By Sonya Colberg
Fuel cell maker Ballard Power Systems Inc. (USA) (NASDAQ:BLDP) has let its best technology slip away and insists on weaving down a long, bumpy road to nowhere on three flat tires.
“That’s where the magic really happens,” a longtime clean-tech analyst told TheStreetSweeper. “And that’s what Volkswagen bought.”
But the fuel cell manufacturer would have been wiser to ink a deal to sell its customer, VW, all the fuel cells it wants. However, blinded by the cash infusion, the market excitedly ran up the stock by $1, though the deal was really worth only 38 cents per share ($50m/132m shares).
Ballard’s agreement does include a $30 million VW service contract extension to 2018. Unfortunately, though, that money will get coughed out over the years.
Besides tossing away its prime technology, other issues facing Canada-based Ballard include:
- No significant opportunity remaining.
- Expert calls fuel cell cars “extremely dumb.” Volkswagen adds, “decades away.”
- Google and Apple cars: Electric, not fuel cell, for a simple reason.
- China prospects fold.
Though investors may read different viewpoints here, we’ll hit other issues threatening Ballard stock with a Hindenburg-esque explosion.
No significant opportunity left.
Some investors may be clinging to the hope that Ballard could strike a deal similar to the VW arrangement with other car companies.
So Ballard traded its technology – which it bought last year from United Technologies Corp. – for cash. But the arrangement has left Ballard with little more than the ability to sell fuel cells for buses.
Ballard did recently hype a possible deal for supplying fuel cell technology for 10 buses – but this is more of a very slow, low-rev process that’s been going on for a long time with little financial impact.
Experts, even Volkswagen, say fuel cell is decades away.
Bloomberg Business delves into the limited prospects of fuel-cell cars beyond Japan, where handling hydrogen for fueling stations has been found to be challenging, expensive and demanding heavy subsidies.
“It might fly in Japan, but not globally,” Volkswagen Group Japan President Shigeru Shoji said.
Volkswagen Japan spokesman Yasuo Maruta agreed in the Bloomberg piece.
“There are still a lot of questions lingering about how practical it is even though Toyota launches next year,” said Mr. Maruta.
“By the time it gets very usable by the normal customers, it’s maybe still a decade or two decades away,” he added.
Electric car company Tesla Motors’ co-founder and CEO Elon Musk also spoke out recently about fuel cell cars. He dismissed them as irrational, according to MLive Media Group.
“I just think they’re extremely silly,” he said at the Automotive News’ annual World Congress last month.
He said it will become obvious in time that hydrogen is impractical for powering cars.
“If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is just an extremely dumb one to pick,” he said.
A recent Forbes article says fuel cell vehicle sales will likely be even smaller than electric car sales for many years.
In the article, the co-manager of Shelton Green Alpha Fund, Garvin Jabusch, shared his thoughts about the fuel cell space.
“I’ve yet to be convinced … that there is a way to eke a profitable business model out of the space,” said Mr. Jabusch.
Apple rumored to build driverless electric cars; emphasizes fuel cell shortcomings.
Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) appears to be secretly working toward an Apple-branded electric car, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some “clean” stocks, like Ballard’s, ran up a bit while numerous reports circulated about Apple working toward an answer to rival Google’s prototype self-driving electric car.
This excitement merely shows that the industry is moving toward electric vehicles over the next decade. Not fuel cells.
The main reason current and future carmakers are going after electric rather than fuel cell is the cost and infrastructure.
Just a few hydrogen fueling stations exist – a sprinkling on both coasts and overseas. According to Alternative Fuels Data Center, only 12 hydrogen fueling stations exist in the U.S.
The hydrogen fueling system would require pipelines, a truck transport system, hydrogen generation plants and hydrogen filling stations across the US.
Hydrogen can ignite from static electricity and leaks easily, sometimes with tragic results. So specially trained emergency responders would have to respond to accidents involving fuel cell-powered cars or any incidents that might occur along the hydrogen system itself.
It would be no surprise if, when they hear “hydrogen,” people think “Hindenburg” rather than water, fuel cell’s mild byproduct. Those fears were likely reinforced by the explosion at a Rochester, N.Y. hydrogen filling station in 2010 that occurred during a fuel transfer.
Then there are the engineering challenges. Either sturdier vehicles or lighter-weight hydrogen would have to be developed to accommodate relatively heavy hydrogen.
And other countries are unlikely to match car subsidies like those in Japan, reaching $28,500 per vehicle.
So expensive cars and steep infrastructure investment are slamming the brake on fuel cell development.
Another loss: China sale fails to materialize.
The company thought it had knocked down a China bus deal worth “approximately $6 million over the 2014-2015 period,” Ballard trumpeted last June 19.
“The Telecom Backup Power market is a key growth driver for our business and is also a significant opportunity in China given the scale of the market and China’s growing focus on clean energy technology,” said John Sheridan, Ballard’s former president and chief executive.
Then Ballard backed out.
Instead of pocketing millions – an SEC filing reflects an $11 million value in the first year – Ballard terminated the two licensing agreements amid Azure’s “material breaches” that it broke to investors fresh from the New Year’s holiday on Jan. 2.
Ballard warned that it would miss its 2014 revenue guidance of an increase of 20 percent or $73.5 million. It also plans to take a $4.5 million impairment loss. Details will come during the earnings conference call later this month.
Meanwhile, after Ballard’s embarrassing hype proclaiming the Azure deal as a stepping stone into the China market, a big question remains. What now? Unfortunately, the answer is that investors should forget about seeing Ballard get into the China market.
Ballard can’t ride this fuel-cell jalopy much farther. Along with the preceding list of problems, the company has a history of restated earnings, consistent losses and top executives who received $3.3 million compensation in 2013 – an unspeakable figure for a company that makes nothing and threw away its greatest hope for decent future revenues.
A big blowout is just around the bend!