Gaining Perspective on Electric Vehicles and the Natural Resource Cliff

by: John Petersen

We all love to whine and complain about oil prices because we buy gasoline regularly and that makes the price changes obvious. To solve this overwhelming problem, myopic visionaries with rose colored glasses propose a simple solution – convert personal transportation from vehicles powered by oil to vehicles powered by clean, free and renewable electricity from the wind and sun. Like most fairy tales, it can't happen in real life, which means it won't. This is not a technology issue. It's a raw materials issue and electric vehicles cannot solve the problem.

In the first three quarters of 2010, the world produced an average of 86 million barrels of crude oil per day. That works out to 0.65 metric tons, or 200 gallons per year, for each of the planet's 6.6 billion inhabitants. There's no doubt about it, oil is a scarce resource – at least until you compare it with metals that are two to five orders of magnitude scarcer. To put oil in its proper perspective, the following table summarizes global production data for several critical natural resources.

Natural Global Production Per Capita
Resource (Metric Tons) Production
Crude Oil 4,282,736,000 648.9 kg
Iron & Steel 2,400,000,000 363.6 kg
Aluminum 41,400,000 6.3 kg
Copper 16,200,000 2.4 kg
Lead 4,100,000 0.7 kg
Nickel 1,550,000 0.2 kg
Rare Earths 130,000 20 g
Lithium 25,300 4 g

For every thousand pounds of global oil production, we produce ten pounds of aluminum, four pounds of copper, one pound of lead, six ounces of nickel, a half-ounce of rare earth metals and a tenth of an ounce of lithium. No thoughtful investor can compare per capita production of oil and essential metals and rationally conclude that we can increase metal consumption in the name of conserving oil. The resource sophistry can't work in anything beyond technical puppet shows for lazy, impressionable or childish minds.

To make matters worse, metal prices are anything but stable. We ignore changes in metal prices because they're usually buried in the cost of other products. That doesn't mean that metals are a bargain compared to oil or that their prices are any more stable. The following graph tracks market prices for oil and three of our most important metals over the last 20 years. The trend lines are remarkably similar.

2.6.11 Commodity Prices.png

If we even try to significantly increase metal consumption in an effort to conserve oil, the inevitable supply and demand imbalances will quickly eliminate any advantage and simply make the situation worse. In the final analysis, any energy policy or business model that increases metal consumption in an effort to conserve oil must fail. We've already seen the disastrous results of using food to make ethanol for fuel. There will be blood if we follow the same foolish path with metals.

I am a relentless and unrepentant critic of plug-in vehicle hype and propaganda because any plan to use hundreds of pounds of metal to replace a fuel tank must fail. There aren't enough metals in the world to make a dent in global oil consumption and using scarce metal resources to make non-recyclable components like batteries and motors for plug-in vehicles can only make the problem worse. It's sabotage masquerading as a solution.

The only transportation technologies that stand a chance of survival in a resource-constrained world are those that use tiny amounts of metals to conserve large amounts of oil. Electric two-wheeled vehicles work as long as the empty vehicle weight is less than twice the passenger weight. For automobiles, resource effective technologies range from simple stop-start idle elimination at the low end to Prius class HEVs at the high end, although even these technologies can be marginal if the primary components are not easily recycled. The instant you add a plug the resource balance goes to hell in a handbag along with the investment potential.

All the political will, good intentions and happy-talk forecasts in the world cannot change the ugly facts. We’re driving toward a natural resource cliff at 120 mph and fiddling with the dials on the navigation system.

With the exception of Advanced Battery Technologies (OTCPK:ABAT) and Kandi Technologies (NASDAQ:KNDI), which have the common sense to focus on entry-level two- and four-wheeled electric vehicles with minimal natural resource inputs, the entire electric vehicle sector is a bug in search of a windshield. It doesn't matter how cool the products are if there will never be enough affordable raw materials to make them in meaningful volume.

Several companies that I follow have no chance of survival when their business models are analyzed from a resource sustainability perspective. The list includes Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), Ener1 (NASDAQ:HEV), A123 Systems (AONE), Valence Technologies (VLNC) and Altair Nanotechnologies (NASDAQ:ALTI). In each case their products have extreme natural resource requirements and little or no end-of-life recycling value. They will compound our problems, not solve them.

Several other companies that I follow have good resource sustainability profiles because their products can make major contributions to oil conservation without putting undue strain on global metal production. My list of sustainable companies includes Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI). Enersys (NYSE:ENS), Exide Technologies (XIDE), Beacon Power (BCON), ZBB Energy (ZBB) and Maxwell Technologies (NASDAQ:MXWL). In each case their products have moderate resource requirements and high end-of-life recycling value.

There is only one energy storage company that can offer better performance and lower resource requirements in the same product – Axion Power International (NASDAQ:AXPW). Its serially patented PbC battery technology uses 30% less lead than a conventional lead-acid battery, boosts cycle life and dynamic charge acceptance by an order of magnitude, and retains the recycling advantages of lead-acid batteries, the most recycled product in the world. The unique performance characteristics of the PbC technology are proven and the principal remaining risk is further refining fabrication equipment and processes for Axion's carbon electrode assemblies. When Axion's equipment, processes and products complete the final stages of validation testing by its principal potential customers, the technology can be easily ramped to a global footprint within a few years for a fraction of the cost of other emerging energy storage technologies.

Axion has never been a stock market darling because its management speaks in the past tense and focuses on challenges overcome, milestones passed and goals accomplished. As a result of its low key approach to the financial markets, Axion carries a $54 million market capitalization despite the fact that its disclosed industry and customer relationships include East Penn Manufacturing and Exide Technologies, the second and third largest lead-acid battery manufacturers in North America , Norfolk Southern (NYSE:NSC), the fourth largest railroad in North America and BMW, one of the most highly regarded automakers in the world. Any time a tiny company with a transition stage technology can quietly build relationships with several world-class companies, astute investors should pay attention.

Seven years ago I believed Axion had an honest shot at the big leagues. Today I think I may have set my sights too low. The progress I expect won't happen overnight, but it will happen long before we see a million plug-in vehicles on the road in the United States.

Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International and has a substantial long position in its common stock.