R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Son of Xethanol Goes Bankrupt

I have written several essays on Xethanol over the past few years. If you recall, they were a poster child for the theme of “overpromise, boost your stock price, and get rich quick” on biofuels.

For me, this story dates back to 2006, when an investigative journalist working for Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban e-mailed me and asked about the company’s claims. They had announced that thy would “be the first to commercialize cellulosic ethanol” (if I had a nickel for every time I have heard that), and they issued press releases at every opportunity. It worked for a while – at one point their market cap was something like half a billion dollars – despite the fact that there was very little of real value within the company.

Anyway, the investigative journalist published his story (which seems to be offline at the moment), Mark Cuban shorted the stock just before the story was released, and I wrote up something on the company, which I considered to be essentially a scam:

Xethanol Story

Anyway, if you looked into their financials, they were spending money on everything but R&D, while claiming they would be the first to commercialize cellulosic ethanol – which would require a lot of R&D. I continued to follow the story, and predicted in February 2007 that they would eventually go bankrupt:

Xethanol Can’t Deliver on its Promises

Well, about this time last year they went bankrupt – more or less:

Xethanol Now Defunct

I say more or less, because what they did was stop operations as Xethanol, changed their direction, and relaunched as Global Energy Holdings Group Inc. At that point I said I wouldn’t write about Xethanol any more, but there is a final chapter to this saga:

Global Energy Holdings Group Files Chapter 11

Global Energy, formerly known as Xethanol Corp., warned in a recent securities filing that it needed substantial additional capital, but that the credit crunch has made it difficult to sell assets or obtain financing.

Global has had no operating revenue this year and said its sole source of revenue last year was an Iowa ethanol plant that ceased production because of high corn and natural gas prices. The company sold the Iowa plant last week and is also looking for a buyer or partner for a landfill gas project in Georgia.

I do want to make it clear, though, that when Global Energy Holdings Group Inc. was created from the ashes of Xethanol, they did so under new management. Therefore, I don’t attribute the same shenanigans to them as I did Xethanol. As far as I know they were making a legitimate attempt to make a go of it, whereas it appeared to me that Xethanol was just trying to make a fast buck off of very gullible investors. But they were handicapped by previous Xethanol decisions, and the current credit crisis was enough to push them over the edge.

I think that officially closes the book on the Xethanol saga – unless a grandson of Xethanol is born. But with the baggage that comes along with it, I wouldn’t bother reorganizing. If you still want to do business, get a fresh start.

November 27, 2009 Posted by | cellulose, cellulosic ethanol, fraud, Global Energy Holdings Group, scams, Xethanol | 59 Comments

Pacific Ethanol Plants Declare Bankruptcy

I don’t actually enjoy posting “I told you so” stories, especially when the news is negative. This means someone has failed, and I don’t enjoy seeing people fail. But when I put a spotlight on a company, naturally I am going to follow that company. If it does fail, then that will be reported upon, as has been the case previously with Xethanol and later on with algal biofuel producer GreenFuel. If a company that I have cast doubts on goes on to success, I will highlight that as well, but I don’t believe that has happened yet. If Coskata proves me wrong, or Vinod Khosla goes on to great success as a biofuel magnate, I will write about it.

Today Pacific Ethanol (PEIX), one of the companies that I have tracked the longest, declared bankruptcy for Pacific Ethanol, Inc. This is not bankruptcy for the entire company, but it is bankruptcy for the ethanol plants themselves, which apparently leaves the marketing branches (Kinergy Marketing LLC and Pacific Ag. Products LLC) intact. I state that as a matter of fact, not with any smug satisfaction.* I recognize the people who work at these plants are hard-working people with families to support, and I don’t delight at seeing anyone out of work. As I told someone recently (in fact, we were talking about Pacific Ethanol and Coskata) “This is never personal. I am just stating my opinions.” With that preface, I offer my sincere condolences to all the people impacted by this development.

It was in July 2006, in the wake of a very positive article on investing in ethanol that I wrote an article for Financial Sense that suggested that ethanol stocks were overvalued. I focused on Pacific Ethanol, stating that I would “take a look at Pacific Ethanol to show why I think the underlying fundamentals make it a very risky investment.” Here was the problem as I saw it in a nutshell:

Another factor working against Pacific Ethanol’s success is the ability to secure cheap corn supplies for their plant. According to http://www.ethanol.org/FAQs.htm [RR: This link and the next one are both now dead], an important factor to consider when building an ethanol plant is proximity to corn. Local grain supplies, preferably within 50 miles of the plant, are important for keeping costs down. Yet California produces little corn. In recent years, California’s corn crop amounted to barely over 1% of the corn crop in Iowa (http://www.corn.org/web/uscprod.htm). This makes it likely that PEIX will have to import corn from out of state, driving up production costs. It will probably be cheaper for a producer to produce ethanol in the Corn Belt, and then ship the ethanol to California than it would be to ship the corn there and produce it locally. There is a reason that California is not a hotbed of ethanol activity, despite the fact that Californians consume ethanol. It’s too far from the corn, so it is more cost effective to ship in finished ethanol.

