Battery Investing for Beginners, Part 4

by: John Petersen

In "The Sixth Revolution: The Coming of Cleantech (.pdf)," Merill Lynch strategist Steven Milunovich heralded cleantech as a new investment theme and forecast a period of gut wrenching change followed by an age of plenty. A few days later venture capital icon Vinod Khosla warned his audience “500 million people on earth enjoy a lifestyle that 9 billion people will want in 2050.” The differences between these two informed viewpoints are more than a little stark, but they highlight a frightening truth about cleantech: for the first time in human history the fundamental drivers of a technological revolution are constraints rather than opportunities. In this final installment of my series on battery investing for beginners, I want to explain why cost considerations and the transitory nature of government policies should temper the optimism of energy storage investors.

Warren Buffett advocates investing in companies you understand, companies that that sell products and services you know, trust and use. Unfortunately, that advice is almost impossible to follow in cleantech because most of the players are new, few can point to a long and successful operating history and the principal disclosures investors rely on are forward-looking statements from people that are trying to build a company in an emerging industry; people who are by nature optimists. Any time you put an optimist's forward-looking perspective into the hands of an optimistic reader, the only possible outcome is optimism squared and that's a dangerous equation.

In 1999, Toyota (TM) introduced a radical concept called the Prius, a hybrid electric vehicle, or HEV, that used recuperative braking, stop-start idle elimination, electric only launch and electric boost to reduce energy waste and slash fuel consumption by roughly 40%. Over the last 10 years, the Prius has progressed from an eco-bling status symbol to a mass-market product. In the process it won the loyalty of consumers and forced other automakers to develop competitive vehicles. The following 10-year graph of domestic HEV sales comes from and shows how unit sales and product offerings ramped up over time.

US hybrid market historical sales (1999 – 2009)
Hybrid Sales.gifClick to enlarge
This chart shows a normal market for an innovative product that evolved organically in response to consumer demand. If not for the current recession, it's easy to see how HEV sales could easily have been in the 500,000 to 700,000 vehicles per year range by now. The HEV is a winning concept that can only get more popular as the base of satisfied customers broadens and gasoline prices rise.

The unspoken truth about PHEVs and EVs is that the fundamental driver for change is government compulsion, not customer demand. The automakers know that they can't possibly meet new U.S. CAFE standards and European CO2 emission standards without including a high percentage of HEVs or a more modest percentage of PHEVs and EVs in their sales forecasts. The government's theory seems to be "if you build it they will come." While there is a high degree of automaker skepticism over whether the average consumer can or will pay an 80% to 100% premium for a PHEV or EV, the automakers all know that if they spend the money to build and introduce PHEVs and EVs and consumers refuse to buy, they'll have the perfect cover when the regulators come calling. Greenwash is expensive, but it's not as costly as being excluded from major markets or finding another line of business.

The hard question I think investors need to ask themselves is, "do you plan to spend at least $40,000 to buy yourself a PHEV or EV?" Unless your answer is an enthusiastic yes, you need to question whether investing in a battery company that has tied its future to the success of PHEVs and EVs makes sense.

My favorite part of the blogging experience is the lengthy debates I get into with informed and opinionated readers. They add a depth and balance I could never achieve on my own. They also provide wonderful insights into what people believe the future holds. The following is a compendium of a few cherished mythologies and incontrovertible realities that I’ve seen time after time in reader comments.

Cherished Mythology lithium-ion batteries are expensive today but they'll get cheaper with economies of scale.

Incontrovertible Reality The lithium-ion battery industry already sells $7 billion of products annually and big companies like Sony (NYSE:SNE), Sanyo (OTC:SANYY), Panasonic (PC), LG Chem, Toshiba (OTCPK:TOSBF) and Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI) have done a great job of optimizing their production economies. According to a presentation by RolandBerger Strategy Consultants at last month's Frankfurt Auto Show, between 65% and 75% of the manufacturing cost for lithium-ion batteries represents the purchase price of raw materials and another 20% to 30% represents the cost of increasingly sophisticated and expensive equipment and factories. The balance goes for energy, labor and overhead. The only factors that can reasonably be expected to significantly reduce costs are generational improvements in battery chemistry and manufacturing technology.

Cherished Mythology PHEVs and EVs have limited range for now, but they'll have more flexibility in the future.

Incontrovertible Reality A typical PHEV or EV will get about four miles of travel range for each kWh of useful battery capacity. A comparable car with an internal combusion engine would get at least 28 mpg. In a normal car the fuel tank is cheap and the fuel is expensive. In a PHEV or EV the dynamic is reversed and the battery pack is the functional equivalent of a fuel tank that costs $7,000 per gallon of capacity (28 mpg/4 miles per kWh @ $1,000 per kWh). Once you buy the tank, filling it is dirt-cheap. Under current economic conditions long-range PHEVs and EVs can never be cost effective and the only way to make the economics come close to working is to buy no more battery capacity than you plan to use every day.

Cherished Mythology PHEVs and EVs will help reduce America's dependence on imported oil.

Incontrovertible Reality A PHEV or EV will use 10 times the battery capacity of an HEV. If the batteries are used in one PHEV or EV, national gasoline consumption will fall by 400 gallons per year. If the batteries are used in 10 HEVs, national gasoline consumption will fall by 1,600 gallons per year. In truth, PHEVs and EVs will sabotage America's drive for energy independence instead of supporting it.

