For the last three weeks I've been writing about why rising oil prices, tightened CO2 emission standards in Europe and accelerated CAFE standards in the U.S. will combine to foster rapid implementation of hybrid electric vehicle [HEV] technology in the automotive industry and result in huge revenue increases for all automotive battery manufacturers. These articles have generated record numbers of comments and questions from readers that want a clearer understanding of what the rapidly changing demand picture means for battery investors.
While I generally try to avoid revenue forecasts because they require pricing assumptions that can be fertile ground for nit picking, I'll ask readers to bear with me because the conclusion does not depend on the initial assumptions. The bulk of the hard market data I've used in this article was graciously provided by Frost & Sullivan, a leading global consultancy and market research firm that provides best in class coverage of the energy and power systems markets.
So far, the one bright spot in the global recession has been savings at the gas pump. For every $1 decline in prevailing gas prices, nationwide spending on gasoline falls by $12 billion per month and those savings go directly to consumers. Unfortunately, the relief was short-lived and gas prices are once again rising. The following graph is based on historical oil price data downloaded from the DOE's Energy Information Administration. To give readers an idea of why I'm convinced that oil prices will stabilize around $80 over the next few months and be a primary market driver for the shift to HEVs, I've added a simple price channel overlay on the ten-year trend.
In The Obama Fast Track for HEVs, I explained that there are four basic types of HEVs:
- Micro-Hybrids stop the internal combustion engine ("ICE") when the car comes to a stop and restart the ICE on demand, but do not provide any acceleration boost to the powertrain;
- Mild Hybrids stop the ICE when the car comes to a stop, restart the ICE on demand and provide limited boost to the powertrain during acceleration;
- Full Hybrids stop the ICE when the car comes to a stop, launch the car from a stop in electric-only mode, restart the ICE when needed and provide a higher level of boost to the powertrain during acceleration; and
- Plug-in Hybrids will allow the car to operate in electric-only mode for up to 40 miles before starting an ICE to recharge the batteries.
I then explained how President Obama's decision to accelerate the effective date of Federal CAFE standards will require manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency by roughly 35% over the next seven years and eliminate fleet-wide averaging, thereby forcing each class of vehicles to carry its own weight. My conclusion was that while the accelerated CAFE rules were not an HEV mandate, they put HEVs on a regulatory fast track in the U.S.
In a follow-up article,Why Advanced Lead-Acid Batteries Will Dominate the HEV Markets, I drilled deeper into the economics of using various types of batteries in HEVs and explained how recent changes in European tailpipe CO2 emission standards would accelerate efforts to make micro-hybrid technology standard equipment. That article included the following graph from an October 2008 Frost & Sullivan presentation that explained their estimates of near-term growth in global HEV demand and showed how that growth would be divided up among micro, mild, full and plug-in hybrids.
Since the October 2008 Frost & Sullivan presentation focused on the impact of European CO2 emission standards and assumed that revised CAFE standards would not take effect until 2020, I believe global HEV demand during the forecast period will ramp up far faster than the growth rate reflected in the baseline estimates. For analytical purposes, Table 1 starts from an estimated base of 2 million units in 2009 and then increases production to 5 million units in 2010, 11 million units in 2012 and 20 million units in 2015. In order to put NiMH and Li-ion batteries in the best possible light, Table 1 uses the 2015 Frost & Sullivan market penetration percentages for all years.
|Table 1||Market||2010 Increment||2012 Increment||2015 Increment|
|Penetration||3 Million Units||9 Million Units||18 Million Units|
|Total HEV Demand||100%||3,000,000||9,000,000||18,000,000|
All currently available HEVs use beefed-up lead-acid batteries for their start-stop functions and NiMH batteries for their powertrain functions. Table 2 summarizes the incremental battery cost for each HEV type assuming a $150 premium for a more robust start-stop battery system and $800 per kWh for powertrain batteries, a value taken from the most recent DOE cost estimate for heavy-duty NiMH batteries.
|Batteries||Battery Capacity||Battery Cost||Batteries|
|Mild Hybrid||$150||0.75 kWh||$600||$750|
|Full Hybrid||$150||1.50 kWh||$1,200||$1,350|
|Plug-in Hybrid||-0-||1.00 kWh||$8,000||$8,000|
Table 3 summarizes the additional expected demand for lead-acid batteries for new HEVs assuming they will only be used for start-stop applications.
|Table 3 ||2010 Revenue||2012 Revenue||2015 Revenue|
Table 4 summarizes the additional expected demand for NiMH and Li-ion batteries for new HEVs assuming they will be used for all powertrain applications.
|Table 4 ||2010 Revenue||2012 Revenue||2015 Revenue|
|Mild Hybrid||$108||$ 324||$ 648|
While Tables 3 and 4 paint an optimistic demand scenario for all battery manufacturers, the unvarnished truth is that the incremental near-term demand for NiMH and Li-ion powertrain batteries cannot possibly be satisfied.
Battery manufacturing is capital intensive and it takes 3 to 4 years to build and equip a new NiMH or Li-ion battery plant. According to Frost & Sullivan, global sales of NiMH batteries for automotive powertrain applications were roughly $833 million in 2008. Of that total, $580 million (70%) represented batteries that Panasonic EV Energy, a Toyota (NYSE:TM) subsidiary, made for its parent. Frost & Sullivan has also reported that total global sales of Li-ion batteries were roughly $7 billion in 2008 and substantially all of those batteries were used in non-automotive products. Notwithstanding the flurry of recent press releases about planned battery plant construction in Asia, Europe and North America, those projects cannot be completed before 2011 or 2012 and meeting the incremental automotive powertrain battery production schedule in Table 4 would require manufacturers to build new factories that are equivalent to the world's entire NiMH battery manufacturing capacity every year for the next six years.