I just never thought they were going to be able to compete with the guys in the Midwest. When you ship all that corn from Iowa, you are shipping all of the waste products and all of the water as well. You end up with byproducts in greater quantities than the local markets can absorb. It always made more sense to me to produce ethanol in Iowa, feed the byproducts to cattle in the area, and ship the finished ethanol to California. To me, that was going to be the low cost producer for ethanol in California (with the possible exception of ethanol from Brazil).

On top of the geographical problem, the sector as a whole has been in big trouble as too many producers joined the party. While PEIX was at one time fairly well-capitalized, they were ultimately unable to withstand the problems plaguing the sector in general. My prediction is that the plants will end up being auctioned off as the Verasun assets were.

* OK, maybe a tiny bit of satisfaction toward people who suggested that since Bill Gates had invested in PEIX, I must be an idiot for criticizing it.

May 19, 2009 Posted by | Pacific Ethanol, PEIX, Xethanol, XNL | 87 Comments

Top 10 Energy Stories of 2008

Tis the season for Top 10 stories, and here are what I think were the Top 10 energy stories of the year.

1. Unprecedented volatility in the energy markets

Oil prices raced to nearly $150 a barrel, and then fell to the $30’s by year end. This marks the highest ever prices for oil, followed by the lowest prices in four years. Gasoline, diesel, and natural gas prices demonstrated the same kind of volatility. There are multiple factors behind the volatility. The role of speculation was hotly debated, and the economic collapse – fueled by cash-strapped consumers who had overextended themselves – resulted in a sharp drop in demand. Some even argued that the real reason behind the plunge in prices was closure of the so-called “Enron loophole.”

2. Oil price volatility fallout

A consequence of the incredibly volatility was the economic damage done at both ends of the price spectrum. At the upper end, airlines were going bankrupt and car companies were in deep financial trouble as consumers stopped buying the higher profit margin SUVs. After oil prices plunged, some non-integrated oil companies found themselves in financial trouble, including Flying J who declared bankruptcy.

3. Barack Obama elected

In a normal year, this would have been my #1 story, especially considering that the new administration is likely to attempt a major shift away from fossil fuels. My prediction is that reality is going to collide with enthusiasm, and while gains are likely to be made along several fronts, aggressive renewable energy targets will not be met.

4. Ethanol producers struggle

Despite production mandates and generous federal subsidies, ethanol producers struggled to make a profit. A combination of high corn prices followed by falling fuel prices pushed even some of the largest ethanol producers to bankruptcy. Corn growers fared much better, as higher prices and mandated demand from the ethanol industry provided them with the same sort of windfall seen recently by the oil industry (prompting some to ask whether a windfall profits tax on corn would be good for consumers). Xethanol finally ceased operations, as I had predicted in early 2007.

5. Somali pirates hijack supertanker

Somali pirates, emboldened by recent multi-million dollar ransom payments, hijacked a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million worth of oil. At the time of this writing, the situation remains unresolved, although the value of the oil at current market prices is now considerably less than $100 million.

6. 2nd generation ethanol is delayed

The story this year was supposed to be “2nd generation ethanol production begins“, but alas the over-promise, under-deliver meme that I have been critical of continues. Range Fuels had initially intended to start producing in 2008, but that was delayed to 2009 and now production isn’t forecast to begin until 2010. Meanwhile, other 2nd generation ethanol companies continue to promise the world, including Coskata who claims they can make ethanol for “under US $1.00 a gallon anywhere in the world.” (I took a good look at those claims here.) Finally, according to this source (another here), of the six cellulosic ethanol projects selected to receive $385 million in federal funding in February 2007, almost two years later only one plant is actually under construction (Range Fuels).

7. Peak oil becomes fashionable, then unfashionable again

High oil prices demanded an explanation, and peak oil was ready to provide that explanation. 2008 was probably the year that the mainstream began to seriously discuss and debate peak oil. However, when prices began to plunge, the peak oil skeptics began to say “I told you so.” Others suggested that this was just a continuation of the normal cycles.

