The future of the U.S. car industry hinges on cutting-edge battery technology. Can Motown catch up to the rest of the world?
By Paul Keegan
(Fortune Magazine) -- After years of churning out giant gas-guzzlers, lobbying against fuel-economy standards, and refusing to repent even while begging Congress for a bailout, the humbled and chastened Big Three gathered recently at the Detroit auto show to finally embrace the electrification of the automobile.
A main attraction was the battery that powers GM's Volt. The battery was an ugly thing, a hulking 6-foot tall, 400-pound, T-shaped monstrosity that stood upright at center stage in the auto show like a giant cross promising one last chance at salvation for the crippled American car industry.
The Obama administration has become a believer too, making clear that the best way to save the U.S. car industry is for Detroit to build clean cars. The recently passed stimulus package includes $2 billion in grants for advanced battery manufacturing, and the Department of Energy is disbursing $25 billion in low-interest loans to encourage companies to build green vehicles. President Obama's goal is to have 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015 - although that's only a fraction of the nation's 250 million vehicles.
Since nothing in the fleet of advanced electric vehicles soon coming our way - not even their simple, toylike motors - is nearly as important as their giant battery packs, a procession of politicians and industry leaders are proclaiming the arrival of a new, multibillion-dollar American battery industry that will soon generate thousands of green jobs across America's recession-ravaged heartland. In January, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm signed a bill providing $335 million in state tax credits for car-battery makers locating in her state. "We want to be the battery capital of the world!" she said.
The question is, can America build a competitive battery business fast enough to compete with the Asians? The odds don't look good. For basic battery R&D, the U.S. is depending on a few small companies, such as Ener1 and A123 Systems. Asian giants like Sanyo, NEC, and LG have been mass-producing the batteries for years. Unless the U.S. changes its ways dramatically, it is likely to get creamed in the Great Battery Race - making it even tougher for Detroit's auto industry to stage a comeback.
A turning point occurred several years ago when lithium ion emerged as the chemistry of choice to power the next generation of hybrids, plug-ins, and all-electric vehicles. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery is a remarkable piece of technology - the main reason your cellphone fits into your shirt pocket - smaller, lighter, more powerful, and longer-lasting than anything that had come before. It's still very expensive and has safety issues (remember those laptops bursting into flames? That was lithium batteries overheating). But if lithium-ion chemistry can live up to its promise of transforming the automobile from gas to electric power, it may rank among the greatest technological achievements of the early 21st century.
The problem for the U.S. is that Asia's battery makers are now attacking the car market with a vengeance. Not even choked credit markets and plunging car sales could stop the stampede: Last fall Panasonic bought Sanyo, the world's leading lithium-ion battery manufacturer, for $9 billion, to supply Toyota (TM) with batteries for new versions of its popular Prius and other hybrids. Around the same time, Nissan and NEC Corp. announced a $1 billion joint investment in battery development. Japanese and European battery makers - but no Americans - were swarming into Bolivia looking for contracts to mine salt flats for lithium. (Enough lithium exists in the world to build 1.2 billion cars, enough to replace the global fleet nearly twice over, according to a recent report by Michael Lew of ThinkEquity, an investment bank.)
And when the Chinese battery powerhouse BYD, which entered the car business only a few years ago, boasted that it would become bigger than Toyota by 2025, few snickered (see "Buffett Takes Charge"). According to the investment management firm Alliance Bernstein, the global market for lithium-ion car batteries could reach $150 billion by 2030 - more than Ford's sales for all of last year.
Industrialists the world over understand what is only now dawning on Detroit: The handful of companies that end up controlling the battery industry will also control the car industry. Electric-car companies want to be located near their battery suppliers to save shipping costs. They also want to be near markets with the biggest potential - countries where high gas prices make the economics of buying expensive electric cars far more attractive. On both counts that means Europe and Asia, not the U.S.
Batteries will give car companies their competitive edge. They will determine how fast your car can accelerate, how far it will go on a single charge, how quickly it can recharge, and - since it can account for as much as half the cost of an all-electric vehicle - how much you'll pay for it. A battery for an all-electric car now costs between $10,000 and $20,000. This spring BMW will lease to a small group of customers in the U.S. an electric Mini whose battery has an impressive range of 150 miles but is estimated to cost a whopping $30,000 - that's for the battery, not the car.
Over the next few years, the market will basically divide in two: all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, a big supporter of purely electric cars, reflected the growing view that a sea change was taking place when he told reporters at a plant opening last summer that any car still using oil was "unsustainable." "I want a pure electric car," he said. "I don't want a range extender. I don't want another hybrid. It's going to be zero emissions."
