Heliogen Stock is a Risky Play on Concentrated Solar

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The emergence of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) has paved the way for financiers to make boatloads of cash very quickly, companies to raise massive amounts of funding very quickly, all while the retail investor gets the short end of the stick. We’ve covered more than 40 SPACs, and what they all have in common are wildly optimistic growth forecasts that are in some cases just laughable. You can’t blame companies for making hay while the sun shines, and it’s that same sun that Heliogen is using to turn concentrated solar power into something that’s economically viable. Now, they’re merging with a SPAC called Athena Technology Acquisition Corp. (ATHN). 

About Concentrated Solar Power

We’re all familiar with how solar panels capture energy from the sun which can then be used to power all the gadgetry contained within those trendy $120,000 Mercedes vans you see everyone driving these days. That’s the traditional way that solar power has been captured. If you’ve ever used a magnifying glass to fry ants start a fire, you’ll be familiar with the other way solar power gets captured. Concentrated solar power (CSP) involves using loads of mirrors (heliostats) to reflect the sun onto a single point (a receiver) that heats up and then generates power.

Credit: Department of Energy

Today, a miniscule fraction of solar energy is produced using CSP plants located in 12 different countries, with the industry – in 2020 – approaching 100 plants in commercial operation. There’s a good reason why CSP hasn’t taken off as solar investors expected.

The Many Problems with CSP

The process of generating energy using CSP plants may sound simple, but it’s anything but. So far, CSP has been an utter failure when it comes to being economically viable. An article by Greentech Media titled “America’s Concentrated Solar Power Companies Have All but Disappeared” provides a good summary of all the failures out there, and it all comes down to this:

The biggest challenge facing CSP, not just in the U.S. but also in the rest of the world, is the plummeting price of solar PV.

Credit: Greentech Media

They’re absolutely right. One reason CSP can’t compete on cost is because it’s riddled with problems. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) produced a 269-page report on the more than 1,000 problems they encountered while collecting data on nearly 80% of CSP plants operating worldwide. Nearly half the problems were related to technology which leads us to believe that CSP is just not economically viable.

Credit: Concentrating Solar Power Best Practices Study

It’s at this point you would probably wonder why anyone would want to throw more money at something that hasn’t proven to be economically viable. We’re wondering the same thing.

About Heliogen Stock

The first slide of the Heliogen investor deck is off to a bad start when one reason given for the merger decision is “diversity and inclusion.” Whether or not someone stands up or sits down to take a piss has no effect on their ability to deliver successful solar projects. The same goes for skin color. Companies that join the cult of “D&I” usually move towards using criteria other than competency when hiring talent, and that’s a huge red flag for investors.

Founded in 2013, Heliogen has taken in just over $128 million in funding from a long list of investors that include Bill Gates and leading steel and mining company, ArcelorMittal. One of the largest mining companies in the world, Rio Tinto, signed a memorandum of understanding (the legal equivalent of a handshake) with Heliogen and the two companies are working together on a pilot project (

The founder of Heliogen, Bill Gross, has a reputation that precedes him. In the investor call announcing the deal, Mr. Gross said, “although the process of concentrating sunlight is not new, Heliogen has developed innovations which we believe fundamentally improve its potential.” He goes on to talk about how AI algorithms will optimize the placement of mirrors, ones that are much smaller than what’s normally used. This will allow for a “unique modular system design” that will reduce costs and complexity. Heliogen has spent eight years improving all aspects of their technology with the goal of achieving the record temperatures from concentrated sunlight which allows for multiple applications outside of just generating clean electricity.

Credit: Heliogen

What Heliogen hasn’t provided in their glossy investor deck is a plan to overcome all the prior failings of concentrated solar. And we’re not just talking about some birds getting zapped. For example, that pilot project they’re working on at Rio Tinto’s borate mine in Boron, California probably needs a method for keeping all those 40,000 mirrors clean. (The installation will be the size of about 100 football fields.) Hopefully, the cleaning method doesn’t involve water because there’s a drought affecting the State of California. The list of things that can go wrong trying to bring a new technology to market that so many others have failed at makes this an extremely risky investment. While Heliogen tries to make CSP economically viable, metal producers are already taking steps to curtail emissions.

Renewable Smelting

Mining, refining and smelting new aluminum produces nearly 2% of the world’s total carbon emissions. To pacify the ESG types, producers are moving towards using renewable energy and improved processing methods to reduce emissions. Rio Tinto is already selling branded RenewAl aluminum which customers are willing to pay a premium for, at least when times are good. The technology behind that green aluminum lies in changing how the smelter operates. Alcoa’s EcoLum is an aluminum with a carbon footprint 3.5 times better than the industry average, something that’s achieved using predominantly hydro-powered smelters.

Credit: Alcoa

Using renewable energy to power a smelter isn’t some novel idea. More than 70% of Alcoa’s aluminum smelting portfolio runs on renewable sources.

When the economy has enjoyed a raging bull market for the last decade, it’s reasonable to expect consumers will pay more for green products. At least that’s better than government subsidies, a cost that taxpayers bear whether they like it or not. In either case, these are not sustainable methods. For a green technology to scale, it needs to offer value that substitutes can’t. The levelized cost of energy for wind and solar has dropped below “dirty energy” and that’s what made the biggest renewable energy company in the world such a success story. Heliogen needs to prove that they can produce energy using concentrated solar energy at a cost that competes with existing renewable energy sources. In order to do that, they’ll need to figure out how to handle all the issues that have plagued those who came before them. Until they’ve proven that, they don’t have anything but a team with a dream.

Conclusion

When dozens of companies try to implement a technology and fail miserably at it, said technology is off to a very bad start. The path to concentrated solar power is littered with failed projects, operational issues, and an inability to produce energy that can compete with other renewable sources. Never mind Heliogen is a SPAC which hasn’t generated any meaningful revenues yet, the technology just isn’t something we’re interested in dabbling in. We wish them the best of luck, but we’ll be avoiding the stock going forward.

If the merger goes through as expected, and that’s not a given, shares of Heliogen will trade under the ticker HLGN.

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