8. Gas stations in the southeast run out of gasoline in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike

Some major oil refineries that shut down in the face of Hurricane Gustav had to remain shut down with Hurricane Ike following closely behind. Gasoline inventories heading into the hurricanes were low, so it wasn’t long before spot outages began to show up across the southeast. As I predicted during a panel session at this year’s ASPO conference, the outages were likely to be short-lived, and inventories would recover as refineries came back online. This was in response to wide-spread concern, partially fueled by Matt Simmons’ presentation, that the outages were the beginning of something much more widespread. (I think my answer was literally “This situation is temporary. I expect inventories a month from now to be substantially higher.”)

9. “Drill here, drill now”

Momentum for more exploration and production in U.S. waters increased along with oil prices. This became a campaign theme for Republicans, who adopted the slogan “Drill here, drill now.” President Bush lifted a moratorium on offshore drilling. Democrats initially responded with calls for oil companies to be forced to drill on current leases before opening up new ones. However, Congress – facing constituents unhappy with high gas prices – ultimately followed suit and allowed the 25-year moratorium to expire. The response from then candidate Obama was that he wasn’t happy to see the moratorium expire, and that he favored “responsible” drilling as part of a broader energy package. My own proposal was to allow drilling and funnel the lease proceeds to alternative energy, mass transit, and other initiatives designed to reduce oil consumption. This proposal later received quite a lot of attention when Paris Hilton proposed the same thing.

10. Record profits by US energy companies

On the back of high oil prices, the integrated oil companies (those who produce both oil and refined products like gasoline and diesel) once again saw record profits. There was an interesting dichotomy, however, as downstream profits in the refining sector vanished as gasoline consumption fell. Pure refiners like Valero saw their profits crash.

That’s more or less what I think were the Top 10 stories of 2008. There were quite a few in the honorable mention category, such as T. Boone Pickens energy plan, the decision by OPEC to reverse direction and propose big production cuts, falling oil production in Russia and Mexico, and postponed investments in the wake of lower prices.

So, what did I miss? Which stories do you think should be ranked in a significantly different order?

In closing, Happy Holidays to all readers. I am now going offline to spend some good family time. Here’s hoping that you all have the same opportunity.

December 24, 2008 Posted by | Barack Obama, cellulosic ethanol, ethanol production, oil prices, Peak Oil, windfall profits, Xethanol | 42 Comments

Xethanol Now Defunct

This will be my last ever story on Xethanol. I have written a number of stories on them in the past. I wrote that their claims that they would be the first to produce commercial cellulosic ethanol were ludicrous. That was the gist of the interview I gave to Sharesleuth when they were writing their Xethanol exposé. I predicted that Xethanol would “offer up a litany of excuses and delaying tactics for why their cellulosic ethanol plant is not up and running.” I explained to several reporters that the technology agreements they touted to investors could be had for next to nothing, and in February of 2007 I predicted that Xethanol would eventually go bankrupt. I was sounding these warnings when the share price was $12. It eventually fell to well under $1.

You know where this is going, don’t you? I had failed to check in on Xethanol for a while, but today I did a search for the stock symbol, and got this: “No quote found for that symbol.” Hmm. So I searched Google News, and found this:

Xethanol changes name, energy focus

The self-proclaimed discredited cellulosic ethanol company Xethanol Corp. relaunched itself on Aug. 28 on the New York Stock Exchange as Global Energy Holdings Group Inc. and is ushering in what company executives hope will be new life for the company.

“We’re moving on from ethanol and the reason is – the business model doesn’t work,” Ames said. “With the price of corn and energy…we’ve lost a lot of money doing that. We’ve spent a lot of money in cellulosic research and nothing out there is really fruitful and will make a major economic impact on producing ethanol.”

And in another article, former Xethanol CEO David Ames made a very profound statement:

Ames is skeptical that cellulosic will change the U.S. energy system. He said difficulties associated with making the fuel will not be eased by making it in bigger batches.

You can scale widgets, but you can’t scale chemistry,” he said.

This is exactly what I keep trying to tell people who insist that cellulosic ethanol is going to proceed along a Moore’s Law path and scale up to displace significant quantities of gasoline. It’s not going to happen. The chemistry and physics are working against you.

I truly feel bad for Xethanol investors, but this is what can happen with overhyped technology. The investor who is out of their field of expertise can’t easily distinguish an overhyped company from a company with true potential. But that’s one reason I write this blog: To sniff out and expose the hypesters, while promoting the diamonds in the rough.

