How’s that T. Boone Pickens clean-fuel thing going?
Almost a decade ago, oil magnate T. Boone Pickens set forth the “Pickens Plan,” which was supposed to end our reliance on imported oil. At the time, it wasn’t a bad idea. We were importing more than half our oil and were at the mercy of OPEC.
Today the problem doesn’t seem as immediate. The halving of oil prices has, in turn, reduced our imports to well below 50 percent. Pickens’s stock in Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the company that is bringing compressed natural gas to the truck sector, has languished. But Clean Energy is making progress that one day may be reflected in a rising stock price.
The Pickens Plan had two parts: First, we were going to put up thousands of windmills to drive the electrical sector. That would enable us to divert huge quantities of natural gas then being used to generate electricity. Then we would take that gas and put it into the transportation sector, replacing huge quantities of gasoline and diesel that fueled our cars and trucks.
Pickens toured the country promoting the Pickens Plan and soliciting people to pledge to support him. He also put things in motion, sponsoring hundreds of windmills in West Texas and establishing Clean Energy, a Southern California-based company that would start making natural gas fuel available to motorists.
So how did things turn out? As it happened, the windmill thing wasn’t really necessary. Tax credits assured that lots of windmills would be built, and wind now accounts for about 40 percent of Texas’s electricity. That growth hasn’t freed up vast quantities of natural gas, however, since the fossil fuel is still needed as a backup for power generation. But it hardly mattered. The Pickens Plan came along just as fracking was boosting American oil and gas production, resulting in an even bigger surplus of gas.
Clean Energy has been one of the mysteries of the stock market: At any moment, it seemed poised to take off in Tesla-like fashion as the idea of a Natural Gas Highway took hold. The company wisely elected to concentrate on long-haul trucks. Those vehicles burn lots of diesel, and trucking companies are conscious of their fuel costs, so they know whether it’s worth switching to natural gas.
Clean Energy concentrated on truck stops along major interstate routes. Two years ago it announced it had completed a Natural Gas Highway connecting Austin, Texas, and Southern California, a heavily traveled route. Converting a truck from diesel to compressed natural gas can cost as much as $40,000 and is not lightly undertaken. With natural gas selling at least a dollar cheaper than diesel, however, payback came within two years.
Clean Energy now estimates that 153,000 light-, medium- and heavy-duty trucks now use natural gas. This might seem like a big number, but it’s actually a drop in the bucket compared with the estimated 3.2 million heavy-duty trucks on the road today.
Where Clean Energy has found an opening is with corporate fleets and utilities. These companies have fairly limited routes and predictable requirements. They can be refueled at a central fueling station, and drivers don’t have to worry about finding a station. Light trucks can be ordered in advance as NGVs and do not require expensive conversion. Clean Energy has landed several large contracts with companies such as UPS, FedEx and municipal bus routes, and sees extraordinary possibilities for growth in that market. Sixty percent of the new garbage trucks sold in 2015 run on natural gas.
Still, Clean Energy’s stock has failed to take off and has been hit several times by short sellers who questioned its financing. Even today, critics point out the company’s large bond obligations that will be coming due in the near future. In September, the story emerged that Pickens himself was unloading a large block of stock. Pickens acknowledged that he had sold 697,860 shares, but he still retains 17,441,860 shares and remains the company’s largest stockholder.
Last week, Seeking Alpha published a report titled “Clean Energy Fuels – Expect a Turnaround in 2016.” The paper noted that although low natural gas prices had cut into its products, the company was still showing signs of a positive advance. Clean Energy’s deliveries increased 19 percent over the first nine months of 2015, indicating its business model is still working. Raven Transport and Saddle Creek Logistics were among the companies that were converting their fleets to CNG through Clean Energy Fuels.
Most interesting is the growing success of Redeem, natural gas made from renewable sources. Redeem is the “first commercially available renewable natural gas made from organic waste and is up to 90% cleaner on carbon emissions,” says the company. Sales of Redeem almost tripled in 2015, indicating that buyers are interested in the environmental benefits of the fuel, as well as price.
Thus, Clean Energy Fuels is finally delivering some of the benefits Pickens first proposed. The work it is doing in shifting the transport sector away from imported oil and toward alternative fuels is having an impact. This might eventually be reflected in its stock price.
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