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In 1789 Benjamin Franklin wrote "in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." Today he probably would have written "in this world nothing is certain but death, taxes and rising oil prices." There's no escaping the misery, but astute investors who take the time to understand the fundamental trends can profit as the misery unfolds. For the short term, I'm convinced the biggest opportunities will be in fuel efficiency technologies for cars and light trucks.

After 20 years of complacent stagnation, the US started to get serious about light-duty vehicle fuel efficiency in 2005 and has made solid progress with improvements in the 14% to 18% range. The rate of change will ramp rapidly over the next five years as aggressive new CAFE standards that were adopted in April 2010, take effect. The following graph provides an at a glance summary of new light-duty vehicle fuel efficiency over the last 30 years and new fuel efficiency standards for the next five years.

2.23.11 Fuel Efficiency.png

(Click charts to enlarge)

In their 2010 adopting release for the new CAFE rules, the NHTSA and EPA identified three fuel efficiency technologies that would play crucial roles in automakers' efforts to meet the new standards (page 484):

Efficiency Technology Fuel Savings Penetration
Gasoline direct fuel injection 4% 60%
Dual clutch transmissions 7% 55%
Stop-start idle elimination 8% 42%


The usual diversified group of first tier manufacturers of automobiles and component systems will control two of the three technologies. Only one, stop-start idle elimination, offers a pure-play opportunity with a certain outcome.

Stop-start is the most sensible fuel efficiency technology you can imagine – turn off the engine while the car is stopped in traffic. While the concept is simple, implementation is a beast because drivers typically want their sound systems, climate control, lights and other accessories to keep working when the engine is off. Therefore, the key enabling technology for start-stop systems is a better starter battery.

Traditionally, a battery had to start a car once during a normal trip. With a stop-start system, however, the battery has to start the engine an average of once per mile and carry critical accessory loads while the engine is off. For a one-minute engine-off cycle, the accessories will demand ten times as much energy as the starter. For a 15-mile commute with one engine-off cycle per mile, the battery will have to deliver 165 times the energy that it would in a car without stop-start. The battery load is immense, but an optimized stop-start system can slash fuel consumption in city driving by up to 15% and do it for an incremental capital investment in the $400 to $800 range.

The normal flooded lead-acid batteries we've used for decades simply can't stand up to the demands of stop-start systems. That reality has forced automakers to rely on cut-out systems that disable the stop-start function when the battery's state of charge falls below a minimum level, and won't re-enable the stop-start function until the battery recovers an acceptable state of charge. The result is stop-start systems that don't function anywhere near peak efficiency. To minimize problems, automakers are currently using dual battery systems and upgrading to absorbed glass mat, or AGM, batteries.

In recognition of the shortcomings of flooded batteries, the leading battery manufacturers are building new AGM battery production capacity at a blistering pace. In 2007, Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI), the world's biggest battery manufacturer, had global production capacity for 400,000 AGM batteries per year. Its announced expansion projects will boost that capacity to 11.2 million AGM batteries per year by 2014 and further expansions in the US are being discussed. Exide Technologies (XIDE) is also on an expansion spree that will boost its AGM battery capacity from 500,000 units in 2009 to 3.5 million units in 2013. On a worldwide basis, Lux Research forecasts that AGM battery demand will soar by 800% over the next five years, from three million units in 2010 to 27 million units in 2015. As they substitute higher margin AGM batteries for lower margin flooded batteries, the revenues and margins of leading battery manufacturers including JCI, Exide and to a lesser extent Enersys (NYSE:ENS) will soar. Stock prices will follow suit.

While AGM batteries are currently the best available technology for stop-start systems, they are far from ideal because their ability to recover an optimal state of charge deteriorates rapidly as the battery ages. Using simulation protocols from BMW (OTCPK:BAMXY) and Ford (NYSE:F), researchers have learned that the time required for an AGM battery to recover from an engine-off event increases from 50 to 60 seconds with a new battery to 4 or 5 minutes with a battery that's been in service for six months. The bottom line is automakers need a better solution than AGM batteries. Until a better solution comes along, however, the AGM battery will reign supreme as the battery of choice for the stop-start market.