If he's right, cars may soon no longer need an internal-combustion engine, transmission, muffler, air filter, spark plugs, or any other part from last century's age of the gas-powered engine. However, the limited range of most pure electric cars - 100 or so miles on a charge - make them ideal for city use or short hops in the suburbs. Because of that, they aren't likely to capture more than 1% to 5% of the global auto market by 2015, according to IBM Global Business Services. Toyota, GM, and other automakers are betting on plug-in hybrids that run on a combination of batteries and a conventional internal-combustion engine that keep going as long as you keep the tank full. Battery makers, meanwhile, don't really care about the mix of the fleet. They know the global car industry has reached a tipping point: It's going electric.
Because battery technology will become the core competency that defines the modern car company, it will hardly be the kind of intellectual property you'd want to outsource to a foreign auto-supply company. Sure, GM (GM, Fortune 500) can assemble those T-shaped battery packs for the Volt domestically. But the most crucial aspect is developing a safe, reliable chemistry and using that proprietary technology to mass-produce the hundreds of cells required for a single battery pack. Too bad for GM that the cells for the Volt actually will come from a Korean company, LG Chem.
And when Ford (F, Fortune 500) announced that its first plug-in hybrid will be coming in 2012, it revealed that the batteries will be manufactured by a French-American joint venture, Johnson Controls/Saft. France's Saft will provide the R&D, while Johnson Controls (JCI, Fortune 500) brings considerable manufacturing know-how. As the world's largest supplier of conventional lead-acid car batteries, Johnson Controls is smart to move into the rechargeable lithium-ion game. Still, the core technology used by the two biggest U.S. carmakers will be coming from the South Koreans and the French.
For America the ultimate irony is also the ultimate humiliation, and worse: Just as the electric car is finally arriving to save Detroit, the U.S. is poised to swap our dependence on foreign oil for a dependence on foreign batteries.
And yet there is a glimmer of hope. A host of small U.S. companies with odd-sounding names - Ener1, A123, Quantum Technologies, Altair Nanotechnologies, Tesla Motors, and ActaCell (backed by Google (GOOG, Fortune 500)) - are making significant progress toward solving the enormous technical and cost obstacles to using lithium-ion batteries for automobiles. These tiny, precocious firms insist there is still time for the U.S. car industry to stage a miraculous comeback. As Ener1 CEO Charles Gassenheimer puts it, "Right now, we're David with the slingshot."
"I want to see my baby!" Gassenheimer is race-walking through his company's battery-manufacturing plant in Indianapolis, eager to see the new $5 million electrode-coating machine just being installed. Balding and cherub-faced, wearing a blue blazer, striped shirt, and gray pants, Gassenheimer looks out of place here in the gritty heart of auto factory country. A former hedge fund manager at Satellite Asset Management who came to Ener1 in 2006, he evinces an enthusiasm bordering on giddiness that is also peculiar in a region decimated by layoffs and shuttered plants.
But Gassenheimer believes he's sitting on a gold mine. With this factory and two others - one in nearby Noblesville, the other in Korea - he claims to have one of the largest production capabilities for lithium-ion car batteries in the world. Though Ener1 had revenue of just $7 million last year, Gassenheimer says that at full capacity (supplying 45,000 all-electric cars or 450,000 hybrids), the company's battery-making subsidiary, EnerDel, has the capacity to generate revenue of $700 million a year.
While Ener1 demonstrates the huge potential of this industry, it also embodies the obstacles. Today, EnerDel has only one contract with an electric-car maker - Think of Norway, which filed for the Norwegian equivalent of Chapter 11 in December, the third time Think has gone bankrupt in its troubled history. Gassenheimer rushed in to help arrange an emergency loan of $5.7 million in January, but Think still needs some $50 million to resume production of its Think City electric sedan in Norway and launch in the U.S. next year. (Think CEO Richard Canny says the company is close to finalizing a new round of financing.)
Ener1 (HEV) also shows how slippery the concept of an "American" company is in a global economy. The firm was founded in Florida in the late 1990s by a Russian physicist named Peter Novak and kept alive during its lean years before Gassenheimer arrived by a Russian paper mill magnate named Boris Zingarevich (who today indirectly owns about 40% of its publicly traded shares). Its COO is a brilliant Japanese chemist named Naoki Ota, and the CEO of its EnerDel subsidiary is a Norwegian marketing executive named Ulrik Grape. This company may be a mini-UN, with a big chunk owned by a Russian, but Ener1 remains the only U.S. company ready to produce mass quantities of its own electric-car battery cells on American soil.
