The Natural Gas Highway Hits a Little Speed Bump

No one said building the natural gas highway would be easy, but investors in Clean Energy Fuels (NAS: CLNE) might finally start seeing some fruits of that labor later this year. For the current quarter, unfortunately, the fuel provider performed about as well as expected -- firmly in the red. Adjusted losses (which discounted the effects larger-than-usual stock-compensation hits) were $0.16 per share, compared with analyst expectations of $0.17. Revenue came in lower than expected, balancing the positive surprise of a narrow (and narrowly defined) bottom-line victory. Will it be enough to halt the stock's recent slide? Let's take a closer look.

Power of price
Earnings have yet to reflect the company's aggressive build out plans, but they do present a snapshot of a company having a tough time generating profit. Clean Energy's first-quarter loss, including compensation charges, was the largest in nearly three years. The $31.9 million loss adds up to make for one of the company's worst trailing-12-month performances in years:

Sources: Morningstar and Clean Energy Fuels quarterly report.

This comes in spite of the company's ability to control its pump prices rather effectively relative to the raw cost of natural gas. Clean Energy delivered 43.7 million gallons in the first quarter, a 23% improvement over the year-ago quarter. However, that extra volume amounted to only a 13% boost to revenue and offered no benefit at all to the bottom line. Still, the fact that gross profit has avoided steeper declines in light of the nat-gas price crash of the past year is nothing to sneeze at:

US Natural Gas Wellhead Price Chart

US Natural Gas Wellhead Price data by YCharts

Drilling down
Clean Energy has a way to go before the promise of a natural gas highway becomes more than a source of capital expenditures. There should be 31 more fueling stations up and running by the second quarter, and a further 39 by year's end. Add that to 50 new stations already up and running for the company's trash-hauling partners, and the company's increased reach should be readily apparent by its next earnings release, with a more complete picture sure to emerge by year's end.

Clean Energy CEO Andrew Littlefair also shone a bit of light on his company's partnership with Navistar (NYS: NAV) . Part of their partnership, he says, now includes a "wet lease," which offers fuel incentives to anyone who may buy Navistar's nat-gas engines. Navistar aims to have eight different nat-gas truck models by the end of next year, which should open up new interest from varied transportation companies.

Now that longtime nat-gas engine conversion partners Cummins (NYS: CMI) and Westport Innovations (NAS: WPRT) are becoming "frenemies" thanks to Cummins' in-house nat-gas engine development, the door may be open for Navistar to grab market share. That will only help Clean Energy, though as one of the largest nat-gas fueling companies in the country, it's also highly likely that intense competition will help it out no matter who ends up on top -- that is, if there's any profit to be found in this low-margin industry. Clean Energy's own in-house nat-gas conversion business also poses a real threat to the Cummins-Westport partnership. In its most recent quarter alone, the company converted 600 vans for AT&T (NYS: T) .

Foolish final thoughts
Clean Energy has a lot of irons in the fire at the moment, but few are ready to be cooled into their final forms. There are bound to be big changes along the way, and a number of shareholders seem decidedly nonplussed at the idea of waiting, as the company's stock just took a big hit thanks to its latest report. The nat-gas industry could be a great investment for investors, but there are plenty of great energy buys right now. If you'd like to find out about one under-the-radar energy opportunity with huge potential, get immediate access to The Motley Fool's free report on "The Only Energy Stock You'll Ever Need." Don't wait: Claim your free report now.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorAlex Planesholds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him onGoogle+or follow him on Twitter,@TMFBiggles, for more news and insights. The Motley Fool owns shares of Westport Innovations. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Cummins, Clean Energy Fuels, and Westport Innovations. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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