Now could be the right time to buy into fuel cell companies.
A new generation of fuel cell-based mCHP (micro Combined Heating and Power) systems are promising to revolutionise the way we power and heat our homes. Several of the companies leading the way are listed in London, have blue-chip backing and currently look very cheap.
What's more, in February, the government announced that the feed-in tariff for electricity generated by qualifying mCHP systems would be increased by 19% from 10.5p/kWh to 12.5p/kWh. The timing could be perfect for residential mCHP product launches.
The efficiency of a conventional fossil fuel power station can be as low as 40%, once wasted heat and transmission loss is taken into account.
The best fuel cell-based mCHP systems are about 60% efficient in generating electricity from gas. This figure then rises to about 80% when the heat generated by the fuel cell is used to provide domestic heating and hot water.
Gas-powered, fuel cell mCHP systems are designed to be fitted in place of a gas central heating boiler. They need the same connections -- electricity, water and gas -- and generate electricity using a controlled reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the fuel cell.
Four fuel cell contenders
Fuel cell technology has been around for many years now, but the new, small-scale fuel cells now coming to market are mostly based on technology developed in universities in the 1990s.
Some of the companies involved are privately held and off-limits to private investors, but I've managed to find four AIM-listed companies that do have a real chance of success:
1. Ceres Power
Ceres Power Holdings (LSE: CWR) has its roots in research carried out at London's Imperial College in the 1990s. It was founded in 2001 and floated in 2004.
Ceres Power's main product is a home CHP system that's designed to be a direct replacement fit for a wall-mounted gas boiler -- 1.5m boilers are fitted every year in the UK.
Centrica (LSE: CNA) owns a 10% stake in Ceres and it has partnerships with British Gas, Calor Gas and Bord Gáis Éireann for trials of its mCHP product, with conditional future orders of 73,500 units.
Last year, Ceres Power's field trials with British Gas revealed problems with the mCHP units, delaying progress. However, Ceres has since found itself a new CEO, improved its product and is preparing to start a new round of field trials.
In the meantime, shares in Ceres Power can be had for 10p each, valuing the company at less than £9m -- substantially less than its £26m of net current assets.
Check the interim results, due this month, for a progress update.
2. Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd
Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd (LSE: CFU) is an Australian company that already has products on the market. Like Ceres Power, it has partnerships and open orders with a number of utilities, including E.ON UK, plus German and Dutch electricity companies.
Ceramic Fuels is also aiming at the OEM market, selling a core fuel cell system that boiler manufacturers can package into home mCHP units. This approach means that it can benefit from other companies' established retail brands, providing good growth potential.
Sales are currently rising fast, albeit from a low, loss-making starting point.
3. ITM Power
ITM Power (LSE: ITM) floated in 2004 and has maintained a £50m+ capitalisation while recording virtually zero revenue ever since.
Rather than exclusively focusing on mCHP, ITM's products are focused on the hydrogen economy -- the idea that hydrogen will replace fossil fuels to a great extent. Its products include hydrogen generation and storage solutions, as well as fuel cell products.
Blue-chip names such as SSE (LSE: SSE), Cable & Wireless (LSE: CW), Johnson Matthey (LSE: JMAT) and Carillion (LSE: CLLN) feature on ITM's list of trial partners, and its share price has risen strongly recently, following a number of new deals.
4. Intelligent Energy
Intelligent Energy has products aimed at several fuel cell markets, including the distributed generation (home) market. It has not yet floated but has arranged for an AIM placement. CEO Henri Winand says that an IPO will take place when it "makes sense".
The company was spun off from Loughborough University and is focused on developing 'clean engine building blocks': proven technology that can be licensed to customers for OEM use.
ARMHoldings (LSE: ARM) has used a similar approach very successfully, and concentrating on licensing intellectual property should help Intelligent Energy grow and become profitable.
One to watch -- although I would probably wait for the post-IPO dip before buying.
Buying Into mCHP
Although any technology that relies on government subsidy to make it viable carries an extra element of risk, the reality is that new technology often needs this assistance to help it scale to a profitable level.
As has happened with the solar industry, the increase in feed-in tariff for mCHP could come at just the right time to help get fuel cell mCHP systems off the ground and make them more commercially viable.
I think that there is a lot of money to be made from fuel cells, but when and where is uncertain. Invest small unless you have a crystal ball!
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