On a more positive note, their new direction (into methane) is a much more promising field. Biomass can be fermented to methane at a fraction of the expense and complexity that it takes to make cellulosic ethanol. This doesn’t mean they will be a commercial success, but their odds have gone from one in a million to one in a hundred.

November 11, 2008 Posted by | Global Energy Holdings Group, GNH, natural gas, Xethanol, XNL | 56 Comments

Investing in Energy Storage

I attended a presentation last year where a number of alternative energy technologies were discussed, and I was asked whether any major topic had been missed. I responded that I felt like the single most important topic had been missed: The enabling technology of energy storage. An efficient and cost effective energy storage solution is critical for smoothing out the intermittency of solar, wind, and tidal energy. This is the one advantage that biomass does have over these sources: Biomass may be inefficient at gathering solar energy, but it does store nicely.

How important is energy storage? I think it is absolutely crucial, but largely overlooked in alternative energy discussions. It simply isn’t as sexy as solar, but without a good storage solution, solar will never fulfill its potential. And it just hasn’t seemed to me that we are attacking the storage problem with a sense of urgency. So I was really glad to run across this story a couple of days ago:

Energy storage nears its day in the sun

MONACO (Reuters) – Energy storage is an unglamorous pillar of an expected revolution to clean up the world’s energy supply but will soon vie for investors attention with more alluring sources of energy like solar panels, manufacturers say.

The article sums up the problem:

While the supply of the wind and sun far exceeds humanity’s needs it doesn’t necessarily match the time when people need it: the sun may not be shining nor the wind blowing when we need to cook dinner or have a shower.

Soaring production of solar panel and wind turbines is now spurring a race to develop the winning energy storage technologies which will drive the electric cars and appliances of the future.

The race is heating up as manufacturers with entirely different solutions near the moment of commercial production.

Then it discusses a couple of storage solutions that are vying for supremacy, such as:

For example, UK-based ITM Power sees the future of energy storage in the explosive gas hydrogen. The company is developing a piece of kit called an electrolyzer which uses solar or wind power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The hydrogen is then stored in a pressurized container until it is needed, whether to drive a car, produce electricity or for cooking.

“With batteries you’re taking enormous quantities of basic raw materials,” said Chief Executive Jim Heathcote, referring to cadmium in nickel cadmium varieties. His company won an award for research at the Monaco conference, organized by corporate finance advisers Innovator Capital.

“Two things we’re confident of is the supply of renewable energy and water,” he said.

ITM Power aims to start production later this year of electrolyzers and next year of hydrogen fuel cells which generate electricity.

“The one problem everyone’s had is how to store. The ability to take (surplus) renewable energy and make useful fuel out of it is almost priceless,” Heathcote said.

Investment Opportunities

The remainder of the article describes the investment opportunities in energy storage companies, which look attractive. I think in this next phase of my life, I will be more active at seeking out and acting on opportunities such as this. I have not done this in the past, even when I felt strongly about the direction of commodities or stock sectors. For instance, I just saw this comment from yesterday at The Oil Drum:

About four months ago Robert Rapier suggested that investors looking at energy commodities consider gasoline futures as a likly profit maker. That day I checked the price on http://www.bloomberg.com at $1.92 per gallon. I suggested to a relative that is heavy in the market to get into gasoline futures then as that commodity looked under priced. The person said it looked riskey and required too much diligents to handle.

Today gasoline closed at $2.55, up 33%. A $5000 investment in futures would have netted over $100,000 in following RR’s advice.

Did I act on my own advice? No. (I can already hear my wife asking “Why didn’t you act?”)

Did I act last spring when I was convinced gasoline prices were headed higher? No.

Did I invest in corn futures when I was predicting that because of the ethanol mandates they were headed much higher from their (then) $2/bu price? No. (Corn futures have more than doubled since then).

Did I short ethanol stocks when I wrote that they were overvalued? No. (I do know some who did just that based upon what I had written, and they made out quite well.)

And probably the best (worst?) example of all, did I short Xethanol when it was at $12 and I knew that a devastating exposé was about to be released by Sharesleuth? No. (XNL is now worth less than $0.50 a share).

I always advise people to invest in what they know. I got burned in 2000 investing in technology stocks that I didn’t properly understand. It is hard to do the proper due diligence if you really don’t grasp the important issues in the sector. In technology, it was hard for me to say which companies were poised, and which ones just thought they were poised (and fooled the analysts). But I do understand the energy sphere. I just have to start acting on my convictions. (I haven’t totally twiddled my thumbs on this issue. I have invested my 401K shares per my conviction on higher oil prices, and that has paid out quite well.)

