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Cleantech, Optimism Squared and the Family Reunion Investment Test

Last November, Merrill Lynch released "The Sixth Revolution: The Coming of Cleantech," a thematic report from strategist Steven Milunovich that heralded cleantech as a new investment theme and forecast a coming age of plenty. A few days later venture capital icon Vinod Khosla warned a Palo Alto 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.

It is remarkably different this time!

Last weekend, I re-read the Milunovich report and spent several hours pondering the fundamental forces that drove the technological revolutions identified in the following table.

Technological Revolution
Historical Era
The "British Industrial Revolution"
From 1771
The Age of Steam and Railways
From 1829
The Age of Steel, Electricity and Heavy Engineering
From 1875
The Age of Oil, the Automobile and Mass Production
From 1908
The Age of Information and Telecommunications
From 1971
The Age of Cleantech and Biotech
From 2003

I'm not an avid historian, but I recall that the popular reactions to the first five technological revolutions ranged from violent resistance to innovations that threatened job security (e.g. Luddites in England and saboteurs in France) to polite disdain or outright derision of innovations that were not seen as threats (e.g. Fulton's Folly). I still cringe when I remember college boy conversations where I taunted classmates with questions like "You may be able to buy a home computer in ten years but why would anybody ever want one?" The point is we didn't understand how important the innovations were until we viewed them in 20/20 hindsight. This dynamic gave important technologies time to evolve naturally, establish their value and then change the world in ways we couldn't have imagined. The process invariably took decades.

Where the first five revolutions were driven by the individual desire to do something better, faster and cheaper, it seems that cleantech is driven by a different dynamic. We collectively know that water, food, energy and commodities are not resources we can waste with impunity. We collectively understand that 6.2 billion people know how the rest of us live and each of the have-nots wants a fair share of the dream. We collectively fear a tipping point where unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels will irreparably damage our planet. We collectively worry that the world we pass to our children will face catastrophic conflict and horrific environmental consequences because of decisions that were made in a different era by our grandparents, our parents and us. So instead of viewing cleantech developments with a healthy dose of skepticism and requiring inventors to prove their worth, we collectively grasp at the latest research results and grossly overestimate their real value. A great example of this phenomenon are widely circulated stories about an MIT research project that would make it possible to recharge a GM Volt in less than five minutes by plugging it into the nearest available 125,000 watt power source.

Our problems are grave and almost everyone recognizes the desperate need for relevant scale solutions to persistent shortages of water, food, energy and commodities. But instead of acting like adults, accepting personal responsibility and doing the little things like home weatherization that could help alleviate the problems, we demand profound changes without considering whether the changes are enduring solutions or simple band-aids. We then compound the foolishness with the insane delusion that technological development is instantaneous and success is certain.

My favorite story of unbridled optimism is about 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 garden 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 head-first into the manure pile and starts digging. When the surprised father asks what's going on, the boy replies, "There has to be a pony in here somewhere!"

It's a crazy world and an infantile time, but once the tantrum phase passes, we'll do what adults have always done. We'll get up in the morning, we'll go to work and we'll solve our problems. The first casualty will be unbridled optimism. The second will be waste in all its pernicious forms. Ultimately, rational cost-benefit analysis will prevail and we'll begin to find enduring solutions to critical problems.

Warren Buffet advocates investing in companies you understand, companies that that sell products and services you know, trust and use. Unfortunately, that methodology is almost impossible 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 promote an agenda or build a company; 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 result is optimism squared and that's a very dangerous equation for investors.

Unlike many financial bloggers, I know my opinions and outlook are far from mainstream. To compensate for that deficit, I've developed a simple technique I call the "family reunion test" to evaluate cleantech investments. It all boils down to a simple question: "How many of the people who attended our last family reunion are likely to buy this product or service at today's price?" If I conclude that most of my extended family members would be likely buyers, then it's probably a good investment. If I find myself all alone in the likely buyer class, then it's probably a good investment to avoid. Rigorously applied, the family reunion test is an amazingly accurate forecasting tool.

The battery industry is in a state of turmoil because none of the technologies we've relied on in the past are able to satisfy the extreme demands of a cleantech future. At $250 a kWh, lead-acid batteries are cheap and reliable, but they have weight, power and cycle life limitations that make them sub-optimal for plug-in vehicles. Li-ion batteries have exceptional weight, power and cycle life performance, but at $1,000 a kWh they're just too expensive for most cleantech applications. The net result is a race to the middle as lead-acid battery manufacturers work feverishly to improve performance while Li-ion battery developers work feverishly to reduce costs.

In the swamps of Degoba, Yoda told Luke Skywalker "Do or do not ... there is no try." The same wisdom holds in the battery industry. Don't talk about your plans ... talk about your accomplishments! In the meantime, investors would do well to remember that optimistic forecasts from interested parties are every bit as meaningful as the trash talk, hype and drama that precede every WWE championship.

Over the last several months I've delved into several arcane technical aspects of the battery industry. While the detail is useful for technophiles, it can be mind-numbing detail for the average reader. As penance for my past sins, I've prepared the following table that provides a simple summary overview of the differences between lead-acid battery manufacturers and Li-ion battery developers.

Lead-acid batteries
$250 per kWh of useful capacity
Li-ion batteries
$1,000 per kWh of useful capacity
Efficient factories already exist and capacity can be rapidly and cheaply expanded.
Substantially all existing capacity is located in Asia and billions will need to be spent on new factories that will take years to build and equip.
Efficient sales, distribution and customer support networks already exist. Billions will need to be spent on sales, distribution and customer support networks.
Nationwide recycling capacity already exists, over 98% of lead-acid batteries are currently recycled and the recovered materials can be used to make new batteries.
Recycling techniques are in the R&D stage, there are no large-scale recycling facilities and the recovered materials are not pure enough to use in new batteries.
Improve energy density, power and cycle life; goals that appear reasonable in light of several recent advances I've discussed in prior articles.