Natural gas refueling leader Clean Energy Fuels Corp. (NASDAQ:CLNE) announced third-quarter financial results on Nov. 5, reporting another quarter of double-digit growth in fuel sales, and improving in several key cash-flow and profitability metrics. 

Has the company turned the corner? Not quite yet, but there's a lot to like in the company's latest earnings release. Let's take a look at the company's performance, and what it means going forward. 

The numbers 

Metric Q3 2015Q3 2014Change
Revenue $77.4 $90.4 (14.4%)
Net income ($23.2) ($30.2) 30%
Earnings per share ($0.25) ($0.32) 22%
Adjusted EBITDA $3.1 ($2)  
Gallon-equivalents delivered 80.6 68.6 17%

Numbers except earnings per share in millions.

Because of the makeup of Clean Energy's business, those results need a little context. Clean Energy's core business is selling natural gas for transportation, but the company is also a leading expert in building, maintaining, and running stations and also owns a compressor manufacturing business. Revenue by segment breaks down as follows:

Revenue SourceQ3 2015Q3 2014Change
Fuel volume-related $65.6 $61.5 6.7%
Low Carbon Fuel Standard credits $2.3 $1 187.5%
Station construction $12.9 $19.3 (33.2%)
Clean Energy Compression $11.50 $21.80 (47.2%)

Numbers in millions. 

Even with natural gas selling for about 40% less than it was in the same quarter in 2014, Clean Energy's growth in fuel volumes led to a 6.7% increase in fuel-volume revenue. However, the boom in station building work that Clean Energy was contracted for in 2014 has slowed in 2015, while Clean Energy's Compression manufacturing business has largely suffered from weak demand in overseas markets, especially China. 

This context is important because the fuel sales business is largely recurring revenue. Once a Clean Energy customer implements a natural gas vehicle into its fleet, that vehicle will generate revenue for five to 10 years in most cases. The station building and compression businesses, however, are much more cyclical in nature, driven to a larger extent by macroeconomic trends that don't affect the refueling business. 

What happened in the quarter 

  • Clean Energy reached a big milestone in the quarter, reporting adjusted EBITDA of $3.1 million. In short, that means the company generates positive cash flow before taxes, interest, and non-cash impacts from depreciation and amortization. It's important to note that $2.4 million of that figure was a one-time payout from last year's sale of a biogas production facility that won't repeat. In other words, the "adjusted adjusted" EBITDA result was more like $700,000 in the quarter -- a noteworthy improvement from the second quarter's $2.6 million adjusted EBITDA loss, and last year's $2 million loss. 
  • Gross margin per gallon of $0.26 was down slightly from $0.28 last year -- a notably strong performance considering the 40% drop in natural gas prices. 
  • Sales of Redeem, Clean Energy's brand name for renewable biogas sold as transportation, nearly tripled from 13 million to 36 million gallons versus last year's quarter. 
  • Fuel sales by market were as follows: Refuse increased 29%, transit/fleet services increased 3%, trucking increased 13%, and NG Advantage (which sells natural gas to industrial users) increased 287%. 
  • Cash and short-term investments were $165.9 million, down $15.9 million from $181.9 million at the start of the quarter. Cash burn remains a concern.
  • The company has spent significantly less on capital expenditures in 2015, reporting $40 million to date, versus $75 million through the same period in 2014.
  • Sales, general, and administrative expenses fell 2% from last year and 4% sequentially. 

What management said 
Co-founder and CEO Andrew Littlefair, on the current state of demand in the face of low diesel prices:

During the quarter we contracted over 300 new heavy-duty trucks, which represent close to 4.5 million gallons annually. I think it is important to understand that despite lower diesel prices, fleets like Raven, Ryder, Waste Management, and UPS are still making the transition to natural gas because of the economics remain compelling, but also because the price of natural gas continues to remain low and stable which is extremely important to fleet operators. And while low, stable pricing continues to be a reason for fleet operators to switch, we have seen a renewed focus on the environmental and sustainability benefits of natural gas is a major catalyst in the decision process.

On the balance sheet and operational efficiency:

Regarding our balance sheet and financials, we continue to make sure that we are operating the business efficiently as we continue to grow our volumes and get operating leverage out of the business. As an example, over the last five quarters we reduced our SG&A by 20% while we grew our volumes by 24%. All this is in the face of a challenged oil environment. Through the end of September, we spent $40 million in capex compared with roughly $75 million through Q3 of last year.

On reducing debt:

We remain focused on the 2016 convertible notes, which are due at the end of August of next year. We are in regular communication with note holders and we expect to repay these notes with a combination of cash and stock ahead of the maturity date. Deleveraging the balance sheet is a priority.

Looking ahead 
As much as diesel and gasoline prices have fallen, taking a big bite out of the cost benefit of natural gas, Clean Energy has continued to grow fuel sales at a steady clip, while also cutting operating expenses and capex. And while the company did report a $23 million loss, $14 million of that amount was non-cash depreciation and amortization, and cash from operations was $1.85 million in the quarter. Debt expense of $10.1 million last quarter remains a big drain, but that amount will fall by about 25% in coming months, moving the company about $2.5 million closer to cash-flow positive status. 

The wild card: Can the company continue growing fuel sales at double-digit rates?

Most estimates are projecting 2016 natural gas vehicle sales to be flat with this year. However, the majority of those will be replacing diesel and gas vehicles, meaning the natural gas pie will grow larger. That's good news for Clean Energy. How good? Only time will tell. 

Jason Hall owns shares of Clean Energy Fuels and Waste Management. The Motley Fool owns shares of Waste Management. The Motley Fool recommends Clean Energy Fuels and United Parcel Service. 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.