"If you look at some of the other companies, EnerDel is well ahead in mass-production capability and has very good chemistry," says Khalil Amine of the Argonne National Laboratory, an Illinois-based U.S. government research facility. Whether Ener1 can ramp up production quickly - and whether its chemistry will hold up under grueling road conditions - remains to be seen. But right now it's the only game in town. Its main American competitor, A123, manufactures most of its cells in Korea and China. Although A123 has begun building a factory in Michigan, it won't be completed until the end of the year at the earliest and assumes the federal government comes through with $1.84 billion in loans. (Ener1 itself has asked for a $480 million loan to build a third plant in Indiana.)
So far the big carmakers have been reluctant to sign a major deal with even these promising American companies, not yet convinced they will be around for the years it takes to develop the battery, deliver mass quantities reliably, and supply parts to keep it functioning once the cars are on the road. That has created a catch-22: America's small battery makers can't ramp up production without high-volume orders, but Detroit can't place the orders until it is sure it has a reliable supplier.
Consumers, meanwhile, aren't buying many cars of any kind these days - never mind more expensive electric models. The Think City costs between $35,000 to $40,000 - considerably higher than the $29,000 average automobile price that analysts say electric cars must reach to become truly mass market. Ener1 says it could eventually knock 20% to 30% off the price of its $17,500 batteries with high-volume orders.
Why are the batteries so expensive? Automobile batteries must withstand snow, sleet, rain, heat waves, potholes, and sadistic car laboratory tests that involve getting punched with nails, dropped from 30 feet, repeatedly overcharged, and then discharged to zero. Says Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Chevy Volt: "Integrating [batteries] into a car? Oh, my God, it's gotta pass crash tests, has to be heated and cooled, and handle vibration, dirt, debris." They also must last 10 years and, for all-electric vehicles, get at least 100 miles per charge (to assuage a nascent psychological complex being called "range anxiety").
One way to drive the price down is for consumers to lease the battery from either the manufacturer - as Think plans to do in Europe - or a third party, such as a startup called Better Place. Founded by a former SAP executive named Shai Agassi, Better Place believes it makes no sense for customers to buy the battery - Agassi argues that that's like having to buy upfront all the gas the car will ever need - and instead proposes to own and maintain the battery and sell subscription plans just the way cellphone companies do. But instead of minutes, Agassi will sell you miles - unlimited, or a certain number per month.
Currently, Agassi's business plan makes the most sense in places where fuel prices are high. In France, with gas at $5 per gallon, it costs about 20 per mile to drive. An electric car, says Agassi, would cost just 8 per mile. That's an annual savings of about $1,500 for commuters who drive 12,000 miles a year. Drivers would pass along that $1,500 to Agassi's company in monthly payments to lease the battery and cover the electricity. Since they don't have to buy a $15,000 battery, customers would pay about the same price for an electric car as for a gas-powered one. In other words, Agassi argues, the lifetime cost of owning and operating an electric car should be about the same as that for a gas vehicle. Over time, as battery prices drop, owning an electric car should become more economical than driving a traditional one. Consumers will also benefit from those handsome government subsidies that go to buyers of green cars.
Better Place also hopes to calm consumers' concerns about where to charge their cars. The company plans to litter the landscape with charging spots on streets and in public garages - and deals with Starbucks and Wal-Mart may not be far away. If your battery is dying and you have no time to charge up, you could pull into a Better Place's "swapping station" that in less than four minutes will have a robotic arm swap your old battery for a fresh one. With $300 million raised and high-profile endorsements from Israel's former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Ghosn of Renault-Nissan, Agassi has already started building his first battery-changing stations in Japan, Israel, and Denmark. San Francisco is slated for 2012.
Creating a charging infrastructure also dovetails with the goals of building a "smart grid" that would manage power supply and demand more efficiently. A small company called GridPoint has software that detects when a vehicle is connected to the grid and controls the timing and pace of the charging to prevent the whole system from browning out. It also allows utilities to offer discounts for charging during off-peak hours when demand is low. Consumers could also use their car battery as a storage device and sell electricity back to the utility when the car is not in use. President Obama's stimulus package, meanwhile, includes $11 billion to encourage smart-grid initiatives.
Some think it's not too late. "We can catch up, but it will take a lot of effort," says Joe Romm, a former Clinton administration energy official now with the Center for American Progress. "The Obama administration is packed with people who support the policies we need. But at the end of the day, somebody has to invest real money over a sustained period of time." In today's economy that's a real problem. On the other hand, it now appears that nearly every car on the planet will eventually be electrified. Investors could hardly ask for a bigger incentive.