Natural gas specialist Clean Energy (NASDAQ:CLNE) made a strategic decision early on to enter the industrial market, focusing on such things as getting natural gas powered buses and garbage trucks on the road. Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), which is working on expanding the reach of electric vehicles, took a different approach, hitting the consumer market first. Now, however, Tesla co-founder Ian Wright is looking to get into a Clean Energy niche.
From the ground up
The gasoline infrastructure in the United States is both mature and solidly entrenched. Then there's the massive fleet of gasoline-powered vehicles in the country and the sales and repair network built around it. It's a rough market to disrupt with new technology that lacks similar supporting infrastructure.
This is one of the reasons why Clean Energy decided to bypass the consumer market and focus instead on industrial customers. In this market, Clean Energy could show compelling economic and environmental reasons for making the switch to natural gas. Bus operators, airports, and garbage companies took the leap of faith.
Since such vehicles generally have local, and in some cases highly predictable, routes integrating natural gas into the picture was relatively easy. Of course, switching to natural gas also comes with green benefits, too, since it burns more cleanly than gasoline.
The uptake was nothing short of incredible. For example, within the garbage truck sector, natural gas powered vehicles represented just 3% of new truck sales in 2008. In 2013 that number had grown to 60%. But this hasn't gone unnoticed.
Too expensive for the average Joe
Tesla co-founder Wright left the company shortly after its founding because he believed that electric cars were too costly for the average car buyer. Tesla CEO Elon Musk pretty much admitted that when he opened the company's patent portfolio to the world earlier this year: "electric car programs at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales." He explained that gasoline powered cars were the competitive target—not other electric cars.
Ian Wright highlighted the dilemma that led him to found Wrightspeed to Fast Company: "The thing about electric drive technology is it's very efficient ... but it's not cheap. So you've got to think about who's going to pay the extra cost of these things." Essentially, you can save money by going electric, but only if you use a lot of gasoline. The typical car owner, he contends, does not. A garbage truck, on the other hand, can burn through $60,000 worth of fuel a year.
Look out Clean Energy? Maybe not
With electric vehicles starting to reach into Clean Energy's core markets, is the natural gas pioneer at risk? Maybe not. For starters, Clean Energy is expanding into new, bigger markets. That includes the long-haul truck sector, which is roughly five times the size of the garbage truck, airport vehicle, and bus markets combined. And it's looking at supplying mining trucks, trains, and ships. So there's still plenty of expansion potential at Clean Energy.
Then there's the fact that Wright's product actually makes use of micro turbines to generate power when the batteries run low. According to the Wrightspeed, those turbines can be powered by diesel, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), or even landfill gas.
Moreover, the benefit of Wright's technology is that it makes use of braking to generate electricity. That's great for local vehicles that start and stop all the time, like a garbage truck, but not for long-haul trucks that drive for hours at a time before stopping.
At the end of the day, Wright's industrial push could hamper Clean Energy in some smaller markets by reducing demand for CNG and LNG. However, Wrightspeed is essentially looking to partner with these fuels, not displace them completely. And Wrightspeed tech isn't workable in Clean Energy's newest expansion markets, most notably the giant long-haul truck space. So, electric vehicles are an issue, but not one that should materially change Clean Energy's long-term expansion opportunities.
Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Clean Energy Fuels and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.