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How Short-Term Supply Constraints Will Impact Booming HEV Markets

John Petersen

For several weeks I've been writing about robust demand in Europe for a new class of HEVs that are usually referred to as "stop-start" or "micro hybrids." According to the EPA's website:

"Stop/Start hybrids are not true hybrids since electricity from the battery is not used to propel the vehicle. However, the Stop/Start feature is an important, energy-saving building block used in hybrid vehicles.

Stop/Start technology conserves energy by shutting off the gasoline engine when the vehicle is at rest, such as at a traffic light, and automatically re-starting it when the driver pushes the gas pedal to go forward."

The concept is simple and so is the technology. Adding micro hybrid capabilities at the factory typically costs less than $1,000 per vehicle and improves fuel efficiency by an estimated 5% to 8%. It's a baby step, but as my first table in The Obama Fast Track for HEVs shows, it's more cost-effective than any other class of HEV technology. The main reason micro hybrids are so affordable is that they use advanced lead-acid batteries instead of more expensive alternatives.

Since the booming European micro hybrid phenomenon has not reached the U.S., a couple skeptical readers challenged me to show them press releases from major European OEMs announcing plans to produce HEVs that didn't use NiMH or Li-ion batteries. They were not satisfied with my initial response that micro hybrids are being adopted as standard equipment without major fanfare. Yesterday I found an October 2008 "Power Solutions Backgrounder" from Johnson Controls, Inc. (JCI) that proves the point nicely:

"We sold 400,000 advanced batteries for start/stop micro hybrid vehicles in Europe in 2007 and 800,000 in 2008, with the expectation of doubling that number again in 2009 to approximately 1.5 million batteries. These vehicles achieve a 5 percent to 8 percent fuel savings compared to conventional gas vehicles."

I then found www.hybridcars.com, a rich source of data that describes itself as the Internet’s premier website dedicated to hybrid gas-electric vehicles. By combining the micro hybrid battery sales data from JCI with additional data from hybridcars.com, I was able to cobble together the following graph that shows the growth of the global HEV market over the last 10 years. Since I don't have access to comprehensive data on the European micro hybrid market, I assumed that JCI was the only competitor. As a result, the graph understates European micro hybrid sales by a couple of percentage points, but in this case shape is far more important than numerical precision.

Click to enlarge

With historical data to provide context, the following graph from a 2008 Frost & Sullivan presentation that summarizes their forecast of future growth in global HEV sales makes a good deal more sense than it may have in earlier articles.



As I explained in How Growing HEV Markets Will Impact Battery Manufacturing Revenues, the Frost & Sullivan forecast was based solely on European CO2 tailpipe emission standards that take effect in 2012 and did not account for President Obama's subsequent acceleration of CAFE standards. That recent change will have the effect of pushing growth that would normally have occurred in the 2015 to 2020 timeframe into earlier years and could easily double the growth rates that were expected last fall. While I'm happy to leave the work of updating growth forecasts to experts like Frost & Sullivan, it seems safe to conclude that the next few years will be a challenging time for the battery industry.

Under the growth scenario presented in the Frost & Sullivan graph, the bulk of the unit growth in the HEV markets will go to lead-acid battery manufacturers who will not need to make larger numbers of batteries, but will need to make higher quality batteries that are better suited to the performance requirements of micro hybrids. This changing product mix will reduce production volumes for low-margin valve regulated lead-acid batteries and increase production volumes for high-margin advanced lead-acid batteries, and should lead to rapid and sustained revenue and profit growth for all lead-acid battery producers.

