Long Live the Cleantech Revolution

by: John Petersen

It’s official! Cleantech, the sixth industrial revolution, has arrived on time and in the midst of extraordinary crisis. Like every good revolution, blood is flowing in the streets; the guillotine is en route to Wall Street and the mob is so busy plotting retribution for the excesses of the past that most have no time to consider the future. But as yesterday’s dynasties decay, crumble and fall, a new generation of visionaries is already building on the wreckage of the past. These are indeed troubled times that bear an eerie resemblance to the opening sentence from A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)

However like all times of trouble, this too shall pass.

In mid-February, President Obama signed an economic stimulus package that included $38 billion in alternative energy spending. A week later, in a memorable address to a joint session of Congress, the President outlined a vision for America’s future that rests on four pillars: energy independence, improved education, reduced healthcare costs and jobs.

Last Thursday, he unveiled a 10-year plan that envisions $150 billion in alternative energy subsidies that will be paid for by a carbon cap and trade scheme. After decades as a backwater agency with a modest mandate and budget, the Department of Energy is finally surging to the forefront as the powerful agency it should be. With a little luck we may even see a comprehensive national energy policy and that would be a wonderful thing.

If you believe the press and listen to the politicians, a brave new world of clean renewable energy is just around the corner, but there are a couple of particularly nasty flies in the ointment. Alternative energy is inherently less stable than its conventional counterparts and cost-efficient transmission, distribution and storage systems do not yet exist. While the litany of potential solutions grows longer with each passing day, these solutions are largely unproven and will take years if not decades to implement nationwide. In the interim, our only option is to wake up in the morning, go to work with the toolbox we own, solve our problems to the best of our ability and be ready to embrace newer and better technologies when they are perfected. If we're lucky and sensible, cheap will triumph over cool.

I’m a dilettante when it comes to power generation, transmission and distribution, so I’ll leave those issues to better-informed writers and focus my attention on a narrow sector that I know well, manufactured energy storage devices.

Historically, batteries have been a critical but largely invisible part of daily life. They start our cars and power our cell phones but the only times they merit more than a passing thought are when they need to be recharged or replaced. With the dawn of cleantech, however, rechargeable batteries are no longer mere conveniences. For the first time in history, rechargeable batteries are fundamental enabling technologies that can help smooth the peaks and valleys in renewable power and foster the development of electric vehicles. Unfortunately, the battery industry is not ready for the current challenges, much less the sweeping changes that the cleantech revolution will require.

To understand the current state of battery technology, one must first understand the historical necessities that were the mother of invention. Around 250 BC, a clever Babylonian discovered that a genie could be released from a clay pot containing the right combination of lead and acid. During the 1800s, people began to find ways to make the genie do useful work beyond electro-plating and parlor tricks. Until the 1970s, there were only two primary classes of batteries: rechargeable lead-acid batteries and disposable dry cells. Lead-acid batteries handled the heavy work like starting cars and providing emergency lighting while dry cells were used for flashlights, toys and consumer goods, including the first portable radios and tape players.

In the mid-70s, maintenance free valve regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries were introduced and rapidly became the dominant automotive technology. They worked so well in fact that most battery manufacturers cut their R&D budgets to the bone because VRLA batteries performed well and a complacent auto industry saw no reason to pay premium prices to fund further research. While there was some progress on deep-cycle batteries for golf carts, forklifts and industrial systems, R&D in the lead-acid sector essentially took a 25-year siesta as electrochemistry became passé and college students gravitated toward more exciting, glamorous and rewarding careers in electronics, communications and information technology.

Over the last few years, rapidly evolving bulk energy storage needs have sparked a new wave of lead-acid research that uses modern materials and manufacturing methods to improve and revitalize an old-line chemistry. The results have been almost magical and an entirely new generation of advanced lead acid and lead carbon batteries is in the final stages of pre-commercial development. These products are not widely available yet, but the new generation of batteries promise extraordinary performance at a lead-acid price, which once again proves the ancient wisdom that with time, everything old is new again.

The late 70s were a time of sweeping change as electronics manufacturers shifted their focus from toys, radios and tape players to productivity tools. The introduction of business tools like electronic calculators and the pagers, computers and telephones that quickly followed, drove the development of compact and light-weight rechargeable battery chemistries including nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd) nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) and lithium ion (Li-ion). Since buyers of portable electronics invariably viewed run time between charges as a critical performance metric, R&D spending on these technologies soared and continues to this day.

