Here's the Cold Hard Truth About Solar Energy
Not long ago, I wrote about the German drive to replace nuclear energy with solar and wind power.
At the time, Berlin was touting this overture as the "next great push" into a new energy age.
Turns out, plans haven't gone as expected.
This winter has provided a good example of how things can go wrong. Solar has a major drawback in that all panels shut off at the same time. That requires massive reliance on other sources of energy.
Despite its avowed decision to relinquish nuclear power, Germany must now import nuclear-generated power from neighboring countries and resort to coal, despite an earlier move to the contrary, in the face of the highest energy costs in Europe. The government is even opening taboo fuel oil generators to make up the power slack.
A move against fracking has prevented the development of domestic unconventional gas, leaving the country dependent once again on importing volume, primarily from Russia. What had begun as a bold experiment in rebalancing energy sources has resulted in a developing pricing crisis.
The cost of German energy needs has begun stifling economic development. That is likely to become a more pressing issue moving forward. The solar energy industry in the country has been the recipient of massive subsidies, including what is known in the American market as "renewable energy portfolio standards."
These "standards" require utilities and distributors to purchase a certain percentage of their power from more expensive renewable energy sources, passing those added costs on to already besieged consumers.
Rates are now projected to go up as much as 60% in the wake of the nuclear shutdown.
And the problems for end users and renewable energy sources are going to get worse.
Conference Delivers Good News for Investing in Energy Stocks
The U.S. role in the energy industry was a focal point last week at a major conference of senior global energy decision-makers in Houston – and what came out of it was good news for those investing in energy stocks.
The 32nd annual IHS CERAWeek featured some 300 speakers, including senior industry executives and government officials, who provided fresh insight into energy's future.
Energy analyst, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and vice chairman at energy research firm IHS CERA Daniel Yergin, who presided over the conference, told Politico, "We've got to be aware of rosy scenarios, and I think experienced people … are cautious about rosy scenarios. But I would say … it's a mood of tempered optimism and confidence that technology will help solve our problem – continue to help us meet these big energy needs and these big environmental needs that we have."
IHS CERAWeek included discussions of new technologies, shifts in worldwide demand, regulatory concerns, and supply and demand.
Optimistic conference participants agreed the energy industry is being transformed and said the industry offers plenty of good opportunities for investing in energy stocks.
Chinese Firms Increase Stakes in U.S. Shale Oil Projects
According to Bloomberg News, Chinese energy companies, both state-run and private, are seeking to invest more than $40 billion in U.S. shale energy.
Readers may remember the Chinese oil and gas producer CNOOC Limited's (NYSE: CEO) $19 billion bid for U.S.-based refiner Unocal, which was rejected by federal regulators in 2005. (Unocal later merged with Chevron Corp.)
Although CNOOC was recently able to complete a $15.1 billion purchase of Nexen Inc., a Canadian oil and gas company with assets in the Gulf of Mexico, outright takeovers of U.S. energy assets by Chinese companies are probably still not welcome.
Chastened by its experience with Unocal, CNOOC has not attempted to buy any U.S. company outright.
However, after developing a relationship with Chesapeake Energy Corp, (NYSE: CHK), CNOOC has purchased stakes in specific Chesapeake projects in Colorado and Wyoming.
"They didn't come over here and try to buy Chesapeake," Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon told The Wall Street Journal. "They came over here to buy a minority, non-operating interest in an asset and not take the oil and gas home."
So why do the Chinese want to invest billions of dollars to fund shale oil and shale gas projects in the United States when it won't be able to export the energy products back to China?
The Next U.S. Shale Oil Boom Could Be in California
The U.S. shale oil boom has hit Texas and North Dakota – and is now looking to take over the Golden State of California.
California's Monterey Shale formation covers 1,750 square miles from southern to central California and is believed to contain more shale oil than North Dakota's Bakken and Texas's Eagle Ford combined.
The potential of the Monterey Shale formation is enormous. According to IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Monterey may hold about 400 billion barrels of oil – roughly half the amount of conventional oil that Saudi Arabia has.
The energy research director at IHS, Stephen Trammel, told CNNMoney, "Four-hundred-billion barrels, that doesn't escape anyone in this [oil] business."
Even if that is an overly optimistic estimate, there is enough recoverable oil there to make it worthwhile.
Natural Gas Companies: Shell's Huge LNG Win
Shell will buy a portion of Repsol's LNG assets for $4.4 billion in cash and $2.3 billion in financial leases and assumed debt – more than double pre-sale estimates, according to Bernstein Research.
Tuesday's deal underscores the looming importance of LNG to natural gas companies and the global energy market.
"LNG overcomes the primary problem faced by natural gas users," explained Money Morning's Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors earlier this year. "Available supply is traditionally limited to where pipelines are running. LNG, on the other hand, cools gas to a liquid, allowing it to be transported by tankers almost anywhere by water, regasified at an import terminal, and then injected into the local pipeline network."
This opportunity means huge profits for companies – and investors – who get ahead in the LNG market.
Shell's Big LNG Win
Shell believes global consumption of LNG will double from now until 2025. Earlier this year, Shell's ECO Peter Voser said he expects gas to play a significant role over the next 40 years, with much greater growth rates than oil.
Voser said in November 2012 that Shell plans to invest $20 billion in natural gas products globally over the next few years.
One of the reasons Shell pursued this current deal was to get Repsol's stakes in a major LNG project in Trinidad and Tobago, in addition to a small project off coastal Peru. Shell previously had no presence in these emerging regions.
Operating in these regions gives Shell the ability to provide gas to Latin America, and use its Nigerian gas operations to service Asia. That'll save the company shipping costs and boost profit margins.