As we move away from the micro hybrid market and focus on the higher value markets for mild, full and plug-in hybrids, the challenges become more daunting. Jack Lifton has written several articles on global production constraints for the rare earth metal lanthanum; the "M" in NiMH batteries. His basic concerns are that substantially all of the world's supply of rare earth metals comes from China; their current production of roughly 33,000 tons of lanthanum per year can only provide raw materials for about a million HEV battery packs; and their domestic demand for rare earth metals is growing at an extraordinary rate that will limit future exports. Since it usually takes several years to increase production from an existing mine and even longer to bring a new mine into production, Jack expects the battery industry to encounter substantial short- to medium-term bottlenecks in the lanthanum supply chain. If he's right, automakers will be forced to make a Hobson's choice for an increasing percentage of their HEV battery needs:

  • Use Li-ion batteries despite the performance, cost, abuse tolerance and cycle life concerns; or
  • Use advanced lead-acid batteries despite the weight and volume concerns.
On its face this seems to be good news for Li-ion battery developers like Ener1 (HEV), Valence Technology (VLNC) and Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI) who consistently argue that their proposed products are best choice to fill the gap between surging HEV demand and constrained NiMH battery supply. While many find those arguments persuasive if not compelling, I remain skeptical for several reasons.

First, Li-ion batteries have a checkered history in portable electronics that are used indoors. We know almost nothing about their long-term performance when exposed to the heat, cold, moisture, vibration, driving habits, user neglect and physical stress that automobiles have to endure on a daily basis. The only way to develop that knowledge base will be to get Li-ion batteries out of the laboratory and into test fleets. While many automakers have announced plans to begin limited production of HEVs and PHEVs that use Li-ion traction batteries over the next two years, I can't help but wonder whether the Li-ion battery sector isn't in exactly the same position that the NiMH battery sector was in 10 years ago. My next graph comes from the May 2009 Dashboard at hybridcars.com and shows the 10-year U.S. sales history for HEVs with NiMH batteries. Call me a luddite, but I have a hard time accepting the idea that HEVs with Li-ion batteries will follow a development path that goes from zero vehicles per year to hundreds of thousands of vehicles per year over the course of four or five years. From all of the projections I've seen, the DOE and all major automakers share those reservations.

Click to enlarge

Second, the world's productive capacity for the large-format Li-ion batteries that are needed for automotive applications is very limited. There have been numerous announcements about plans to build new factories, but the bulk of those planned facilities will not be operational until 2011 or 2012. Since most existing Li-ion battery plants are already running at full capacity to make batteries for the high value portable electronics markets, I don't believe Li-ion batteries will be able to make a meaningful contribution to the auto industry's drive to meet European CO2 emission standards by 2012.

Third, I remain concerned that global rates of lithium production will not be able to keep pace with rapidly increasing demand for batteries. According to USGS publications, approximately 25% of global lithium production is used for Li-ion batteries. While global lithium production has grown at an annual rate of roughly 6% over the last couple of years to a 2008 total of 27,400 tons, the production process for lithium from brines involves an 18-month evaporation cycle before the alkali salts contained in the brine are ready for separation, refining, processing and use. Moreover lithium mining is subject to the same expansion constraints as other extractive industries. I'm no longer worried about the long-term adequacy of global lithium resources and I know that production can be expanded over time, but production capacity cannot be expanded quickly and there are certain to be substantial short- to medium-term production bottlenecks.

Finally, I remain concerned about the current development status of large-format Li-ion batteries for automotive use. In a February article titled DOE Reports That Lithium-on Batteries Are Not Ready for Prime Time, I summarized the conclusions of the DOE's 2008 Annual Progress Report for the Energy Storage Research and Development Vehicle Technologies Program that basically said Li-ion batteries would not be suitable for use in mass market HEV and PHEV applications until technical barriers relating to cost, performance, abuse tolerance and cycle life were overcome. I expanded on that theme in Understanding the Development Path for Li-ion Battery Technologies after a reader sent me sent me an unpublished "pre-decisional draft" of a DOE report titled National Battery Collaborative (NBC) Roadmap, December 9, 2008, a high-level policy analysis that discusses the merits, risks and expected costs of an aggressive eight-year initiative to foster the development and facilitate the commercialization of Li-ion batteries. While the draft roadmap went a long way toward easing my concerns over the long-term future of large format Li-ion batteries, it merely reinforced my conviction that Li-ion batteries are not currently ready for the big show.

