I read an article in this week's Economist that summarized well what I've been hearing over the past few weeks: coal is back in fashion with power utilities. As pointed out in the article, on a BTU basis, coal remains the cheapest fuel for thermal generation, and the prospect of high carbon prices is not deterring even European power generators from investing in coal-fired assets.
A few months ago, Tom discussed his peak coal portfolio. The long-term perspective is, of course, critical to keep in mind, and that piece helps putting recent news around coal into perspective. Nevertheless, in the near term, coal is making a comeback.
Coal is dirty, very dirty. Besides greenhouse gases, which I believe will represent a material hurdle to economically burning coal in the long term (10 years and beyond) in most Western markets, coal creates significant localized pollution problems.
If estimates of the pace at which new coal capacity is currently being added in China and India are anywhere near accurate, both countries (and their populations) stand to suffer greatly from increased levels of air pollution. There is, however, evidence that China has begun taking pollution control seriously, especially in light of the fact that Beijing is currently too polluted to host Olympic Games.
A (Clean) Coal Stock
I'm no fan of coal for a number of reasons, but one play on cleaner coal caught my attention in late 2006: Fuel-Tech Inc. (FTEK). Fuel-Tech makes pollution control technologies that could see significant uptake with tightening air quality standards. You may remember an interview with their CEO that we published back in March.
I followed the stock for while, but always found it expensive on a PE basis. Then, in the spring, the stock took off with the rest of the market (but not the earnings) and I just stopped paying attention. Fuel Tech remains, however, a bit of a tech play and so it's been correcting heavily with the recent market slump.
According to Yahoo data, Fuel Tech is still trading at a whooping 12-month trailing PE of 166x. However, its forward PE (fy 08), arguably a much more important stat, is around 40x. While that is no Buffet stock, there are a number of investors out there who seem willing to pay up for a piece of Fuel Tech's future growth (keep in mind too that when the linked article was written, the stock was staging a bit of a comeback).
While I'm not sure this is something I'm ready to jump on right now, both on an intrinsic basis and because I don't think the markets are currently likely to be gentle to this type of security, it is definitely back on my radar.
I don't like coal at all, but if I had to play it I would do it through Fuel Tech.
DISCLOSURE: The author does not have a position in this stock.