Today is the third anniversary of my blog on investing in energy storage. While the last three years have been profoundly troubled by a market crash, a slow recovery and more ups and downs than a roller coaster, energy storage has been surging to prominence as investors realize that batteries, products we all love to hate, are a critical enabling technology for wind and solar power, efficient transportation, the smart grid and hundreds of other applications that make life more pleasant. With each passing day it's increasingly clear that energy storage is an investment mega-trend that will endure for decades. Most of the smart money is still on the sidelines looking in, which explains the popularity of my blog. As the smart money transitions from analyzing opportunities to making investments, the sector should encounter rising tides that lift all boats.
Thomas Edison was the first to identify the biggest risk of energy storage investing a century ago when he complained:
“The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeals to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very self-same thing.”
The problem isn't really the batteries, which haven't improved all that much over the last century. Instead, the problem lies in the fertile imaginations of investors, ideologues and demagogues who read about scientific discoveries in research laboratories, overestimate the value of those discoveries and then make a wildly optimistic leap from the reasonable to the absurd.
The two most common forms of batteries are carry-over relics of the 19th century. Lead-acid batteries have been around for 150 years and spiral wound batteries have been popular for almost as long. While battery chemistry has changed over the years and manufacturing methods have been modernized, the energy storage capacity of today's best batteries is only four or five times greater than the energy storage capacity of the batteries Edison complained about. Regardless of what you read in the paper or hear on the news, making a better battery is very hard work and the vast majority of exciting new discoveries never make it from the laboratory bench to the factory floor because they're just too expensive.
It's fun to daydream about the technical possibilities of portable power, but the market will only pay for cheap, reliable and safe portable power. The chasm between technical possibility and economic viability is both wide and deep.
Today's most common myth in energy storage is that exponential performance gains will be accompanied by rapidly falling prices. The current issue of Science includes an article titled "Getting There" that offers a classic example of how the mythology grows and spreads. The article's centerpiece is the following graph that compares the theoretical potential of battery materials and the best results obtained in working cells.
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A quick read through the article and a glance at the graph would be enough to convince any reasonably imaginative person that a golden age of battery powered everything is just around the corner. The undeniable facts in the article and the gee-whiz graph don't explain with any force are:
- All lithium-ion batteries in commercial production are in the first category;
- The performance differences between today's lithium-ion chemistries are minor;
- Current technologies offer little room for improvement because the theoretical limits are absolute;
- The first category are the only batteries we know how to manufacture in bulk;
- All advanced battery technologies will require the development of completely new manufacturing methods and equipment;
- All advanced technologies will require the construction of different infrastructure from the ground up;
- All advanced technologies are five to 10 years from production if everything goes right; and
- The companies that own the best current technologies do not own their advanced counterparts.
In other words each step forward will make all the science and all the manufacturing infrastructure required for the prior generation of lithium-ion batteries obsolete. It's the epitome of creative destruction where the future poses an existential threat to the past, but the future can't leverage, build upon or even use the massive infrastructure investments of the past. Progress in IT was immense and rapid because every step along the path built upon and leveraged the past. Progress in energy storage is agonizingly slow because innovation that builds upon and leverages the past is rare.
In my first Seeking Alpha article, I wrote that the market prices for Ener1 (NASDAQ:HEV) and Altair Nanotechnologies (NASDAQ:ALTI) resulted in "nosebleed market capitalizations based on little more than dreams." In September 2008, I added Valence Technologies (VLNC) to my list of dangerously overvalued lithium-ion battery developers because like Jacques Cousteau it was under water to the tune of $68.4 million at mid-year. In October 2009, I added BYD Co. Ltd. (OTCPK:BYDDF) to my list and wrote that it was "a classic example of why it's never a good idea to make investment decisions based on simple questions like "What did Warren do?" In November 2009, I added A123 Systems (AONE) to the list observing that it was "well up the hype cycle curve and approaching the Peak of Inflated Expectations." Last November, I added the magical gravity defying Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) to my list and suggested a paired trade that would short Tesla and buy Exide Technologies (XIDE). In every case the reader outrage over my criticisms was palpable. You'd have thought I was torturing kittens. Subsequent price performance tells a very different story. The following table summarizes the market price of each of these companies when I first openly criticized them, their closing price last Friday, and the percentage decline in the interim.
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|Company||Symbol||Initial Price||Friday's Price||Change|
|BYD Co. Ltd.||BYDDF.PK||$11.12||$2.86||-74.3%|
My record at picking winners isn't perfect, but I'm batting a thousand when it comes to identifying over-hyped stocks near the peak of inflated expectations.
Since I first criticized them, A123 and BYD have fallen to levels where they're beginning to look attractive for long-term investors who believe in the future of electric transportation and are not concerned about a looming glut of lithium-ion battery manufacturing capacity that will increase losses and force marginal manufacturers out of business without reducing material, manufacturing or finished battery costs. In spite of the happy talk from Silicon Valley and buy-side cheerleaders, Tesla hasn't even started to bleed. Ener1, Altair and Valence may survive, but only if they can negotiate massive capital infusions on terms acceptable to new money.
I've been bullish about the lead-acid battery sector for years because the major battery manufacturers including Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI), Exide and Enersys (NYSE:ENS) have global manufacturing footprints, established product lines, strong customer relationships, billion dollar revenue streams and rust-belt market capitalizations. My favorite in the group is Exide because it trades at a significant discount to its peers and is well-positioned to out-perform market expectations on a go-forward basis.
In light of recent forecasts that stop-start idle elimination will be deployed in almost a hundred million cars over the next five years, I think JCI and Exide are facing a dream scenario where unit volumes remain stable but per unit revenues double and margins ramp sharply as customers gravitate to their premium AGM products.
My old company Axion Power (OTCQB:AXPW) has not been a stellar stock market performer over the last couple years, but the delays have arisen from the stringent manufacturing and quality control requirements of its principal potential customers. Since I can't remember another instance where huge companies like BMW and Norfolk Southern have publicly aligned themselves with a nano-cap technology developer that hasn't even launched its first product, I can live with delays that disappoint the market.
The last three years have been a lot of fun and intelligent comments from knowledgeable readers have provided a balance and breadth that I could never have achieved on my own. New readers in particular may find it helpful to peruse my article archive, but be sure to spend enough time reading the comments to understand where the views of others differ from mine. I always try to explain the factual basis for my opinions and provide links to relevant source documents, but in the end I'm only human and I can only speak from the shoes I stand in. I want to thank everyone for their respective contributions, even those who haven't learned how to disagree without being disagreeable.
Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (OTCQB:AXPW) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.