A123 Systems Moves Its Planned IPO to the Front Burner

by: John Petersen

After six months of regulatory silence and $100 million in new funding, A123 Systems amended the SEC registration statement for its proposed IPO on June 23rd. While this latest filing may simply be A123's way of demonstrating its ability to raise matching funds for a scaled back ATVM loan request of $1 billion and pending applications for $438 million in direct Federal grants, my sense is that the proposed IPO will probably come to market in early September. Since ATVM loans will require 20% cost sharing and direct Federal grants will require 50% cost sharing, the IPO will probably be a good deal larger than the $175 million contemplated by A123's original filing.

I'm very interested in A123's IPO for several reasons. First, it will be underwritten by Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), Merrill Lynch (MER) and Lazard, which will give us the first clear picture of how the top-tier investment banks and institutional investors value pure-play energy storage companies.

Second, the emergence of A123 as a sub-sector leader will encourage lesser Li-ion battery developers to adopt comparably transparent disclosure metrics that will make it much easier to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Third, the existence of a large, adequately capitalized and business driven leader in the Li-ion sub-sector will probably dampen some of the unbridled optimism we've seen in the markets for transition stage Li-ion battery developers. Finally, the A123 IPO is likely to launch a renaissance of interest in a basic industrial sector that's been undervalued and ignored for years.

I spent some time over the weekend studying A123's draft prospectus and was able to glean important current data that tends to highlight the yawning economic chasms that Li-ion technology must bridge before it can compete in applications where the end-user has a choice. During the first quarter of 2009, A123's cost of goods sold was $1.89 per watt hour, which does not compare favorably with an average cost of roughly $0.20 per watt hour for lead acid batteries. Likewise A123's $41 million investment in property, plant and equipment that can manufacture up to 151,000 kWh of batteries per year is at least an order of magnitude greater than the capital cost of lead-acid battery manufacturing facilities.

I fully expect that capital outlays and manufacturing costs for Li-ion batteries will both decline dramatically over the next ten years. For the short- to medium-term, however, I expect gross profit margins in the Li-ion sub-sector to remain narrow and sales revenues to ramp-up slowly as Li-ion battery chemistry and manufacturing methods progress through two or three generations of technological change. It all boils down to baby steps; learning to crawl, then toddle, then walk and then run. The bumps, bruises, skinned knees and tears are all part of the learning process.

As regular readers know, I come from the lead-acid side of the battery business and believe that over next ten years the bulk of the expected revenue growth in the energy storage sector will flow to established manufacturers of inexpensive lead-acid batteries that can do the required work for a reasonable cost even if they are bulkier and heavier. Over the longer term, I expect leading Li-ion battery developers like A123 to overcome a myriad of cost, performance, safety, cycle-life, abuse tolerance and raw material constraints that I've written about in other articles, and ultimately usher in a golden age of cheap energy storage for applications ranging from portable power, to vehicles with plugs, to a smart grid that smoothly integrates a host of emerging power generation technologies. The changes won't come overnight and they will be expensive, but by 2020 the world will be very different from the one we live in today.

While I'm not so old that I avoid buying green bananas, I expect to be cold, dead and buried long before competition from Li-ion batteries results in a year on year decline in global sales of lead-acid batteries. Nevertheless, A123's upcoming IPO is certain to focus the market’s attention on the storage sector in a whole new way. Since I've been around long enough to know that a rising tide of investor sentiment lifts all of the boats in the marina, I think astute investors ought to be doing their boat shopping now.