May 12, 2010

EVs will fail in the marketplace, says a battery insider.

Menahem AndermanThe debate about battery cars should be a big tent, with room for plenty of contrary opinions. I believe in giving these folks a say, even if think they’re off base. My own views are sharply different, and much more sanguine about the plug-in future. Yesterday, I looked at some very negataive conclusions from Janney Capital Markets. Today,I’ve got some fresh perspective from Menahem Anderman of Advanced Automotive Batteries, a longtime insider who’s even more critical, and very specific about EVs not being ready for prime time.

I’m willing to meet the critics halfway: Yes, EVs remain expensive and give consumers range anxiety with 100 miles between charges. But the confluence of global warming and peak oil means these clean cars are already on a glide path to replace the storied gasoline engine, though there will be slow, halting progress.

The skeptics have a useful role in calming irrational exuberance at this early stage. I’ve had advocates tell me that internal-combustion will be gone from the world’s roads by 2020, and believe me, that isn’t going to happen.

I’m also a bit dubious about some of the more outlandish claims for EV’s economic benefits. The Electrification Coalition said in a recent report that Evs could create 1.9 million jobs by 2030, at which time the average household would spend $3,687 less on energy for transportation. That’s a big conclusion for a technology that right now is much more expensive than internal combustion.

Sometimes skepticism arises in unlikely places. Anderman is a respected figure in the electric vehicle space. He’s been a consultant to the industry for 27 years, testifies in Congress, publishes regular multi-client assessment reports and organizes an annual auto battery conference, which happens to be in Orlando this year, from May 17 to 21.

One might expect such an insider to be a cheerleader for EVs, but in fact he’s been a longtime skeptic of their prospects. For at least 10 years, he’s expressed doubts about plug-in hybrids and anything else with advanced batteries under the hood. In 2003, he expressed a low opinion of then-evolving battery technology to California’s Air Resources Board, and in 2007 he told the Society of Automotive Engineers, “The reliability of lithium-ion technology for automotive applications is not proven.”

He’s particularly negative about the viability of EV batteries, expressing doubt that costs will come down below $400 a kilowatt hour anytime soon. In an interview Monday, Anderman compared the fuel savings of the forthcoming Nissan Leaf with an off-the-shelf Toyota Prius and found the plug-in car wanting.

The Leaf’s battery, he said, will cost $16,000 to $20,000. Even if the Leaf is produced in volumes of 200,000 or more, Anderman concludes, the battery will still cost $9,000. All this, he said, to produce a car that, when the different power sources are compared, only saves $400 in fuel costs annually over the Prius. “In five years, you save $1,500, which isn’t even enough to pay for the charger, let alone the $20,000 battery,” he said.

Anderman recently visited China’s ambitious BYD (which seeks to be the world’s largest automaker and has a Warren Buffett investment to give it credibility). He took a look at the company’s E6, which is a battery car allegedly headed for the U.S. market. “This is not a car U.S. consumers would buy,” he said. He also encountered the company’s F3DM, the first plug-in hybrid on the world market, and found that noisy and not up to western standards.

The forthcoming gas-electric Chevy Volt is better than the Leaf in terms of utility, Anderman said, but “the main compromise is that the Volt is a very, very expensive car. The annual fuel savings compared to the Prius are in the range of $200 a year, and you still have a $9,000 battery. But because the government is willing to pay to build the plant and build the battery pack, as well as subsidizing purchases by $7,500 [an income tax credit], the consumer gets a vehicle they can drive. But financially it doesn’t make sense.”

Anderman’s point, much like Janney Capital’s, is that early EVs will be expensive and not a good bet for consumers. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s also true that many will be subsidized (a Leaf will be a very affordable $20,000 in California). And continuing battery research and development seems a much better bet than toasting the planet with the smoke from hundreds of millions of tailpipes.

Written by Jim Motavalli