Automakers are a conservative lot and they are intensely sensitive to price, performance and supply chain issues. They understand that NiMH and Li-ion battery supplies are constrained by limited global production of lanthanum and lithium, and that large format Li-ion battery supplies will be further constrained for several years by inadequate manufacturing capacity. They also have substantial reservations about the long-term performance of Li-ion batteries under the extreme heat, cold, humidity and vibration conditions that automobiles have to endure on a daily basis. Notwithstanding these known and very real business constraints, the automakers are under strict regulatory edicts to reduce fleet average CO2 emissions to 130 grams per kilometer in Europe by 2012 and improve fuel economy by roughly 35% in the U.S. by 2016. These are very brief timeframes for changes of this magnitude.

The end result is an untenable situation where proven NiMH batteries won't be available in adequate volumes during the regulatory compliance period and even unproven Li-ion batteries will be subject to daunting supply constraints. In a nutshell, supply constraints will leave the booming HEV markets in a critical state of flux for several years. While nothing can be predicted with certainty, I believe the likely responses from automakers will fit in three distinct categories:
  1. Automakers will continue to use proven NiMH batteries as their preferred HEV technology until limited lanthanum supplies restrict the ability to manufacture NiMH batteries;
  2. Automakers will accelerate their efforts to build demonstration fleets of high value products using unproven Li-ion batteries, but production volumes will remain small until they gather enough hard performance data to justify the widespread commercialization of the technology; and
  3. Automakers will significantly increase their use of advanced lead-acid batteries in high volume budget priced product lines, including mild and full hybrids that can tolerate the seventy-five pound weight gain and one cubic foot space loss that will typically arise from using advanced lead-acid batteries instead of NiMH or Li-ion.
This is a sub-optimal environment for all parties because automakers do not have the flexibility to develop new product lines on a multi-year schedule. They have to go to work immediately with the tools at their disposal and bring their product lines into regulatory compliance in a little over five years. The end result will be an accelerated timeline for Li-ion batteries and increased use of advanced lead-acid batteries in product lines that might have been introduced with NiMH batteries under more normal conditions. As automakers develop experience with using both advanced lead-acid and Li-ion batteries in roughly equivalent applications, the unanswered technical and cost-benefit questions about which technology is best for automotive applications will be conclusively answered. In other words, we're going to have a horse race after all.

DISCLOSURE: Author does not own any of the stocks mentioned in this article because all of his personal investments are in pure-play lead-acid battery manufacturers.

John L. Petersen, Esq. is a U.S. lawyer based in Switzerland who works as a partner in the law firm of Fefer Petersen & Cie and represents North American, European and Asian clients, principally in the energy and alternative energy sectors. His international practice is limited to corporate securities and small company finance, where he focuses on guiding small growth-oriented companies through the corporate finance process, beginning with seed stage private placements, continuing through growth stage private financing and concluding with a reverse merger or public offering. Mr. Petersen is a 1979 graduate of the Notre Dame Law School and a 1976 graduate of Arizona State University. He was admitted to the Texas Bar Association in 1980 and licensed to practice as a CPA in 1981. From January 2004 through January 2008, he was securities counsel for and a director of Axion Power International, Inc. (AXPW.OB) a small public company involved in advanced lead-carbon battery research and development.



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Comments

It should probably be noted that your concerns regarding the real world performance of lithium based batteries for automotive applications also applies to the advanced lead-acid batteries. Yes, lead-acid is a known chemistry (mostly). However, there is zero experience with the ability of the advanced technology lead-acid batteries to stand up to the rigors of real world use. While I expect they will ultimately prove to be acceptable, it is too early to tell whether there will be "birthing pains".

With regard to the suitability and likely broad use of micro-hybrids, another consideration is integration with diesel (and HCCI, if they are commercialized) vehicles. Diesel provides higer fuel efficiency at a higher vehicle cost compared to the eqivalent petrol based vehicle. Incorporating micro-hybrid technology with diesels could enable a further improvement in fuel economy at relatively low incremental cost, an effective competitive action versus full hybrids. Further, it adds some marketing "buzz". I would therefore expect broad and quick adoption of micro-hybrid tech to diesels.

Mike Alexy

Mike,

There is an immense difference between a new and improved version of a thoroughly known and tested technology, and an unknown and untested technology.

Proving that a second generation lead acid battery is superior to a first generation battery is a walk in the park. Particularly when the same company that made and sold your first generation device will make and sell the second generation device too.

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