Monthly Archives: September 2013

Beyond Copenhagen : Emissions Rate

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By Jonathan Naimon, Light Green Advisors:

China president Hu’s recent commitment to reduce the emissions intensity of its growing economy by 40-45% by 2020 holds the key to a new global agreement that will have greater positive impact than efforts to revive the stalled Kyoto Protocol.

Simply put, reducing emissions rates and increasing energy efficiency is the only thing on which all the parties, regardless of their energy base, can agree in Copenhagen.

What’s wrong with a framework based on the inextricable link between energy and greenhouse gas emissions? Energy efficiency and emissions intensity reduction is a goal that is compatible with the growth aspirations of companies and governments worldwide who aspire to the quality of life enjoyed in high energy use countries such as the US, Japan or Europe.

The only way for greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced in any country is for the emissions intensity as measured in CO2/€, CO2/$ or GHG/RMB to be decreased. Therefore progressive reduction of emission intensity of the global economy is a necessary requirement for GHG emissions stabilization.

While critics of emission rate protocols and commitments by governments such as Canada have argued that such reductions not sufficient to guarantee that total emissions go down to a specific level, reductions in emissions rates are required for total emissions to go down on a sustainable basis worldwide.

However, the current Kyoto protocol model, featuring what externally looks like a “tough” absolute emission target – has not in fact resulted in significantly lower emissions in the EU, joint implementation (JI) or Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) economies once economic growth has been factored in. The bulk of the emission reductions that have been achieved have been due to economic recessions as in Russia.

A breakthrough from the right to development/limits to growth stalemate

Why is emissions rate reduction – or its inverse- increasing energy efficiency- a conceptual breakthrough? The short answer is that emission rates provide a practical indicator not only for sovereign states, but for companies whose supply chain and global impacts often span multiple countries.

Increasing energy efficiency and reducing GHG/revenue ratios is a measurable goal that can be incorporated into objectives of both large and small companies that are the global engine for economic activity and job creation. An absolute atmospheric target may be a consensus result, but even advocates would be hard pressed to claim it is related to measurable objectives at the corporate level.

Even in state-dominated economies such as China, specific technology and production choices with GHG intensity impacts are made by companies, and thus it is vital that any metrics for measuring success in climate change be relevant to companies, whatever their capital structure. Emission rates have several advantages over alternative measures.

Emissions rates are a key indicator used by some of the best corporate eco efficiency programs. Back in 1992, the Business Council for Sustainable Development (now WBCSD) coined the term Eco Efficiency to describe programs at companies that serve to decrease the emissions associated with economically productive activities. While companies develop their own eco efficiency programs, tracking energy and reducing the GHG emissions by increasing energy efficiency is a common denominator of many programs that span the vendor supply chain or an integrated service cycle as well as the production cycle in energy-intensive industries. Further information on corporate eco efficiency programs, including a toolkit for companies, is available through the WBCSD.

A second dividend for investors

Nation-states, corporations, and the environment are not the only beneficiaries of a move toward standards based upon a new protocol based upon the global reduction of GHG emission / unit of economic activity rates (what we call GHG/$ as a shorthand). While the investment universe has not developed the expertise of companies in energy efficiency, an increasing number of investors such as the California pension funds CalPERS and CalSTRS are now interested in energy efficiency as a new source of value for equity investors and as a key, along with renewable energy, to a greener economy.

Since 1998, our firm (LGA) has been analyzing corporate energy intensity and eco efficiency to gain insight into competitive advantage in many industries. We have confirmed that the success of corporate programs experience relative to industry peers is related to their financial performance over the past decade. With an increasing number of governments – from China to Canada – looking at emissions rate based analysis, we expect the financial advantage accruing to companies best able to drive down their emissions rates to increase. This corporate competitive advantage can provide both public and private sector investors with insight into how well companies in any market- developed or developing—is doing, as a new type of input, akin to ROE ratios, that change over time but that are common in different currencies and languages.

The future

Almost twenty years from the heady days of the Rio summit, it is certainly clear that energy efficiency is inextricably linked to environmental progress in addressing climate change. The tremendous surge in developing country (e.g. Brazil Russia India and China) stock markets makes it equally clear that any efforts to slow growth in developing markets are misguided.

Global adoption of GHG emissions rate based standards as a basis for gauging compliance with global climate change commitments will accelerate the implementation of energy efficiency and eco efficiency programs at companies, and the adoption of cleaner technologies.

The last 20 years have shown that increasing energy efficiency is compatible with sustained technology development in virtually every industry. It stands to reason that the financial value of these programs, on a global basis, will be magnified substantially by global adoption of energy efficiency and GHG emission rate reduction goals by nation-states signing a new successor to the Kyoto protocol.

