A123’s Planned IPO Moves to the Front Burner

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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 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, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch 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.


  1. Some equipment is very simple to manufacture and easy to operate, while others are much more complicated not only to create, but their operation many times requires skilled personnel who have been required to acquire specialized training to run the equipment.

  2. Valve replacement, the high cost of Li-ion batteries is due to a wide variety of factors including complex device designs, expensive fabrication methods, and costly raw materials. The hope is that future R&D will simplify both device designs and manufacturing methods while materials advances reduce those costs. At the end of the day, however, the value of a battery is calculating the net value of the stored energy (end-use value reduced by input costs), multiplying that figure by the expected number of charge-discharge cycles, and then reducing everything to a discounted present value.
    Current proposals to use $15,000 of batteries to save $1,400 in annual gasoline costs get real hard to justify on pure economic grounds.

  3. @John Peterson: Keep investing in buggy whips if you must, but your comparisons are not valid. The value of a battery is not only measured in $/whr, but in whr/cubic m, and whr/kg. Lead-acid loses badly in both of the latter two metrics.
    In your battery-powered car proposal you neglected the cost avoided in purchase and maintenance of a gasoline tank and motor (plus starter, plugs, distributor, oil changes, etc.) transmission, exhaust system, cooling system, and other related infrastructure.
    To that I would add the projection that the cost of gasoline will most likely rise far faster than the cost of electricity.

  4. Bud, there are far better men than I who have concluded that PHEVs and EVs do not make economic sense with gas prices under $7 to $10. Just bear in mind that it’s not me you’re criticizing. It’s the DOE, Sandia, Carnegie Mellon, UC Davis and everybody else that’s taken a look at the issue.
    I firmly believe that gas prices will reach that level faster than any of us would like. I also believe that with several years of research, development and testing battery technology will advance to a point where PHEVs and EVs not only make sense, but save a good deal of money. Getting to that point will require a series of baby steps and believing that Li-ion battery producers will be profitable business enterprises before about 2020 is not rational. The capital costs are too high and the technical uncertainties too great. Someday they’ll be a wonderful investment opportunity. Today is not that day.


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