"This is a perfect complement to what we have. We get a West Atlantic position and an East Pacific position. These were blind spots," Maarten Wetselaar, Shell's executive vice president told The New York Times.
The deal comes with a fleet of specialized LNG carrier ships and will add 30% to Shell's LNG supplies, according to The New York Times.
Macquarie Securities estimated Shell will now have 6.6 million tons of LNG to trade, or about 20% of its total volume.
Why Natural Gas Companies are Chasing LNG
Watch What Carl Icahn Does to These Energy Stocks
Energy stocks have been largely left behind in the recent stock market rally – except for those with interest from activist investors like Carl Icahn.
You see, concerns about global demand as well as political pressure to focus on alternative energy have weighed on energy stocks. So have the low price and oversupply conditions in the natural gas markets.
Many of these energy stocks trade at what seem to be very low prices compared with the assets owned by the corporations and their future prospects.
This has attracted the attention of many activist investors looking to force the share price to unlock the real value of the underlying corporation.
One of the best-known activist investors, Carl Icahn, has accumulated several positions in leading energy companies in the past year because of low prices and under-valuations.
Take, for example, what Icahn's done with CVR Energy Inc. (NYSE: CVI).
Icahn owns 83% of CVR, a refiner that has seen its stock price soar recently as refining margins have improved. The company also has a fertilizer business that is a major beneficiary of lower natural gas prices.
The stock has better than doubled in the past year so it would be foolish for investors to chase the shares now.
But CVR does serve as an example of the sizable returns Icahn is looking to achieve in his foray into additional energy investments, like the following two stocks he's been accumulating.
How to Profit as the Global Energy Crisis Accelerates
For months, the signs of an impending global energy shakeup have been building.
This is not to say that we have an impending long-term shortage (it is not, in other words, a Peak Oil prophecy coming true) or that the lights are about to go out around the globe.
However, it does appear we are moving into another round of concerns for energy balance and production moving forward.
A combination of reasons exists for the accelerating crises.
Most of them are either the result of expanding energy requirements (a rise in aggregate demand) or the increase in baseline production and generation costs.
The first is playing out in regions typically unknown for their energy intensity. This is more the case outside the OECD countries (the most developed industrially). We should expect such a result, given the movement of new energy demand into these regions.
While the media attention centers on the U.S. and European markets, the other nations have driven global demand for some time. That means any spike in prices worldwide will have an impact on what it costs to obtain energy just about everywhere else.
As an investor, you should not focus on where the energy is produced. Remember, this is a globally integrated market, and prices will reflect that fact.
Still, it's the second trend that is causing the most significant problems moving forward.
And investors will have plenty of opportunities to profit as this problem accelerates.
Why You Should Hate Ethanol (Even Though the EPA Doesn't)
Proving once again that the government refuses to learn from its mistakes, the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday (Thursday) again increased its ethanol mandate.
The EPA raised the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) mandate to 16.55 billion gallons for 2013, up from 15.2 billion gallons last year, while ignoring signs that the policy is doing more harm than good.
The list of problems starts with what the use of ethanol-gasoline blends might be doing to our cars.
Earlier this week, the Coordinating Research Council, a group backed by several major automakers, released a study showing that E15, which blends 15% ethanol with gasoline instead of the previous level of 10%, can damage autos.
The tests showed E15 could cause faulty fuel-gauge readings and check-engine alerts. In some cases, E15 could cause swelling and failure of auto components that "could result in breakdowns," according to Robert Greco, a director with the American Petroleum Institute.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) last fall voiced similar concerns and asked the EPA to withdraw E15. AAA said that since only 5% of the cars on U.S. roads are approved for E15, the possibility for accidental use in vehicles is too high.
"AAA automotive engineering experts have reviewed the available research and believe that sustained use of E15 in both newer and older vehicles could result in significant problems such as accelerated engine wear and failure, and fuel-system damage," the organization said in a press release on its Website.
These new concerns come on top of historic complaints that ethanol blends reduce a vehicle's miles per gallon by about 27%, meaning more trips to the gas station and more money out of drivers' pockets.
Buy Signal: Top Hedge Funds Are Moving Into Energy
There is an easy way to find out where the market thinks a particular sector is heading: Check out the movement of futures contracts held by top hedge fund managers.
These days the signal is clear and pointing in one direction. It's in energy.
Reports have recently surfaced that hedge funds are moving into commodities in general, and energy commodities in particular. What's more these moves are more bullish than at any time since midsummer.
The reason is the same one that we have been discussing for several months. Demand is coming back more quickly than anticipated.
Energy spikes usually start that way. Indicators of market resurgence seem to rush onto the scene, catch analysts by surprise, and the acceleration begins.
But this time, those who survey the market should have seen it coming. After all, the indicators and benchmarks have been there. I have been laying them out here in Money Morning for weeks.
Two elements have emerged over the past several days that finally require the pundits to catch up with us.
First, it is becoming impossible to ignore what is happening in the U.S. and China. Both markets are moving up, with that direction intensifying of late.
In the U.S., forward economic indicators are developing into a bull market signal. This has augmented the run we have experienced of late, largely due to the combination of an oversold condition, no bad news (Congress and the White House may at last be learning how to play nice in the sandbox), and money moving back in.
But it's the second factor that everybody will be talking about this week.
Cheap Natural Gas Prices Give Hope to this U.S. Industry
While natural gas prices are up 50% from their 2011 lows below $2 per 1,000 cubic feet (million BTUs), they're still cheap at just over $3.
Lower-priced natural gas has helped a number of industries, like chemicals and utilities, cut costs, as Money Morning Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors pointed out in his 2013 natural gas price outlook.
Now there's another U.S. industry that hopes cheap natural gas can revive its flagging performance.
I'm talking about steel.