Disclaimer: If you do act on anything you read here, you are on your own. I may change my mind tomorrow about whether something is still a good investment (with gasoline inventories where they are, gasoline futures are starting to look a lot riskier), and I don’t send out warnings to take profits and run. I am obviously not writing an investment blog, although clearly there are numerous financial implications based on developments in the energy markets.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | energy storage, investing, Xethanol, XNL | 570 Comments

Coal-Based Ethanol

The handwriting has been on the wall on this issue for a couple of years. In fact, I first mentioned it in March 2006 in Improving the Prospects for Grain Ethanol. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:

This is an option that most environmentalists will abhor. However, it is the one most likely to take place in the short-term. The natural gas input into ethanol production is a serious long-term threat to economic viability. Since natural gas is a fossil fuel, and supplies are diminishing, it will put upward pressure on the price of ethanol over time. However, if the energy inputs could be produced from coal, ethanol prices would be insulated from escalating natural gas prices.

Using coal might also lessen the significance of the EROEI debate. If you take 1 BTU of (cheap) coal, and you get back 0.8 BTUs of (more valuable, liquid) ethanol, then EROEI doesn’t have the same significance as when you use natural gas to produce ethanol. You converted the BTUs into a readily usable liquid form. This argument may be valid from an economic point of view, but it ignores the fact that coal is still an inherently dirty energy source. If coal remains abundant and cheap, coal economics will beat natural gas economics, but coal will increase the rate at which we put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we come up with a viable method of sequestering the carbon dioxide produced at the power plant, then we might have a temporary economic solution (although we are still using up a non-sustainable fuel in the process).

Now I am not going to tell you that I think this is a good idea. I am just telling you what I think is going to happen. And a couple of days ago a friend sent a link that says Iowa is considering a couple of new coal plants for some ethanol plants, acknowledging the superior economics of coal as fuel:

Iowa needs $2 billion in coal-fired electricity production to supply power for ethanol; critics say coal use “ungreens” ethanol

Two coal-fired electricity plants, in Marshalltown and near Waterloo, have been proposed in Iowa to provide electricity for the growing collection of Iowa ethanol plants. Critics say that ethanol’s need for coal-powered electricity makes the case that it is not a green fuel.

Alliant Energy, co-owner of the Marshalltown project, said that the needs of the ethanol plants can only be solved at this point in time by nuclear, natural gas or coal, and that natural gas is not economical while nuclear has been taken off the table due to environmental concerns. The proposed plants would cost $1 billion each.

Last week, Xethanol Corporation announced that it would invest $500,000 in Consus Ethanol for its cogeneration project that would provide power for its ethanol production process from waste coal, that would have a $0.48 per gallon cost advantage over comparable ethanol plants in the Midwest powered by natural gas. The Pittsburgh-based facility will distribute fuel to East Coast markets, which have higher prices for ethanol.

That last bit is interesting. Where is Xethanol finding any money to invest? Since I last wrote about them, they have racked up another $6 million loss, dropping their total current assets to under $15 million. They remain on the trajectory to bankruptcy, which is one of my predictions that is still unresolved.

But that’s a digression. On the subject of using coal as the source of BTUs for ethanol production, there are two things that stand out. First, the current process of using natural gas to produce ethanol makes little sense, since you can use natural gas directly in a CNG vehicle. You gain little or nothing by turning a BTU of natural gas into a BTU of ethanol (plus some animal feed). However, coal can’t be used directly as automotive fuel, so one can make the argument of upgrading the quality of the energy source by turning some of coal’s BTUs into ethanol.

Second, the cost of energy per BTU is far lower for coal. The current price of natural gas is $8 per million (MM) BTUs. However, according to the EIA coal sells for about $40/ton, or 2 cents a pound. The energy content of bituminous coal is about 12,750 BTU/lb, which calculates out to $1.57 per MMBTU. (Just double-checked my numbers, and found that the EIA reported that coal prices in September 2007 were $1.78 per MMBTU, so I was in the ballpark).

So, the economics are going to drive ethanol producers toward coal as their fuel of choice. And some have already been driven there. I predict we will see a lot more of this in the future, especially in light of my previous essay on the economics of corn ethanol. Plug in coal at $1.57/MMBTU instead of natural gas at $8, and it makes a huge difference. But for ethanol producers who do go this route, don’t pretend that what you are doing is clean or renewable.