The two principal contenders for "better solution" honors are:

  • A multi-component system from Continental AG and Maxwell Technologies (NASDAQ:MXWL) that combines an AGM battery, a small supercapacitor module and associated control electronics in a system that eliminates the voltage drops and black screens that commonly occur when the starter engages at the end of an engine-off cycle; and
  • The third generation lead-carbon battery from Axion Power International (OTCQB:AXPW) that replaces the lead-based negative electrode in a conventional AGM battery with a carbon electrode assembly that boosts cycle life by 400% and provides consistent charge recovery times of about 35 seconds through four years of simulated use.

The Maxwell - Continental system is available now and was recently selected by PSA Peugeot (OTCPK:PEUGY) Citroën for use in Citroën C4 and C5 diesels featuring PSA's e-HDi second generation micro hybrid system. With an estimated three-year value in the $50 million range, this design win should provide a significant boost for Maxwell's top-line revenue. Despite its advantages, however, the Maxwell - Continental system is not an ideal solution because the supercapacitor can slow but it can't stop the deterioration of the AGM battery it's paired with. So over time, vehicles equipped with the Maxwell-Continental system will suffer the same kind of performance degradation that all other stop-start systems exhibit.

The most promising solution to the challenges of stop-start, the PbC® battery from Axion (OTCQB:AXPW), is in the final development stages and won't be ready for a large-scale commercial rollout until 2012. Axion is currently installing a second-generation fabrication line for their serially patented carbon electrode assemblies and potential customers should begin validation testing on the new fabrication processes and equipment soon. Once its potential customers validate the fabrication process, the last major step will be to build additional electrode fabrication capacity so that Axion can manufacture PbC batteries on its own AGM battery line and sell electrode assemblies to other AGM manufacturers. Since the PbC electrodes are designed to work as plug-and-play replacements for traditional lead-based electrodes, Axion should be uniquely positioned to leverage existing AGM battery manufacturing capacity while giving other battery manufacturers the opportunity to sell a premium product to their existing customers.

While the PbC battery is still a development stage technology and Axion is just barely out of the nano-cap range with a $60 million market capitalization, its roster of disclosed industry relationships is extraordinary. Axion has longstanding relationships with both East Penn Manufacturing and Exide, the second and third largest AGM battery manufacturers in North America; it has a service contract to develop a battery management system for Norfolk Southern (NYSE:NSC), which wants to retrofit a portion of its 3,500 unit locomotive fleet with hybrid drive; and the PbC battery has demonstrated exceptional performance during 18 months of testing by BMW, the industry leader in stop-start with over a million EfficientDynamics vehicles on the road today. In over 30 years as a small company securities lawyer, I've never seen another company that was able to generate a comparable level of interest and involvement from the giants in its industry.

The energy storage sector offers a wide range of fuel efficiency pure plays. The following table provides summary data on key financial (in millions) and market metrics that I consider important. While JCI is not technically an energy storage pure play because of its diversified operations in auto parts and building efficiency, I've included it in this list because 14.6% of its revenues and 52.5% its earnings are derived from battery manufacturing operations.

2.23.11 Market Metrics.png

While I closely follow the energy storage and vehicle electrification sectors and am convinced that every manufacturer who can bring a cost-effective product to market will have more demand than it can handle, these five companies have the clearest paths to market beating growth over the next five years and are my favorites for that reason. JCI, Enersys, Exide and Maxwell have been stellar performers since December 31, 2008, with market crushing gains of 126% to 264%. Axion has been the laggard of the group, losing 39% of its market value, it raised new capital in a brutal market and worked to complete the development of its promising PbC technology and start climbing out of the valley of death. For the next few years, I expect the entire group to outperform the market by a wide margin because the die is already cast.

Fuel efficiency has been a hot topic in the automotive world for the last five years and new regulations in the US and EU will provide a massive impetus for immediate change. Increasing political turmoil in oil producing regions can only add to the sense of urgency. There is a wide variety of potential long-term solutions, but short-term solutions to immediate problems are very limited. For the next five years, stop-start will be at or near the top of the list.

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

Source: Just One Sector: Fuel Efficiency Pure Plays