Solar Sailor watertanker plan a sign of things to come?

Thanks to Rob Day’s Cleantech Investing blog for pointing out this Red Herring article on water as “The New Oil.”

The piece is timely, given a recent telephone interview I had with Dr. Robert Dane, the founder and CEO of Australian hybrid-boat developer Solar Sailor, which I mentioned in a previous post.

Solar Sailor, which managed to attract former Australian prime minister Robert Hawke as its chairman, has four main products: “Green” hybrid-electric ferries, assisted by solar PV covered wings that double as sails; similarly constructed luxury “green” yachts; unmanned marine vessels that use solar PV, wind and motion power to perform satellite-like surveillance of the oceans without the need to refuel; and finally, massive aquatankers that reduce fuel consumption by nearly 50 per cent using the same solar/wind boosters under a hybrid design.

It’s the aquatanker concept that speaks to the issue of water as the new oil. Dane proposes the idea as a possible solution to a severe water shortage in the Australian cities Perth and Sydney. Compared to the option of building desalination plants or water pipelines, Dane believes that transporting massive volumes — millions of tonnes — of fresh water using fleets of 400-metre long aquatankers would be safer, most flexible and the least costly option, but only if Solar Sailor’s solar/wind hybrid approach was integrated into a tanker’s design.

He estimates that a conventional tanker for this purpose would cost about $115 million (U.S.), with the solar/wind-hybrid design adding another $20 million to the final cost.

He says Australia’s whacky climate over the past five years has politicians giving his idea a serious look. “In months that are normally raining, it’s just not,” he told me. “If the cities are going to run out of water then obviously that’s a problem.”

He uses the example of shipping water from Canada to California, compared to building a desalination plant in the southern U.S. state. By his calculations, the California government would have to pay 30 cents a tonne for the water and another $1.50 a tonne to transport it using the “green” aquatanker concept. He says desalination, on the other hand, is potentially more costly at between $1.80 and $2.80 a tonne, excluding the environmental impact of using this energy-intensive process.

The aquatanker option is also more flexible than building pipelines, because while you can’t redirect the pipeline you can drive the tankers to where the new source of water is.

“If Canada ran out we could go somewhere else to get the water,” said Dane.

God forbid! I think there’d be war before that happened. It might be a short war, but we’d certainly fight to the death before letting golf courses in California and Arizona use up all our water.

Anyway, just wanted to point out the highlights of that interview. It’s a chilling sign that there are actually companies putting much thought into this water issue, and doing so as a response to real crises, as the Red Herring article outlines:

“The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) predicts that by 2025 the global demand for clean water will increase 20 per cent for agriculture, 50 per cent for industry and 80 per cent for domestic consumption,” the article states.

“Affordable water is not a problem confined to countries in the developing world such as India and China. Southern Europe, Israel, the western part of the United States, the Middle East, and areas of southeast Asia such as Singapore all suffer from increasing pressure on scarce water resources.”

In fact Red Herring has a broad 8-part series on this issue. In addition to the overview link provided above, here are the other 7 links: water shortage in United StatesIsrael, China, Africa, India, Europe, and, finally how nanotech can help ease the problem.

There are two issues here, of course. The first is turning dirty water into clean water, which the Red Herring series addresses. And then there’s getting clean water to the places that need it, which is what Dane is talking about.

It all makes for interesting discussion and debate, particularly coming from a country with relatively abundent fresh water resources that, over time, we’re going to need to responsibly manage and fiercely protect.

Xantrex share buy-back an expression of confidence

Shares of Xantrex Technology shot up as much as 25 per cent today after the company said it would buy back up to 10 per cent of its public float on the open market. It closed the day up 18 per cent to $6.20. Why is this good news?

Well, obviously management thinks the company’s stock is undervalued, and considering it was trading at less than 1X revenue that would be a rational assessment. Fact is, since going public Xantrex has been a profitable company, with the exception of the last quarter. If you consider this a rough patch in an otherwise smooth road, there’s no reason why this stock should be trading at less than $6, let alone $10 or higher. Management, which has capital and is looking for acquisitions, is basically saying that Xantrex shares offer the best value on the market right now relative to peers in the field. It’s also a signal by management that it considers the company’s current woes a temporary event. Investors should interpret this as a reason to be confident in the company.

Consider the following:

* You’ve got a new U.S. energy bill that has extended by two years a production tax credit for wind energy developers, bringing much-needed stability to the market. This will likely spur wind development in the U.S., which Xantrex is positioned to benefit from.

* You’ve got a U.S. energy bill that is offering an attractive subsidy to those wanting to install solar PV systems on their homes and businesses, creating demand for inverters and thus more opportunity for Xantrex.

* You’ve got Xantrex working hard to tap a booming European wind and solar market. Once its distribution and marketing channels get in full swing, expect the company to see some material traction.

* You’ve got almost every province in Canada jumping on the renewable energy bandwagon. Ontario, meanwhile, is very close to unveiling a feed-in tariff program for small-scale wind and solar projects, similar to programs in Europe that led to explosive demand for power electronics. (More details to come).

* Finally, you’ve got a company board that tossed out its CEO out of frustration, a sign that the company is dead serious about getting its house in order — and fast. An interim CEO with impressive credentials has been appointed, and the hunt is on for a permanent candidate. Presumably, management is being told to act more aggressively to improve the company’s fortunes.

This is not to say Xantrex doesn’t have challenges along the way. What matters is whether investors have confidence in the company’s ability to overcome those challenges. The share buyback, in a way, is management saying it can.