Rather than bemoan the end of the Kyoto protocol, we should look forward to the new opportunities that will emerge from a new emissions rate protocol for controlling GHGs, and an even stronger, more global competition to reduce GHG emission rates and increase energy efficiency among countries and companies.

Potential in the Pipeline – FA

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By Jerilyn Klein Bier, Financial Advisor (FA Online):

Biofuels buzz has gotten louder in recent months.

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Defense (through the Navy) announced a three-year $510 million joint investment to support the development of drop-in biofuels for aviation and marine applications. The USDA pledged $136 million to support development of advanced biofuels made from non-food crops. Many idled biodiesel plants are humming again with the return of a federal tax credit, and several European airlines have fueled commercial flights with biodiesel.

A number of biofuel-related IPOs have also been launched over the past 20 months including Solazyme, KiOR, Gevo, Amyris and Codexis. A handful of others are in the IPO queue, says Jim Lane, editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest, a Web site and daily online newsletter.

“The fields to wheels universe is big,” says Lane, who estimates that in addition to large and small public players, some 1,200 private companies are also doing some sort of bio-energy work.

But do biofuels carry hope or just hype for a cleaner, greener environment? How far out are we from seeing them used on a large-scale basis? And what opportunities are available for investors in this volatile sector? (Solazyme, Gevo and Amyris were trading approximately 55% to 72% below their 52-week highs as of early November.) 

First-generation biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn and sugarcane and biodiesel from palm oil, have had their share of skeptics. “The real problem is with the food-versus-fuel question. How do we feed 9 billion people by 2050?” asks Ellen Kennedy, a senior sustainability analyst with Calvert Investments. 

It’s not just the socially responsible investing community that’s upset with the upward pressure corn-based ethanol production has exerted on corn prices, demand for cropland, the cost of animal feed, and, ultimately, the prices of other farm commodities. Roughly 40% of this year’s U.S. corn crop will be used to make ethanol and its byproducts, estimates the USDA.

Food concerns also extend to palm oil, which Kennedy notes is a staple in the Asian diet and is being used as a substitute for trans fats. She’s concerned, too, about the life cycle effects related to biofuels. For example, atrazine, a pesticide commonly used in corn production, has been found in Midwest drinking water supplies. 

Ben Caldecott is the head of policy for London-based Climate Change Capital Ltd., an investment manager and advisory group. The firm seeks investment opportunities in companies that will emerge and thrive as the world economy accommodates lower carbon footprints. Caldecott worries about distortion in food markets and destruction of tropical forests for palm oil production. “This is the scandal of our age. How’s that going to save the planet?” he asks. (Kennedy notes that palm oil certified by the multi-stakeholder Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil offers greater environmental and human rights assurances.)

“Overall, [current commercial biofuels] have been a negative in terms of climate change,” says Jonathan Naimon, the founder and managing partner of Light Green Advisors (LGA), a Seattle-based asset manager focusing on environmental sustainability investing. Producing corn-based ethanol can require more fossil energy than the energy yielded by ethanol, according to studies he cited from Cornell and MIT.

A rash of industry bankruptcies, including leaders Pacific Ethanol, VeraSun Energy and Imperium Renewables, also makes Naimon cautious. The bankruptcies highlight the industry’s vulnerability to such moving targets as feedstock prices, subsidies and tariffs.

Meanwhile, investors are looking at second- and third-generation biofuels made from feedstocks that can be developed on marginal land and won’t disrupt food markets. Such fuels include cellulosic (woody) plants and algae, and they are raising curiosity and cautious enthusiasm. 

Over the next two years, Lane expects biodiesel and renewable jet fuels will receive increased attention and many companies will launch waste-to-energy initiatives (particularly with municipal solid waste). Within three to five years, he anticipates the greater use of wood biomass, sugarcane and jatropha in biofuels. By the end of the decade, he expects a boom in algal feedstocks, an area that’s received a huge infusion of venture capital the last five years.

“The biofuel space has incredible developments and lots of different opportunities,” says Caldecott, whose firm has funded a number of biomass projects in India and China. In India, it’s building cogeneration plants fired by waste sugarcane biomass that will boost energy production and help community members.

Caldecott is under no illusion that biofuels will solve the world’s energy and climate change problems. There’s only so much that can be produced and not nearly enough to adequately accommodate road transportation. But he does see sustainable, advanced biofuels as a bridging technology that can make a big difference in key areas where they can be dropped into existing engines-especially aviation.

Sustainable bio-jet fuels are currently the only viable option for significantly reducing aircraft emissions without canceling flights, says Caldecott, who co-authored a research report on promoting their development and commercialization while head of the Environment & Energy Unit at Policy Exchange, a large British think tank. Unlike cars, aircraft can’t run on hydrogen or batteries. Thus, biofuels can significantly contribute to 2050 emission reduction targets, he says.

