One thing leads to another

A great deal of work is being done on renewable energy sources. With very cool stats thrown around such as:

  • the amount of energy impacting the earth from the sun in one hour will supply the entire world’s consumption for a day
  • 1 square meter receives from the sun the equivalent of 1000 watts of energy

I could go on but the point is that energy is all around us. In fact, if we are to believe Einstein’s “signature equation” of E= mC2- then we ARE energy, albeit in a rather cool, slow and static format. There are untapped (and I am guessing unknown) realms of energy extraction from our surroundings that  we have yet to imagine and explore.

So while we wrangle and create endless spreadsheets on the economical viability of one renewable energy source versus another, keep this in mind- the great game of innovation has only begun. It can only get more interesting from here.

R&D Spending- A Tale of 2 Companies

In my last post regarding solar companies, I looked at the continuing revenue build out and the market share battle between First Solar (FSLR) and Suntech Power Holdings (STP.) We saw that First Solar’s thin film offering appeared to be taking market share from the phtovoltaic provider, STP. In this note, I will again revisit the revenue build of this nascent industry as well as look at what I consider to be a primary long term indicator of growth potential, research and development.

Revenue appears to be recovering from March Lows

In spite of stellar growth the previous 7 quarters, the 12 alternative energy companies that I track showed Q/Q declines in the December ’08 and March ’09 quarters. While the June ’09 quarter was a positive Q/Q result, it was still an almost 22% decline on a Y/Y basis. Perhaps the worst is over for solar technology’s revenue growth, however, I believe that fledgling industries such as this with blockbuster demand curves remain anybody’s market for some time. For example, the Internet investment opportunity was kicked off by Netscape, America Online and Yahoo. Today, only one of those companies is operational and Yahoo is fighting to remain a dominant player in light of the fairly late market entrant of Google. Likewise, in solar technology, I anticipate that there may be category defining companies that are private or not even yet formed.

Figure 1. Revenue Build Recovers from the March, 2009 Bottom

Alt Energy Companies 20090923

Source: Chris Montaño, CFA;  Gridstone Research

R&D -The Lifeblood of Technology Companies

In formative industries with great demand curves, I like to look at research and development. While there is no guarantee that spending money on R&D will result in winning products, it simply makes sense to me that companies investing in the future through research have the best chance to adapt to unpredictable market conditions and evolving technology. And even though the demand curve for solar power technology looks massive today, it remains an uncertain and difficult market in very early stages.

I also think that the key to solar technology’s long term viability as a renewable energy source is its economics- can we produce electricity from photovoltaics at the same cost as coal or gas? Without technologies that enable production of electricity at a price point equivalent to coal or gas powered generation, photovoltaic electric generation will remain a niche method. Efficiency of solar cells regardless whether they are thin film or silicon substrate is the cornerstone of economic viability. The company that can produce the highest efficiency photovoltaic device is in the best position to become  a major company through the world’s most ancient energy source and newest business- solar energy.

Figure 2. R&D in Absolute Dollars and as a Percentage of Net Revenue

Alt Energy RandD 20090925

Source: Chris Montaño, CFA;  Gridstone Research

As I look at the graph in figure 2, I am struck by a couple of things:

  1. Photvoltaics are still massively underinvested in view of the market opportunity. I was surprised at the modest quarterly spending in absolute dollars -$53M. Even on a trailing 4 quarter basis, this seems a bit on the small side. I think this means a couple of things- it could mean that there are simply not enough photovoltaic professionals to absorb more R&D dollars. Or it could also mean that the companies are still pouring all of their resources into a technology that is immature and requires so much engineering effort, that the industry itself could be considered “R&D.”
  2. 2.5% of industry revenue needs to climb for photovoltaice generation to achieve “grid parity.” It seems a stretch to think that 2.5% of industry revenue will achieve the products that will generate electricity as cheaply as utilities. The types of efficiencies that photovoltaics will need to attain economical generation without subsidies and tax benefits will likely require a lot more than $53M. And while the trailing 12 month number is a bit more encouraging on an absolute basis ($180M), it is still less than 2% of total industry trailing 12 month revenues.

In view of my previous post where I compared FSLR and STP revenue contribution, I thought it might be interesting to see how STP and FSLR fared in their respective R&D investments. Figure 3 makes an interesting graph depicting the divergent R&D priorities being invested by two companies. First Solar seems quit3 aggressive in its spend while Suntech Power appears to be tapering off.

Figure 3. A Tale of 2 R&D Budgets

STP and FSLR RandD

Source: Chris Montaño, CFA;  Gridstone Research

While it certainly takes a lot more than R&D to make a great company, one thing I am personally convinced of- without world class R&D, it is very difficult to attain and maintain a leading role in the technology industry.