Battery manufacturing is also raw material intensive and according to metal mining and natural resource development expert Jack Lifton there are critical production constraints on both the lanthanum that is essential for NiMH batteries and the lithium that is essential for Li-ion batteries. While supplies of both of these metals can be increased over time if enough development capital is available to mine owners, the average lead-time to expand an existing mine or bring a new mine into production is on the order of 5 to 7 years. So even if the battery manufacturing plants could be built fast enough to satisfy the anticipated near-term incremental demand for HEV batteries, the miners can't increase lanthanum and lithium production fast enough.
Automobile manufacturing is a tough business and many product development decisions are driven by legal requirements, supply chain needs and cost considerations that often transcend engineering preferences. The undeniable facts that the auto industry is being forced to come to grips with today are:
- Strict C02 tailpipe emission standards have already been adopted in Europe and must be met by 2012;
- Accelerated CAFE standards have already been adopted in the US and must be met by 2016;
- NiMH battery production cannot increase fast enough to satisfy near-term increases in HEV demand;
- While validation tests are planned, Li-ion batteries cannot currently meet market standards for HEVs;
- Li-ion battery production cannot increase fast enough to satisfy near-term increases in HEV demand;
- Lanthanum production cannot increase fast enough to satisfy near-term increases in HEV demand;
- Lithium production cannot increase fast enough to satisfy near-term increases in HEV demand; and
- Since it will be impossible to manufacture enough NiMH or Li-ion batteries to meet the regulatory deadlines, the only alternative is less expensive and more readily available lead-based batteries.
Given the crushing manufacturing capacity and material supply constraints that face both NiMH and Li-ion batteries, I believe it is virtually certain that lead-acid and lead-carbon batteries will be used as substitutes for the NiMH and Li-ion batteries that cannot be manufactured at any price. Under the circumstances, I cannot imagine a near-term future where the incremental revenue to lead-acid and lead-carbon battery manufacturers will be less than the incremental revenue to NiMH and Li-ion battery manufacturers.
I don't foresee a time in the near-term future when lead-acid batteries will supplant NiMH and Li-ion batteries in the hearts of scientists and engineers. I also believe that NiMH and Li-ion batteries are likely to retain their current status as the preferred solution for plug-in hybrids. Nevertheless, in a supply constrained environment like the one we will have to deal with for the next 5 to 7 years, automakers will make the difficult choices, use expensive NiMH and Li-ion batteries for their high value products and use cheaper lead-acid and lead-carbon batteries for their budget priced products.
As I discussed in Why Lead-Acid Batteries Will Dominate the HEV Market, the weight advantage of NiMH and Li-ion batteries in micro, mild and full hybrids is less than 75 pounds and the space savings is less than a cubic foot. While automakers pay a lot of attention to weight and space, these savings are insignificant in the context of a 3,000-pound car.
Overcoming an entrenched competitor like NiMH batteries is difficult and without looming supply constraints it would be difficult if not impossible for lead-based batteries to make inroads into the mild and full HEV markets. For the next few years, however, automakers will be forced to use lead-based batteries because there are no alternatives. My fondest hope is that after the industry has accumulated several years of experience with using lead-based batteries in budget priced HEVs, they'll conclude that the added cost of NiMH or Li-ion batteries is not justified. But even if they conclude otherwise, the benefit of using lead-based batteries as a bridge while Li-ion batteries complete the development process I described in Understanding the Development Path for Li-ion Battery Technologies is substantial.
In his book The Lost Constitution William Martin wrote, "In America we wake up in the morning, we go to work and we solve our problems." We use the tools that are readily available to us and we remain willing to adopt newer and better tools when they become readily available at reasonable prices. Sometimes, however, we give the new tools a try and then decide that the old tools are better for the job at hand. That's the way free markets work.
For most Americans and Europeans the word "shortage" has little personal meaning because we've always been able to buy the goods and services we wanted as long as we were willing to pay the price. For the first time, American and European car buyers will have to accept the fact that some HEV battery options are not going to be available at any price. It will come as a shock to many, but it will also be an increasingly common reality in a resource constrained world where 6 billion people want to earn their share of the lifestyle that 500 million of us have and take for granted.
Welcome to the age of cleantech, the sixth industrial revolution.
Fund managers are beginning to recognize the telltale signs of bubble pricing in the Li-ion battery stocks that I've been writing about for almost a year. Moreover, skeptical reports on the near-term potential of Li-ion battery developers are beginning to find their way into the mainstream financial press. The market has not yet come to grips with the inescapable conclusion that the lion's share of the revenue gains from the HEV revolution will flow to companies like Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI), Enersys (NYSE:ENS), Exide (XIDE) and C&D Technologies (CHP) that have substantial existing manufacturing capacity in both Europe and the U.S., and from technology driven newcomers like Axion Power International (NASDAQ:AXPW) that can rapidly and inexpensively expand their production capacity to satisfy soaring demand from the HEV market. The window of opportunity is closing rapidly.
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).