Caldecott also sees much promise in third-generation algae-based biodiesel. Exxon Mobil Corp., BP and Chevron have been developing operations, as have some start-ups in the U.S. “The holy grail would be getting algae to directly produce diesel [without having to go through the refining process],” he says. 

Naimon describes algae as “more of a science project right now,” but he thinks Exxon Mobil’s algae biofuels research and development program, a joint venture with Synthetic Genomics, has potential for commercial scalability in the future. Synthetic Genomics’ CEO, Craig Venter, led the team that decoded the human genome. LGA is invested in Exxon Mobil.

Many companies large and small are testing biofuels made with jatropha and camelina, which Naimon says provide a better energy balance than corn and don’t require fertilizers. However, he’s skeptical these “weedy” plants can be cultivated to scale. “The real problem is there are no plantations of jatropha,” he says. (Lane anticipates jatropha will be grown on abandoned land in India that’s unusable for traditional crops.)

Boeing, one of LGA’s holdings, has successfully tested biofuel blends that included jatropha, camelina and algae. But the primary reason LGA is invested in Boeing is the aviation company’s successful development of the fuel-efficient Dreamliner jet, which is designed to use certain biofuel blends as they become available.

Naimon is also interested in waste-to-energy businesses that convert organic wastes from agricultural and municipal waste streams into usable gas or power. “It’s a challenging industry due to the intersection of energy and public policy issues,” he says, “but the result of not doing waste to energy is that we are using coal for baseload power in the U.S. and around the world.”

Naimon mentions a number of companies that LGA doesn’t currently invest in but which he says are very promising in waste-to-energy technology. Two of them are public companies, Covanta Energy and the ABB Group, a Switzerland-based power and automation technology company (where Naimon once worked), and two are private companies, Farm Power and Harvest Power. 

“It’s very early in the biofuels game, but we expect real investment opportunities over time,” says Chat Reynders, the chairman and CEO of Reynders, McVeigh Capital Management LLC, a Boston-based firm focused on sustainable and socially progressive investing. For now, it’s investing in what he describes as backbone plays in biofuels.

This includes Novozymes, a Danish biotech company that gets most of its revenues from the development, production and distribution of enzymes. Novozymes, whose enzymes can be used with nonedible feedstocks such as switch grass and assorted wastes, can help bring second-generation ethanol closer to the industrial arena, says Reynders. 

Farm equipment manufacturer John Deere is another holding. “The farm is becoming much more of a high-tech place. … This is a backbone play on rethinking what the farm is and what crops may or may not be used,” he says.

The idea of replacing food with wood crops, algae and farm waste for advanced biofuels is attractive to Reynders. Should gasoline prices rise, he thinks we’ll see relatively immediate acceptance. But if gas prices fall, he thinks subsidies will be needed to support such biofuels.

Reynders is very excited about algae. One acre can yield about 5,000 gallons of biodiesel, he says, while an acre of soybeans can only generate 40 gallons and an acre of corn yields only 400 gallons of ethanol. Seeing algae proved on an industrial scale is a must. “Maybe we’re a little conservative, but we want to see the rubber hitting the road a bit more [before investing],” he says.

He’s closely watching the algae developments of the oil and gas majors, Solazyme, Sapphire Energy and smaller private companies looking to get patents for growing algae. A pickup in the economy could bring more partnerships, a freer flow of capital and more research dollars, he says.

Trillium Asset Management, which is solely devoted to sustainable and responsible investing, hasn’t invested in ethanol. Monocropping (which degrades farm-rich soil), petrochemicals, pesticides and food security issues “decreased the benefit of biofuels right out of the gate,” says Natasha Lamb, a Trillium equity analyst in alternative energy and technology. The firm also tries to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and most corn is genetically engineered.

Lamb finds some of the new cellulosic- and algae-based technology compelling. As for investing, “it’s a bit of a wait-and-see approach,” she says. Much analysis is still needed on how much energy it can provide and how much extra carbon it can pull from the atmosphere.

She recently met with Solazyme and KiOR. Solazyme, which feeds sugar to algae, has focused on applications in soaps, perfumes and cake mixes. “It’s interesting, but they’re not really solving the energy crisis issue yet,” says Lamb. KiOR adds its proprietary catalyst to biomass to produce a crude oil substitute. Lamb has some concerns about the biomass it uses, from white pine trees, and would like to learn more about the company’s plans for replenishing them. 

“Biofuels are definitely something to look at [but] they’re not a panacea, sums up Caldecott of Climate Change Capital. He hopes that interest in advanced biofuels won’t draw attention from technologies that could potentially play a bigger role in lowering carbon output, such as electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells. Additionally, he says, “This is a complicated space. We need visibility on sustainability criteria as soon as possible to help provide investors with comfort.”

December 2, 2011. Article on FA website can be viewed here.