February 4, 2008 Posted by | coal, CTL, ethanol, Xethanol | 190 Comments

Coal-Based Ethanol

The handwriting has been on the wall on this issue for a couple of years. In fact, I first mentioned it in March 2006 in Improving the Prospects for Grain Ethanol. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:

This is an option that most environmentalists will abhor. However, it is the one most likely to take place in the short-term. The natural gas input into ethanol production is a serious long-term threat to economic viability. Since natural gas is a fossil fuel, and supplies are diminishing, it will put upward pressure on the price of ethanol over time. However, if the energy inputs could be produced from coal, ethanol prices would be insulated from escalating natural gas prices.

Using coal might also lessen the significance of the EROEI debate. If you take 1 BTU of (cheap) coal, and you get back 0.8 BTUs of (more valuable, liquid) ethanol, then EROEI doesn’t have the same significance as when you use natural gas to produce ethanol. You converted the BTUs into a readily usable liquid form. This argument may be valid from an economic point of view, but it ignores the fact that coal is still an inherently dirty energy source. If coal remains abundant and cheap, coal economics will beat natural gas economics, but coal will increase the rate at which we put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we come up with a viable method of sequestering the carbon dioxide produced at the power plant, then we might have a temporary economic solution (although we are still using up a non-sustainable fuel in the process).

Now I am not going to tell you that I think this is a good idea. I am just telling you what I think is going to happen. And a couple of days ago a friend sent a link that says Iowa is considering a couple of new coal plants for some ethanol plants, acknowledging the superior economics of coal as fuel:

Iowa needs $2 billion in coal-fired electricity production to supply power for ethanol; critics say coal use “ungreens” ethanol

Two coal-fired electricity plants, in Marshalltown and near Waterloo, have been proposed in Iowa to provide electricity for the growing collection of Iowa ethanol plants. Critics say that ethanol’s need for coal-powered electricity makes the case that it is not a green fuel.

Alliant Energy, co-owner of the Marshalltown project, said that the needs of the ethanol plants can only be solved at this point in time by nuclear, natural gas or coal, and that natural gas is not economical while nuclear has been taken off the table due to environmental concerns. The proposed plants would cost $1 billion each.

Last week, Xethanol Corporation announced that it would invest $500,000 in Consus Ethanol for its cogeneration project that would provide power for its ethanol production process from waste coal, that would have a $0.48 per gallon cost advantage over comparable ethanol plants in the Midwest powered by natural gas. The Pittsburgh-based facility will distribute fuel to East Coast markets, which have higher prices for ethanol.

That last bit is interesting. Where is Xethanol finding any money to invest? Since I last wrote about them, they have racked up another $6 million loss, dropping their total current assets to under $15 million. They remain on the trajectory to bankruptcy, which is one of my predictions that is still unresolved.

But that’s a digression. On the subject of using coal as the source of BTUs for ethanol production, there are two things that stand out. First, the current process of using natural gas to produce ethanol makes little sense, since you can use natural gas directly in a CNG vehicle. You gain little or nothing by turning a BTU of natural gas into a BTU of ethanol (plus some animal feed). However, coal can’t be used directly as automotive fuel, so one can make the argument of upgrading the quality of the energy source by turning some of coal’s BTUs into ethanol.

Second, the cost of energy per BTU is far lower for coal. The current price of natural gas is $8 per million (MM) BTUs. However, according to the EIA coal sells for about $40/ton, or 2 cents a pound. The energy content of bituminous coal is about 12,750 BTU/lb, which calculates out to $1.57 per MMBTU. (Just double-checked my numbers, and found that the EIA reported that coal prices in September 2007 were $1.78 per MMBTU, so I was in the ballpark).

So, the economics are going to drive ethanol producers toward coal as their fuel of choice. And some have already been driven there. I predict we will see a lot more of this in the future, especially in light of my previous essay on the economics of corn ethanol. Plug in coal at $1.57/MMBTU instead of natural gas at $8, and it makes a huge difference. But for ethanol producers who do go this route, don’t pretend that what you are doing is clean or renewable.

February 4, 2008 Posted by | coal, CTL, ethanol, Xethanol | 43 Comments

Xethanol: Another Multimillion Dollar Loss

Xethanol continues to demonstrate that even with generous subsidies, they can’t make any money:

Xethanol Announces Second Quarter 2007 Financial Results

For the second quarter of 2007, the company reported a net loss of $6.6 million, or ($0.23) per share, as compared to a $5.9 million net loss, or ($0.24) per share, for the same period of the prior year. The increase in the net loss was primarily related to $4.5 million in non-cash charges including a $2.8 million impairment charge on property held for development.

