Love is a fickle thing. When oil prices surged past $100 a
barrel in 2008, investors fell madly in love with alternative
energy stocks. But when oil prices crashed, and when signs emerged
that government budget problems would curtail the industry-friendly
subsidies, so did investor ardor for this young industry. The
PowerShares Wilderhill Clean Energy Exchange Traded Fund (
slid from $28 in early 2008 to below $10 today.
These ups and downs are par for the course in any young industry.
Sales initially soar, then the key companies raise loads of cash to
aggressively boost capacity -- often times to a point where supply
exceeds demand. Prices for items -- such as solar panels and wind
turbines in this case -- then plunge, leading investors to assume
that profits will never be robust.
But it usually just takes time. Eventually, the industry learns to
keep capacity expansion at a minimum, demand keeps rising, and
prices eventually firm. And that's just what looks to be happening
in the field of alternative energy.
And even as the industry works out these growth kinks, global
policy makers are looking for a fresh round of industry support.
U.S. Energy Secretary John Chu is heading up a Washington D.C.
conference this week with government ministers and corporate
executives from more than 20 countries to accelerate the deployment
of clean-energy technologies. Participants are expected to announce
new renewable energy and energy efficiency partnerships on Tuesday
To be sure, some of yesterday's hot stocks won't return to their
2008 heights. That's because they lack a technological edge that
will give them the room to boost prices and profit margins. So even
as this industry looks set for a rebound in coming years, it pays
to stick with the best-of-breed. Here are four companies that are
emerging as the leaders in their respective spaces.
American Superconductor (Nasdaq: AMSC)
This maker of wind turbines and the electronic systems that are the
heart of every wind farm has been on a growth tear. Sales have
risen at least +60% in each of the past three years, thanks largely
to a supply agreement with China's Sinovel, one of the world's
largest builder of wind farms.
But shares have taken the occasional hit from concerns that Sinovel
might stop placing orders.
So American Superconductor is now pursuing deals in India, Korea
and elsewhere in Asia. Management has recently started to ink new
deals, even as Sinovel signed on for another $445 million long-term
deal with AMSC in mid-May.
Analysts had been lowering their growth assumptions, but have
recently started to boost them back up, as Sinovel and other
customers step up to the plate. They think sales can rise more than
+30% in fiscal (March) 2011, and another +20% in fiscal 2012.
That's fueling +30% annual profit growth.
Shares, which had moved back up above the $33 mark when the Sinovel
new contract was announced, have since shed about -20%. And they
now trade for a very reasonable 17 times projected 2012 earnings.
First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR)
First Solar is the global leader in the production of thin-film
solar, which captures less of the sun's energy than traditional
silicon-based solar panels but can be made far more cheaply and
also can be deployed in a wider variety of applications. Over the
years, the company has managed to steadily cut production costs,
pushing prices down below levels where rivals could make money,
even if those rivals' technological approach yielded more energy
from each solar panel. In 2007, the company was able to build
modules for roughly $1.40 per watt of power. That figure breached
the $1 mark late in 2008, and could approach $0.75 sometime later
this year. The company now spends roughly $100 million per year on
research and development.
That leading-edge approach led to fast-rising
. Sales doubled or tripled every year from 2003 to 2008, and "only"
grew +66% in 2009. Annual revenue now tops $2 billion. But the
"laws of bigness" are starting to bite. Sales growth should cool to
+25% this year and next. More important, a shift in the
toward the development of massive solar power farms is leading to
an apparent reduction in gross margins. So those sales gains are
likely to lead to flat profit results.
But this is simply a functioning of
. Once these near-term projects are completed, margins should
rebound. So although earnings per share are stuck in the $7 range
in 2009, 2010, and 2011, they should soar above $10 by 2012 as
margins return to normal on a much higher sales base. Shares have
lost half of their value during the past two years as investor
enthusiasm toward the industry has waned. But as investors start to
look out a few years, they can see a path toward far higher
profits, and perhaps, a rebounding stock price.
EnerNoc (Nasdaq: ENOC)
We profiled this energy efficiency play
back in April
, concluding that "thanks to favorable tax breaks for smart-grid
investments, the utility industry is expected to keep deploying
(the company's) grid-enhancing solutions for the foreseeable
future." Yet we cautioned that profits are unlikely to look robust
until 2012 or 2013.
But investors should stay focused on the top-line, where sales have
grown at least +74% in every year since the company began operating
in 2004. They should grow close to +50% again this year, and
forecasts of +19% growth next year look too conservative in light
of sharply rising
Clean Energy (Nasdaq: CLNE)
If you're looking for a timely play on the current legislative
plans brewing in Washington, then check out Clean Energy, which
runs a network of natural gas fueling stations. Just last week,
we touched on
the company in our "Winners" roundup, suggesting that "if
legislation is passed, shares would quickly move into the $20s." On
Monday CLNE closed at $15.59 a share.
Natural gas legislation is a double-edged sword for this company.
It would love to see demand for natural gas as a transportation
fuel meaningfully build. But not to the point where it becomes
expensive. Part of the charm of this business model is that it is
relatively clean burning and very inexpensive relative to gasoline.
The first factor will remain in place, and Clean Energy's boosters
hope the second factor will as well.
Action to Take -->
Alternative energy is not a fad. It just seemed that way the last
18 months. We don't need to see $100 oil for these business models
to really shine. But that wouldn't hurt, either.
-- David Sterman
David Sterman has worked as an investment analyst for nearly two
decades. He started his career in equity research at Smith Barney,
culminating in a position as Senior Analyst covering European
banks. David has also served as Director of Research at Individual
Investor and has made numerous media appearances over the years,
primarily on CNBC and Bloomberg TV. David has a master's degree in
management from Georgia Tech. Read More...
Disclosure: Neither David Sterman nor StreetAuthority, LLC hold
positions in any securities mentioned in this article.