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Feature Article

Electric Vehicles, Electric Utilities, Yieldcos and Junk Bonds

By Roger S. Conrad on Apr. 12, 2016

Elon Musk’s privately held Space Exploration Technologies successfully landed a 15-story, first-stage booster rocket on a barge, enabling the company to reuse this component and potentially shave tens of millions of dollars off its next launch—an innovation that could change the economics of space flight dramatically.

Tesla Motors (NSDQ: TSLA), another company helmed by Musk, has sought to disrupt the automobile industry through the development and popularization of electric vehicles.

The carmaker’s recently unveiled Model 3 sports a base price of $35,000—much more affordable than the luxury Model S. More than 325,000 customers put down $1,000 on future orders that will be delivered in late 2017 or early 2018.

If the production history of the Model S is any guide, the delivery date will likely move to the right. In the first quarter of 2016, Tesla Motors fell short of its target to complete 16,000 vehicles, delivering only 14,820 units.

More important, the company lacks the manufacturing capacity to meet these pre-orders. And after losing $7 per share and bleeding $525 million in negative cash flow last year, Tesla Motors will need billions of dollars in outside capital to stay in business.

Musk’s flair for showmanship has given Tesla Motors a high profile, but the company isn’t the only automaker pursuing electric vehicles.

Ford Motor Company’s (NYSE: F) product lineup includes the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid, while General Motors (NYSE: GM) offers the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Motor Co (Tokyo: 7201, OTC: NSANY) sells the Leaf. Even luxury automobile producer Bayerische Motoren Werke (Frankfurt: BMW, OTC: BAMXY) has a plug-in model.

Joining forces with another carmaker could help to address Tesla Motors’ production challenges. Even if the would-be disruptor fails to deliver on its promises, orders for the Model 3 demonstrate strong demand for electric vehicles. An uptick in gasoline prices over the long haul, coupled with improvements to performance and technologies, should broaden electric vehicles’ appeal.

An Electric Future

To date, much of the conversation surrounding electric vehicles has focused on their implications for oil and gas demand. Although these contentious debates attract eyeballs, they overlook the real opportunity: Consider the implications for electricity demand if more vehicles run on electricity instead of fossil fuels.

Projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggest that annual sales of electric vehicles could reach 41 million units per year over the next quarter-century, boosting their share of the global automobile market to about 35 percent from less than 1 percent today.

This model assumes that economies of scale and technical advances will drive major gains in vehicle performance and reduce the sticker price for consumers. In this scenario, the auto industry will need to boost its production capacity. Charging stations will also need to be deployed, and the US will need to generate enough additional electricity to meet demand.

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