The company reported net sales of $3.3 million for the second quarter of 2007 compared to $3.2 million in net sales in the second quarter of 2006. Cost of goods sold was $3.4 million in the quarter as compared to $2.4 million in the comparable period in the prior year. The increase was attributable to the higher cost of corn compared to the same period in the prior year.

General and administrative (G&A) costs were $2.2 million in second quarter 2007 as compared to $1.3 million for the comparable period in the prior year. The increase in G&A was primarily due to an increase in legal, accounting and professional fees.

As of June 30, 2007, the company had cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities of $18.1 million and $437,000 of long-term debt.

So, a $6.6 million loss on sales of $3.3 million. Regarding their cash on hand, it is down from $21 million at the end of the last quarter. XNL continue their march toward bankruptcy, which is one of the predictions I have made. Given their inability to profit during good times for ethanol producers, how will they fare when margins are squeezed?

August 14, 2007 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, Xethanol, XNL | 29 Comments

Xethanol: Another Multimillion Dollar Loss

Xethanol continues to demonstrate that even with generous subsidies, they can’t make any money:

Xethanol Announces Second Quarter 2007 Financial Results

For the second quarter of 2007, the company reported a net loss of $6.6 million, or ($0.23) per share, as compared to a $5.9 million net loss, or ($0.24) per share, for the same period of the prior year. The increase in the net loss was primarily related to $4.5 million in non-cash charges including a $2.8 million impairment charge on property held for development.

The company reported net sales of $3.3 million for the second quarter of 2007 compared to $3.2 million in net sales in the second quarter of 2006. Cost of goods sold was $3.4 million in the quarter as compared to $2.4 million in the comparable period in the prior year. The increase was attributable to the higher cost of corn compared to the same period in the prior year.

General and administrative (G&A) costs were $2.2 million in second quarter 2007 as compared to $1.3 million for the comparable period in the prior year. The increase in G&A was primarily due to an increase in legal, accounting and professional fees.

As of June 30, 2007, the company had cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities of $18.1 million and $437,000 of long-term debt.

So, a $6.6 million loss on sales of $3.3 million. Regarding their cash on hand, it is down from $21 million at the end of the last quarter. XNL continue their march toward bankruptcy, which is one of the predictions I have made. Given their inability to profit during good times for ethanol producers, how will they fare when margins are squeezed?

August 14, 2007 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, Xethanol, XNL | Comments Off on Xethanol: Another Multimillion Dollar Loss

Predictions: Hits, Misses, and Pending

I have made a lot of predictions in my writings, and my own impression is that my track record has been pretty good. But I started wondering a few days ago if that’s because I tend to remember the accurate predictions and forget the inaccurate predictions. So, I decided to dig up all of the predictions I have made in my writings about energy. I will classify the predictions as successful, pending, or failed. If you can think of some that I have forgotten, particularly on the failed predictions, point them out and I will add them to the list.

I do tend to pepper my predictions with caveats, because I think it is important for people to understand the factors that may cause a prediction to fail. I may predict gasoline inventories to fall, but then say that high prices might arrest demand. But my prediction in that case would still be that gasoline inventories would fall.

Successful Predictions

1. Following an enthusiastic endorsement of the virtues of ethanol stocks in Financial Sense, I wrote a rebuttal in June 2006. I wrote that the underlying fundamentals of ethanol stocks were terrible, and that they reminded me of the dot-com stocks before the bubble burst. I wrote “I don’t think the underlying fundamentals warrant the valuations placed on grain ethanol producers”, and I did a case study of Pacific Ethanol. Since that time, ethanol stock values have plummeted. I wrote an update to the article in October of 2006, when most ethanol stocks had fallen by around 40%. Xethanol had fallen by 70%. More on it below.

2. In July 2006, I was interviewed by Sharesleuth reporter Christopher Carey for a story he was preparing on Xethanol. Xethanol was claiming that they would be the first company to commercialize cellulosic ethanol. I told Chris that I thought this was highly unlikely, as this is very difficult to do. I told him I thought the company was essentially a scam, which was the conclusion that he was coming to in his story. I told him “the costs of both [travel to Mars and cellulosic ethanol production] are prohibitive, and the barriers to commercialization are huge.” While not everything I told him made it into the story, after the Sharesleuth story was published, I wrote more about Xethanol on my blog. I wrote:

While I think cellulosic ethanol will eventually be commercialized, I don’t believe it is going to be by a company who just recently jumped into the game with essentially no experience, and then doesn’t invest heavily into R&D.