Until recently, rechargeable batteries were not something the average consumer would think of as a discrete product class. Instead, they were relatively inexpensive components in high-end consumer durables like cars and electronics. In automobiles, batteries typically represent less than 1% of total product cost and in electronics it is rare for batteries to represent more than 5% of product cost. This historically low ratio of battery cost to total product cost resulted in a market dynamic where the auto industry could afford to be complacent, while electronics manufacturers were willing to pay huge premiums for modest improvements in battery performance. Both approaches were sensible in an earlier epoch, but neither has any utility in the emerging world of cleantech.

Where batteries were once viewed as low-cost components in expensive products, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction with a vengeance as the ratio of battery cost to total product cost escalates to the point where the batteries represent up to 20% of the cost of an HEV, up to 50% of the cost of an EV and over 90% of the cost of a grid-based system.

Unfortunately, most batteries are simply too expensive for the jobs people want them to do. As thought-leaders, policymakers, manufacturers and consumers come to grips with the cruel and inflexible economic realities, cost accountants and industrial engineers will end up making the hard buying decisions and the opinions of futurists, scientists, techno-geeks and bloggers like me will become increasingly irrelevant. In the end, the only thing that will matter is a rigorous and comprehensive cost benefit analysis for each new energy storage application.

A couple days before Christmas, I published “Alternative Energy Storage Needs to Take Baby Steps Before It Can Run,” an article that was selected as an Editor’s Pick at Seeking Alpha and included cost data from a July 2008 Sandia National Laboratories report on its Solar Energy Grid Integration Systems – Energy Storage program. While the Sandia report focused on the current and projected capital costs of energy storage for solar power installations, the basic cost structure applies to the entire spectrum of energy storage applications. Several Li-FePO4 advocates promptly pointed me to Chinese Internet sites to support their arguments that Sandia's cost estimates are wrong, but I've found the Sandia estimates consistent with available industry cost data and believe they provide a reasonable basis for investment decisions. The Sandia capital cost estimates are set forth in the following table:

Technology Current Cost ($/kWh) 10-yr Projected Cost ($/kWh)
Flooded Lead-acid Batteries $150 $150
Sealed Lead-acid Batteries $200 $200
Low-speed Flywheel $380 $300
Na-S Batteries $450 $350
Asymmetric Lead-carbon Hybrid $500 <$250
Zn-Br Batteries $500 $250/kWh + $300/kW
Ni-Cd Batteries $600 $600
Zebra Na-NiCl Batteries $800 $150
Ni-MH Batteries $800 $350
Li-ion Batteries $1,333 $780
Vanadium Redox Batteries 20 kWh=$1,800/kWh
100 kWh =$600/kWh
25 kWh=$1,200/kWh
100 kWh=$500/kWh
High-speed Flywheel $1,000 $800

With the basic cost structure firmly established from reliable sources, it’s probably worthwhile to revisit some cherished mythologies and incontrovertible realities that I assembled from eight months of reader comments and discussed at length in an article on the importance of rebuilding America’s domestic battery infrastructure.

Cherished Mythology Lead-acid batteries are environmental hazards.

Incontrovertible Reality With recycling rates approaching 99%, lead-acid batteries are the most highly recycled product on the planet and substantially all of the materials recovered through recycling can be used to make new batteries. Neither NiMH nor Li-ion chemistries can even come close to matching the natural resource efficiency and environmental safety of lead-acid batteries.

Cherished Mythology Li-ion batteries are one-quarter of the weight of their lead-acid counterparts.

Incontrovertible Reality The relentless but frequently unsuccessful quest for product safety has doubled the weight of Li-ion batteries. So while the explosive Li-ion chemistries have four times the energy density of lead-acid batteries, the safe Li-ion chemistries only cut the weight in half. In either event it’s silly to fret about battery weight in the context of a 3,000-pound car or a stationary power storage installation.

Cherished Mythology NiMH and Li-ion batteries have more power than lead-acid batteries.

Incontrovertible Reality The recent development of asymmetric lead-carbon hybrids has improved the power profile of advanced lead-acid batteries to competitive levels at a fraction of the cost.

Cherished Mythology NiMH and Li-ion batteries have far longer cycle-lives than lead-acid batteries.

Incontrovertible Reality The recent development of asymmetric lead-carbon hybrids has improved the cycle-life of advanced lead-acid batteries to competitive levels at a fraction of the cost.

Cherished Mythology NiMH and Li-ion batteries will improve as the technology matures.

Incontrovertible Reality NiMH and Li-ion batteries are already fully mature technologies. Substantially all of the recent advances in Li-ion technology are like changing a carrot cake recipe; call it what you will, but it's still a carrot cake when it comes out of the oven. There have been big safety gains from new flavors of Li-ion chemistry, but those gains have always come at the cost of reduced energy density.

Cherished Mythology Li-ion batteries are an ideal solution for most energy storage problems.

Incontrovertible Reality Li-ion batteries are the best solution for small format energy storage needs including cellular phones, power tools and portable computers. They also have significant potential for use in electric bicycles and hybrid scooters. Their cost effectiveness plummets when the battery pack is bigger than a breadbox. Even if Li-ion batteries could be cost effective in power-hungry applications like EVs and stationary applications, sound economics and rational industrial policies will always favor the manufacture and sale of 5,000,000 cell phones or 500,000 laptops over exporting the same batteries to power 1,000 EVs.

Cherished Mythology Plug-in electric vehicles provide a cost-effective path to a clean energy future.

Incontrovertible Reality Plug-in electric vehicles provide dramatic PR sound bites for politicians, car companies and environmentalists, but even the auto executives are quick to acknowledge that pure electric vehicles cannot be paying propositions for the average consumer until gas prices are far higher than they have ever been.

Cherished Mythology NiMH and Li-ion batteries will get cheaper as demand increases.

Incontrovertible Reality Roughly 75% of the cost of any battery is raw materials and NiMH and Li-ion batteries have been mainline industrial products for almost 20 years. The bulk of the potential manufacturing cost savings have already been achieved and the only way battery prices can fall dramatically is if massive new supplies of raw materials become available at bargain basement prices.

At the dawn of the cleantech revolution, the financial sector is in shambles and the Obama administration has thrown down the gauntlet on healthcare spending. While I have every confidence that the banks and insurance companies will heal with time, I also believe that margins in healthcare will be pressured for the foreseeable future.

So the only investable long-term trend that I see in the current economic and political environment is alternative energy. In the alternative energy sector, the fundamental enabling technologies are transmission, distribution and storage. Each of these sub-sectors is essential, each is a target rich environment for investors and each will be a major recipient of long-term government support. Since accepted market wisdom holds that you should never fight the Fed, I think the policy clues for investors are crystal clear.

I can identify a dozen pure play public companies that have the potential to make a real difference in America’s energy storage future. Since I’ve made my personal opinions clear in earlier articles, I won’t bother re-plowing that ground today. However I encourage readers to study each of the principal market participants, consider where their existing and proposed products will mesh with the needs of the coming cleantech revolution, and consider who the likely buyers of their existing and proposed products will be. The short list of pure play public companies includes:

Name Trading Symbol Product Class Product Status
Active Power ACPW Low-speed flywheels Manufacturing
Altair Nanotechnologies ALTI Li-titanate batteries Demonstration
Axion Power International AXPW.OB Lead-carbon batteries Demonstration
Beacon Power BCON High-speed flywheels Demonstration
C&D Technologies CHP Lead-acid batteries Manufacturing
Enersys ENS Diversified batteries Manufacturing
Ener1 HEV Li-titanate batteries Demonstration
Maxwell Technologies MXWL Ultracapacitators Manufacturing
Ultralife Batteries ULBI Diversified batteries Manufacturing
Valence Technologies VLNC Li-phosphate batteries Manufacturing
Exide Technologies XIDE Lead-acid batteries Manufacturing
ZBB Energy ZBB Zinc-bromine batteries Demonstration

The following comes from the 2010 budget proposal for the DOE. For the sake of clarity I've edited the paragraph to use numbered subparagraphs, but made no other changes.

"The Budget provides support for the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy reliability as part of the President’s investment plan to modernize the Nation’s electric grid. It includes:

1. energy storage;
2. cyber-security and investments in research, the development and demonstration of smart grid technologies that will accelerate the transformation of the Nation’s energy transmission and distribution system;
3. enhancement of security and reliability of energy infrastructure; and
4. facilitating recovery from disruptions to the energy supply."

As a student I strove for the extreme right hand tail of the bell shaped curve. As a businessman, I’m delighted to sacrifice the extremes on both ends of the curve because the bulk of the revenue will go to the company that best serves the needs of the guys in the middle.

Disclosure: Author holds a large long position in Axion Power International (NASDAQ:AXPW) and small long positions in Active Power (NASDAQ:ACPW), Exide (XIDE), Enersys (NYSE:ENS) and ZBB Energy (ZBB).