or devices that pump up gasoline efficiency by adding platinum, or urea, or even hydrogen additives.

Then there are the fuel cells, as mentioned at the top of this article.  The biggest problem with fuel cells is that few of them actually work well enough to be manufactured in quantity.  One assumes that will change.  The second biggest problem with fuel cells is that they are NOT batteries; they actually generate “new” electricity on the spot, rather than regurgitating “old” electricity that they have stored.  Other than that distinction (and it is important), they BEHAVE a lot like batteries.

Toyota Fuel-cell vehicle (today)

Toyota Fuel-cell vehicle (today)

For reality’s sake, there ARE fuel-cell vehicles operating today, just not in production quantities.  Read this from carlist.com: http://www.carlist.com/autonews/2004/toyota_fchv.html.   And in this picture you can see how the innards of a fuel-cell-car look (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?o=0&f=/c/a/2007/01/02/FUELCELL.TMP):

Mercedes Fuel-cell car cutaway

Mercedes Fuel-cell car cutaway

And lest we be accused of favoritism, there is this from GM and SAIC — both as American as apple pie: http://www.autobloggreen.com/2009/04/21/saic-to-use-gm-fuel-cell-propulsion-system-in-new-experimental-v

GM-SAIC Fuel-cell prototype

GM-SAIC Fuel-cell prototype

The problem to be surmounted is that only one company has ever managed to make portable (as opposed to the gigantic, truck-sized fuel cells that are called “stationary”) fuel cells in production quantities:  Medis Technologies (Nasdaq: MDTL, http://www.medistechnologies.com). Medis pumped out 250,000 of their hand-held fuel cells last fall, and now says it is in the process of upsizing the product and moving its production back to the US from Ireland, no doubt with stimulus funding on its agenda.  They also are eyeing military applications here and abroad (http://www.defencetalk.com/fuel-cell-power-technology-for-the-italian-military-17532/)

This article is already too long to go into the reasons WHY Medis fuel cells can be built in quantity and others can’t.  Suffice it to say here that they use a heretical technology employing sodium borohydride (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_borohydride), where everyone else uses hydrogen, in most cases generated by breaking down natural gas.  The former works well; the latter is more orthodox and does not work well (and might explode — Remember the Hindenburg!).

As for stationary fuel cells, they seem to be chugging along.  FuelCell Energy Inc (Nasdaq: FCEL, http://www.fuelcellenergy.com) announced a new deal with the USAF: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/FuelCell-Energy-Power-Plant-pz-14856468.html.

*Allen & Caron client