I also said they were “capitalizing on cellulosic ethanol hype, but … unlikely to have a commercial cellulosic ethanol plant running any time soon.” Now, I did write that I wasn’t making specific predictions on the direction of the stock (I have learned my lessons there. I once advised a friend on his investments. After outperforming the market 2 years in a row, his investments increased the 3rd year, but underperformed the market. He complained constantly about how I should have advised him differently during that 3rd year.), which has fallen from the $8 range at that time to $1.50 today. Also, the company has essentially fallen apart since that time, and it is pretty clear that they will not commercialize cellulosic ethanol. My prediction that they will go bankrupt is still pending, and I stand by it.

3. I made multiple predictions for much higher gas prices throughout the spring, based on the terrible inventory situation. That prediction obviously came true. Here is an example, where the EIA was predicting lower prices and I was predicting higher prices. A week later I did a TWIP update in which I wrote “I expect the price rise to continue.” I was correct, as prices continued to shoot up from that level.

4. With 3 inventory reports to go until the Memorial Day report came out, I wrote “I go out on a limb and say we will hit Memorial Day with record low inventory levels.” We did.

5. As a result of very strong prices, I predicted that imports would come to the rescue and relieve our low gasoline inventories. They did. Since that time, we have had some of the highest inventory numbers on record, and this is the only thing that has kept us out of deep trouble with gasoline supplies to this point in the summer.

6. In early March, I sounded the first warning of impending trouble with gasoline inventories in the coming weeks. In subsequent weeks, I continued to sound that warning, as gasoline inventories plunged to all time seasonal lows, causing gasoline prices to reach all time highs.

Failed Predictions

1. I predicted that California’s Prop 87 would pass, as people would see it as a way to stick it to Big Oil. The measure did not pass.

2. On April 19, 2007, I predicted that gasoline inventories would turn upward within 2 weeks. They did not. (They turned upward within 3 weeks). However, my price prediction from that post was spot on.

Still Pending Predictions

1. I predicted that we would break the normal trend and build gasoline inventories June-August of this year. So far, that prediction is on target (although they did reverse direction this week).

2. I predicted that Shell’s shale oil process will fail to be economical.

3. I predicted that oil will not reach $100 in 2007.

4. Xethanol will go bankrupt.

5. I have predicted on various occasions that world oil production has not yet peaked, but will peak by 2016. My own personal belief is that the odds are 90%.

6. I predicted that the economics of grain ethanol via coal would be far superior to ethanol via natural gas, and this would result in more and more ethanol plants turning to coal as an energy source.

7. I predicted that gas prices would rise again this summer after bottoming out. (Prices are on the way back up).

8. In an essay I wrote over a year ago, I wrote about something I called “Peak Lite.” I have elaborated on it a number of times since then, here and at The Oil Drum. The concept is basically that supply growth can no longer support demand growth, which is going to put extreme pressure on prices.

I have made various predictions in relation to this: Spiraling prices, hardship for a lot of people around the world as a result, while oil companies report strong financial results. I have also predicted that it will mean an end to the cyclicality of the oil industry. Most of this prediction is still pending, but in recent days both the IEA and the NPC have released reports in which they endorse the same general idea: Supply growth failing to keep up with demand. In essence, I would say that while the prediction is not yet fulfilled, the mainstream is starting to come around to that viewpoint. (Incidentally, I would put many of my ethanol writings into that category as well – loved by the mainstream a couple of years ago, more and more people are questioning the wisdom of what we are doing).

9. In May 2005, when West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crossed $50 a barrel, I predicted to my then boss that it would never drop below $50 again. I have repeated that prediction several times since then. I guess never is a long time, so I will revise this one to: We won’t see oil drop below $50 a barrel in the next 5 years. It did flirt with that level back in January 2007, but if the Peak Lite scenario is correct, I think this prediction is safe.

10. I predict that in 5, 10, even 20 years the majority of U.S. ethanol production will still be corn, and it will still be highly subsidized. The reason for this is that there are too many politicians beholden to farm states that produce corn.

11. None of the cellulosic ethanol plants under construction in the U.S. will prove to be commercially viable. See the bottom of this post for a list of those projects.

12. While we will continue making corn ethanol, biodiesel will give way to hydrotreating technology that results in a petroleum diesel equivalent. The technology is cheaper, and yields a superior fuel with less by-product. However, hobbyists will continue to produce biodiesel for personal use.

OK, I think I got most of them. Which ones are Nostradamus-like, in that several different scenarios could be hailed as a successful prediction? Which ones were too vague? Which of the pending ones do you expect me to miss on? Also, feel free to share your own predictions.

July 19, 2007 Posted by | gas inventories, gas prices, oil production, predictions, Xethanol | 55 Comments