Plug-in Vehicles Have Been Weighed in the Balance and Found Wanting

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John Petersen

A comment from maxkilmachina recently drew my attention to an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled Valuation of plug-in vehicle life-cycle air emissions and oil displacement benefits. While it costs $10 to download the article and supporting documentation, I believe it’s worthwhile for all serious energy storage and electric vehicle investors because the underlying study is the first comprehensive total cost of ownership analysis I’ve seen that includes both direct end-user costs and identifiable externalities like emissions, military and other indirect costs arising from oil consumption in the US. While all studies leave room to quibble, the bottom line conclusion is clear:

“[T]oday’s HEVs and PHEVs with small battery packs offer more emissions reduction and petroleum displacement per dollar spent with less of a need for new infrastructure and with lower uncertainty about future costs …

The detail is a bit dense for an investment blog, but two summary graphs from the article go a long way toward reducing glittering generalities to hard economics. They summarize the direct and indirect costs for five types of vehicles under three possible scenarios. The term CV refers to conventional vehicles with internal combustion engines. The term HEV refers to conventional hybrid electric vehicles. The terms PHEV20 and PHEV60 refer to plug-in hybrids with electric drive ranges of 20 km and 60 km, respectively (12.5 and 37.5 miles). The term BEV240 refers to a battery electric vehicle with a 240 km range (150 miles).

The first graph deals exclusively with unpriced externalities including emissions, military and global supply and demand impacts of US oil consumption. While bigger battery packs offer modest advantages in the wildly optimistic case of a zero emission grid, they’re not as cost effective as HEVs and PHEV20s in either real world scenario.

9.27.11 Externalities.png

The second graph ties it all together in a unified total cost of ownership analysis that accounts for all direct and indirect costs including purchase price, fueling, maintenance and unpriced externalities. Once again, bigger battery packs offer modest advantages in the Pollyanna case but are 50% to 100% more expensive in both real world scenarios.

9.27.11 TCO.png

The message for investors is clear. When you cut through the hand waving and glittering generalities plug-in vehicles with big batteries have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. They promise the worst possible combination of facile emotional appeal and dismal economics. They can only be attractive to the philosophically committed or the mathematically challenged. As the ugly truth becomes apparent to congressmen, businessmen and consumers that are staggering under crushing debt burdens and facing an immediate need to balance revenues and expenses, the hype induced euphoria over companies like Tesla Motors (TSLA) that make plug-in vehicles and battery companies like A123 Systems (AONE) and Valence Technologies (VLNC) that make big battery packs for toys must fade because immutable laws of economic gravity won’t permit any other outcome.

As a child of the 1950s I once believed Superman could leap tall buildings in a single bound. As a mature adult of the 2010s I know the only way to reach a mountaintop is by climbing a slippery slope one step at a time. When I consider the magnitude of the economic sophistry underlying current government policy, I’m not sure that I’d want to be a Congressman or Senator standing for election next year and explaining how subsidized toys for the politically favored eco-elite benefit the voting public. Green jobs that cost consumers money instead of saving it simply aren’t worth having.

I’m a securities lawyer, accountant and investment writer, not a futurist. My only concern is whether a particular company will prosper over the next five years or struggle. Anything beyond that is unknown and to my way of thinking largely unknowable. While investors are constantly bombarded with shimmering mirage-like visions of what might happen in a decade or two, they’re largely ignorant about the concrete steps automakers are taking today to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions now. The following graph is a great example because it shows how the auto industry is responding. It begins with 2010 plans for the rollout of stop-start technology, layers on new plans that were announced this year and offers a conservative estimate for likely future additions. Stop-start is only a baby step toward a more fuel-efficient future, but it’s an immediate step that will save more fuel over the next decade than all HEVs and plug-ins combined.

9.27.11 Global SS.png

The first beneficiaries of the rapidly evolving implementation of stop-start as standard equipment will be established battery manufacturers like Johnson Controls (JCI) and Exide Technologies (XIDE) that will see their revenue per vehicle double and their margin per vehicle triple as automakers upgrade their starter batteries from flooded lead-acid to valve regulated AGM batteries. Second tier beneficiaries include Maxwell Technologies (MXWL) which has partnered with Continental AG to offer a system that pairs a supercapacitor module with an AGM battery to improve performance; A123 Systems which is offering a 1,100 watt hour lithium-ion battery for stop-start applications; and Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) which is completing the development of a third generation lead-carbon battery that promises lithium-ion class performance for stop-start applications at an advanced lead-acid price point.

It will be a horse race, or a knock-down drag-out brawl, as established manufacturers and emerging technology developers compete for their share of a $5 to $10 billion market that didn’t exist three years ago. We probably won’t be able to identify the ultimate winners with any degree of confidence for another three to five years. In the interim the stock prices of all the credible competitors are certain to climb because they’re in the race for a major business prize. While it’s hard to find much good in current market conditions, the stock prices for most of the credible competitors have recently been beaten down to very attractive levels. In a period of transition it’s only natural for the more timid element to run for cover, but these are the days elephant hunters dream of when the broader market is distressed but the universe of likely players is small.

Talking about what the vehicle fleet might look like in a decade or two is fun for futurists but it’s very dangerous ground for investors because of intervening business and technical risks, overwhelming and unavoidable natural resource constraints, the time value of money and the inherent unreliability of forecasts that extend for more than a few years. For my money, today’s sure thing is far more
attractive than a wildly uneconomic technological long shot.

Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and owns a substantial long position in its common stock.

UPDATE: I just received an e-mail message advising that the lead author of the PNAS report has posted a free copy on his faculty web page at Carnegie Mellon University.


  1. So Toyota’s new Plug in Prius (about a PHEV20) actually looks pretty good in this scenario.
    One other advantage of a PHEV with a short all-electric range is that you can get a full charge with level 1 charging overnight, meaning you also save on the expense of wiring your garage for 240V.

  2. I’ve always been careful about negativity on the plug-in Prius because of a 2008 study from Carnegie Mellon that pegged PHEV-7 as an optimal configuration.
    The reports I’ve seen talk of a $32,000 base price for the plug-in Prius which seems pretty steep when you figure the credit will only be $2,500 because of the low battery content, but if anybody can do plug-in right I have to figure that it’s Toyota.
    All things considered, I think I’ll stay firmly on the fence for a while when it comes to the plug-in Prius.

  3. I’ve been wondering about that high base price myself… exactly how much is Toyota paying for the relatively small batter pack?
    For clarity, was the PHEV-7 a seven MILE range EV or a 7 KM range EV?

  4. The PHEV-7 was miles, rather than km. I think Toyota’s sizing decision on the plug-in Prius was driven by the EV tax credit, which starts at $2,500 for the first 5 kWh of battery capacity.
    I continue to believe the real cost of plug in packs is in the $1,000 per kWh range, I also think a company like Toyota would want enough margin to cover warranty risks. Unfortunately those questions may never be answered because all we’ll ever see is the price of the car.


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