Cherished Mythology PHEVs and EVs will help reduce America's CO2 footprint.

Incontrovertible Reality A PHEV or EV will use 10 times the battery capacity of an HEV. If the batteries are used in one PHEV or EV, national CO2 emissions will decline by 190 grams per mile, or roughly 2.375 metric tons per year. If the batteries are used in 10 HEVs, national CO2 emissions will fall by 135 grams per mile, or roughly 16.875 metric tons per year. Until we stop generating electricity with coal, PHEVs and EVs will not significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

Cherished Mythology PHEVs and EVs will become a dominant automotive technology in the next decade.

Incontrovertible Reality In its 2009 Annual Energy Outlook, the DOE estimated that PHEVs and EVs would account for 1.26% of the new light duty vehicle sales in 2020 and grow to 2.28% by 2030. At the Frankfort Auto Show, Roland Berger Strategy Consultants forecast the following market penetration rates for the principal automotive powertrain technologies in 2020:

USA Europe Japan China
Internal combustion 23% 6% 17% 48%
Micro hybrid 51% 67% 60% 30%
Mild hybrid 5% 6% 9% 4%
Full hybrid 8% 1% 6% 2%
PHEV 9% 15% 4% 10%
EV 4% 5% 4% 6%
Click to enlarge

Cherished Mythology

Lithium-ion batteries will be needed for mild, micro and full hybrids.

Incontrovertible Reality Advanced lead-carbon batteries and systems that combine lead-acid batteries with supercapacitors are up to 75% cheaper than lithium-ion batteries and offer acceptable performance in the micro and mild hybrid vehicles that Roland Berger says will account for 56% of U.S. auto sales, 69% of Japanese auto sales and 73% of European auto sales in 2020. While lithium-ion batteries will undoubtedly be used in some luxury hybrid vehicles, they're not expected to be a major factor in the mass markets for affordable light duty vehicles.

Cherished Mythology

Revenues will ramp up rapidly for lithium-ion battery manufacturers over the next decade.

Incontrovertible Reality

There is no substantial unused lithium-ion battery manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world and future revenue growth will be directly tied to the construction of new factories that typically take three years to plan and build. The only energy storage device manufacturers that already have excess manufacturing capacity are in the lead-acid group. As a rule of thumb, lithium-ion battery manufacturers plan on $1 in capital spending for every $1 of incremental sales revenue. In comparison, lead-acid battery manufacturers generally plan on $1 in capital spending for every $3 to $5 of incremental sales revenue.

Cherished Mythology

New battery technologies will take revenue away from established manufacturers and hurt their bottom lines.

Incontrovertible Reality

History teaches that increased energy efficiency leads to increased energy consumption and new technology inevitably increases aggregate demand by facilitating the development of new applications that were impossible using old technology. For the foreseeable future, demand for all classes of energy storage devices will increase at rapid rates and the only losers will be companies that can't bring a competitive product to market.

Lithium-ion batteries are a very valuable technology and their future importance to the cleantech revolution cannot be overstated. Nevertheless we've all seen the disastrous consequences investors suffered from ill advised governmental policies to encourage the use of ethanol, the wonder fuel of the new millennium. In a slideshow presentation at a recent clean air conference one auto industry executive described government's "technology du jour syndrome" and offered the following table to prove his point.

25 years ago Methanol
15 years ago Electric vehicles
10 years ago HEVs and Electric vehicles
5 years ago Hydrogen Fuel Cells
2 years ago Ethanol
Today PHEVs and Electric vehicles
2011 What’s next?
Click to enlarge

It's enough to make you go Hmmm.

As a young lawyer in Houston, my first mentor taught me that you can describe every oil and gas deal with a venn diagram that consists of three concentric circles. The outer circle represents the seller's expectations, the middle circle represents the buyer's expectations, and the innermost circle represents the actual outcome. In the market for energy storage stocks I worry that the venn diagram is distorted because investor optimism exceeds industry expectations by a wide margin. These are conditions that can give birth to bubbles.

My favorite story of unbridled optimism begins with a straight-laced father who thinks his son is overly optimistic and decides to teach the boy a lesson by telling him that a load of manure is his birthday gift. The manure is delivered and dumped in the driveway and the father puts a big red bow on top of the pile. When the son gets home from school, he promptly dives headfirst into the manure pile and starts digging. When the surprised father asks "What's going on?" the boy promptly replies, "There has to be a pony in here somewhere!"

The good news is there are several workhorses in the pile. The bad news is that none of them are the pretty ponies that the government, the mainstream media and the environmental activists are praising with quasi-religious fervor. Unless investors are willing to spend a huge amount of time studying deathless tomes on energy storage, the only rational way to invest in the sector is through a diversified portfolio of cheap and cool stocks.

This will be my last blog for a week or so because I'm scheduled to give a luncheon speech at Sandia National Laboratories’ EESAT 2009 Conference in Seattle on Tuesday. In connection with the speech I'll have an opportunity to attend three days of high-level presentations on electrical energy storage applications and technologies. Hopefully I'll return with some new insights that can help make readers better investors.