Detroit’s Trying, But the Six Best Companies to Own For the Electric Vehicle Revolution Are From Asia

Submitted by

While U.S. automakers were grabbing the media spotlight last week with their new electric vehicle models, in Washington renowned “green” venture capitalist John Doerr was telling Congress what it didn’t want to hear, that the U.S. badly lags in the global cleantech revolution. When it comes to solar, wind and advanced batteries, Doerr told a Senate panel, only six of the world’s top 30 companies are U.S. concerns.

Thus did two weeks ago single out Josh Landess, who co-manages the most complete global cleantech equity index, as the equivalent of cleantech’s future Warren Buffett. (See In 10 Years Josh Landess Will Be Clean Energy’s Warren Buffett. Investors Should Get to Know His Research Now) And thus does now single out six companies – all from Asia – that it believes have the best chance of making money for investors as the electric vehicle revolution grabs hold throughout the world over the next few years.

Don’t get caught up in President Obama’s clarion call to create green jobs in the U.S., which is already being construed by some on Wall Street as a new green lease on life for Detroit’s Big Three. Detroit’s trying, but just as Asia was years ahead in improving automotive fuel efficiency and introducing hybrid vehicles, it is now years ahead on developing plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and their new lithium-ion batteries that will enable motorists to go at least 40 and, eventually, hundreds of miles on a single charge.

Investors also shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking the global recession will slow the PHEV revolution. In 2010, just as dozens of new plug-in models are hitting dealer showrooms, the global economy is expected to be rebounding, unleashing pent-up demand for cars. Given all the oil projects that have been canceled or delayed as the recession reduced demand, when the rebound comes expect gasoline supplies to be tight once more and pump prices to surge, making plug-ins’ low fuel cost a big selling point. Given that Congress has already quietly passed huge financial incentives for PHEV buyers and likely will pass more, millions of car buyers should be able to afford PHEVs, which should also quickly prove popular because of their environmental benefits.

By 2012, according to one research report, annual sales of PHEVs could hit three million and the market for the lithium-ion batteries in these vehicles could reach nearly $17 billion. (See New Lux Research Report: 3 Million Electric Vehicles a Year By 2012; Fuel Cells ‘Return From the Dead’; Li-ion Surges)

In short, America and the world are in store for an “Asian Invasion” and now is when investors should be thinking about accumulating shares in one or more of the following.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., the Japanese auto giant whose ADRs trade on NASDAQ under the symbol NSANY, is hooked in to Better Place (formerly Project Better Place), the private California firm that has the potential to almost single handedly popularize PHEVs throughout the world, having deals already in place in Israel, Denmark, Australia, and areas of the U.S. and Canada, with more pending. Nissan, through its alliance with France’s Renault SA, will supply the cars and should receive a ton of positive publicity that will be money in the bank.

A connection to Nissan is why Japanese engineering giant NEC Corp. (Pink: NIPNF) also could be a long-term PHEV winner. Nissan and NEC are joint venture partners in a lithium-ion battery development firm called Automotive Energy Supply Corp., an extremely aggressive operation that green car guru Michael Millikin, who runs the web site Green Car Congress, wouldn’t be surprised to see as the global leader one day.

But Nissan/NEC will have stiff competition, in particular from Panasonic Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. – whose ADRs trade on the Big Board under the symbols PC and TM, respectively – which have their own hard-charging joint-venture battery company, Panasonic EV Energy Co. While they are partners (Toyota owns 60% of Panasonic EV), Panasonic’s pending acquisition of Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. could put it on a separate track, Panasonic having already said that, with the addition of rechargeable battery leader Sanyo, it will actively pursue its own investments in electric vehicle batteries.

Whether Toyota and Panasonic go their separate ways, they and Nissan/NEC will be challenged for battery supremacy by South Korea’s LG Chem Ltd. (Pink:LGCLF). Ironically, LG Chem is probably America’s best bet in the PHEV battery race, now that its Michigan-based Compact Power unit beat out rival A123 Systems Inc. of Massachusetts, the soon-to-go-public lithium-ion battery developer, for General Motors Corp.’s new plug-in Chevrolet Volt, which is expected to hit the streets by the end of this year. A123 must now regroup, which it should be able to do, though it will likely fall behind the Asian invaders.

Meanwhile, when it comes to building the actual vehicles, Toyota and Nissan may face a stern test from Chinese carmaker BYD Co. Ltd. (Pink:BYDDF), the firm in which Warren Buffett recently invested. BYD started selling a PHEV compact in China last month for the equivalent of about $22,000. It’s coming to America in 2011. BYD is especially intriguing because it not only builds its own cars and batteries. It also is working with state power grid operators in China on a refueling network. Only Better Place has a similar all-in-one business model in which it doesn’t just provide cars and batteries, but also the means to keep them fueled.

Remember that another of Buffett’s investments is MidAmerican Energy Co., a major U.S. electric utility. Could BYD and MidAmerican combine in what would be America’s first new-age network of motor vehicle service stations catering to plug-in vehicles? Have the major oil companies, which in the last couple of years divested much of their service station holdings, already seen the handwriting on the wall?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *