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Hope for Electric Vehicle Battery Manufacturers

Those who can switch to making lithium ion hybrid batteries could tap a fast-growing market.
December 20, 2012

Worldwide, lithium ion battery production capacity for electric vehicles and hybrids is five times larger than demand for them from automakers, according to a report from analyst Menahem Anderman, president of Advanced Battery Consulting. As we noted this fall, the problem is particularly bad in the United States, where stimulus dollars pushed the build-out of battery factory capacity (see “Too Many Battery Factories, Too Few Electric Cars”). Some of the companies who built those factories hadn’t lined up enough orders to justify them. Others struggled as a result of sluggish vehicle sales. As a result, some, such as A123 Systems, have declared bankruptcy or idled their factories (see “A123’s Technology Just Wasn’t Good Enough”).

But there might be a ray of hope for lithium ion battery makers. While EV sales have been slow, hybrid sales are doing well. Most hybrids use nickel metal hydride batteries, but some hybrid models are now using lithium ion batteries, which could help use up some of the excess lithium ion battery capacity. One vehicle to do use lithium ion batteries, Ford’s C-Max hybrid, has been selling particularly well. According to Ford, it sold 8,030 of the cars in its first month, a record for the first two months of sales for any hybrid.

The downside is hybrids use far smaller batteries than electric vehicles. It will take a lot of hybrids to match the battery demand of an electric vehicle. For example, the battery in the electric Nissan Leaf stores 15 times more energy than the one in the C-Max hybrid.

Anderman predicts that electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid sales will grow tenfold by 2020, reaching 1.2 million. But hybrids sales will grow far more, reaching 4.1 million by then. Battery makers will continue to struggle next year as car manufacturers scale back electric vehicle production plans and hybrids can’t yet pick up the slack. 

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