White House Report: GM Volt Is Not Ready for Prime Time

by: John Petersen
In its March 30, 2009 summary determination that General Motors (NYSE:GM) had failed to propose a viable bankruptcy alternative, the President's auto industry task force said:
GM is at least one generation behind Toyota on advanced, “green” powertrain development. In an attempt to leapfrog Toyota, GM has devoted significant resources to the Chevy Volt. While the Volt holds promise, it is currently projected to be much more expensive than its gasoline-fueled peers and will likely need substantial reductions in manufacturing cost in order to become commercially viable.

This extraordinary conclusion has been public for weeks but I've not seen it reported by any mainstream media. I would have missed it entirely if Plug In America, an EV industry trade group, hadn't made a point of issuing a press release that was drawn to my attention by one of my readers. While the White House did not specifically lay the Volt's problems at the feet of the battery industry, Plug in America did. In their refutation of the auto industry task force report, Plug in America said:

California law requires that the Volt and other plug-in hybrids come with a 10-year warranty. To ensure this longer life, automakers are as much as doubling the size of the battery pack, increasing cost to manufacturer and consumer. But not a single production plug-in electric vehicle sold to date, from GM’s early EV1 to today’s Tesla, has had a warranty of more than five years, noted Plug In America advisory board member Chelsea Sexton.

“To support early deployment, California should relax the warranty requirement for cars like the Volt to five years, phasing to 10 years over time,” said Sexton, a former GM employee. “This alone could cut the number of batteries required by as much as half and reduce the cost of each vehicle by thousands of dollars."

The warranty reduction would not impose added liability on GM or consumers, Sexton noted, because President Obama has said the federal government will guarantee the warranties of GM and Chrysler vehicles should they go bankrupt. And dealers can sell extended warranties, providing additional security for consumers who want it as well as revenue when auto companies need it most.

In January 2009 the DOE released its 2008 Annual Progress Report for the Energy Storage Research and Development Vehicle Technologies Program that concluded Li-ion batteries were not ready for prime time in PHEV and EV applications. In March 2009 the President's auto industry task force issued a report that the GM Volt, the first Li-ion powered PHEV proposed by a major manufacturer, was not ready for prime time.

Is anybody out there listening to the facts or are the PR jungle drums from a few undercapitalized Li-ion battery developers simply drowning out the voice of reason and prudence?

Cheap Li-manganese batteries from LG-Chem and $7,500 in Federal Tax Credits are not enough to make the Chevy Volt commercially viable. Comparable batteries from Ener1 (HEV) were not enough to keep Th!nk out of fiscal reorganization in Norway. More expensive Li-phosphate batteries from A123 Systems are unlikely to keep Chrysler out of bankruptcy. While Li-phosphate batteries from Valence Technology (VLNC) and comparably priced Li-titanate batteries from Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI) are being tested in hybrid transit buses and other commercial vehicles that may put enough stress on the batteries to justify their high cost, none of the companies I criticized last July has demonstrated any ability to meet the challenge and do the heavy work of powering America's transportation future.

I love the Li-ion batteries in my laptop and cell phone and believe Li-ion is an excellent choice for applications like electric two-wheelers (E2W) and other vehicles where there is a rational relationship between vehicle weight and passenger weight. But it is high comedy to suggest that Li-ion batteries will ever be able to power 300 pounds of passengers and 3,000 pounds of steel for 40 or 50 miles at highway speed. It's like using 5,000 golden hamsters to pull a stagecoach when what you really need is a horse.

I've been rational, analytical, courteous and engaging for the last ten months, but it's high time for somebody to stand up and call bullshit on the shameless Li-ion hucksters who have nothing to offer but happy-talk forecasts and hype! It's also high time for taxpayers to stand up and say "Not with my money you don't!"

America's leading Li-ion battery developers including Altair Nanotechnologies, Ener1 and Valence had combined losses of $93 million on $42 million of 2008 sales, yet they sport a combined market capitalization of $1 billion. In comparison, America's leading lead-acid battery manufacturers including Axion Power (AXPW.OB), C&D Technologies (CHP), Enersys (ENS) and Exide (XIDE) carry a comparable combined market capitalization even though they had combined profits of $140 million on $6.2 billion of 2008 sales.

Something is dreadfully wrong with this picture. Summary data for each company follows.

Per Share
Mkt Cap
Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. ALTI $1.29 $120 $6 ($29)
Valence Technology Inc. VLNC $2.22 $273 $29 ($21)
Ener1 Inc HEV $5.40 $613 $7 ($43)
$1,005 $42 ($93)
Axion Power AXPW.OB $1.40 $49 $1 ($11)
C&D Technologies CHP $2.10 $55 $375 ($8)
Exide Technologies XIDE $4.66 $352 $3,698 $58
Enersys ENS $13.96 $670 $2,162 $101
$1,126 $6,236 $151

For months my message to storage sector investors has been simple: the energy storage sector will ride the crest of an investment tsunami as we enter the cleantech revolution, but cleantech is all about price vs. performance and there is no room for irrational expectations. The DOE has said the same thing and now the President's auto industry task force has joined the chorus. Lithium dreams have become an investor's worst nightmare. It's time to wake up and smell the coffee, go to work and solve our problems to the best of our ability with cost-effective technical solutions like compressed natural gas and advanced lead-acid and lead carbon batteries.

The airbrushed Li-ion centerfolds may have serious investment merit in the future, particularly if somebody in the EV world develops a product that is proud to be an EV instead of pretending to offer the functionality of a family car. But that day is not today and investors need to stop deluding themselves. Cool technology that cannot provide a cost effective solution to real world problems has all the nutritional value of rainbow stew. So let's stop wasting time and money on feel-good solutions that cannot work and get to work solving the problems with readily available and cost effective technologies.

Disclosure: Author is a former director and executive officer of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and holds a large long position in its stock. He also holds small long positions in Exide (XIDE) and Enersys (ENS).