“Where is Noah’s ark to save human beings?”

BYD's e6 electric car

Great companies have a purpose that goes beyond making money. Google wants to organize the world’s information. Walmart seeks to save people money so they can live better. The Walt Disney Co. tries to make people happy. (Or at least it used to; Disney’s current mission statement is a bunch of gobbledygook.)

Purpose matters. It’s a big reason why people go to work every day.

BYD, the Chinese company that makes electric cars, batteries and solar panels, has a grand purpose: It wants to save us all from climate change, which it calls “slow suicide.”

In a new company video (below), BYD says:

Glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. Who can guarantee that the next victims won’t be us?

Where is Noah’s ark to save human beings?

Where, indeed?

I’ve been fascinated by BYD — the letters are the initials of the company’s Chinese name, but they have come to stand for Build Your Dreams — since writing a FORTUNE cover story about the company in 2009. Two years ago, I visited BYD in Shenzhen, met with its founder and chief executive, Wang Chuan-Fu, and spoke about the company with Warren Buffett, Charles Munger and especially David Sokol of Berkshire Hathaway, who sits on the BYD board. Through its MidAmerican Energy subsidiary, Berkshire Hathaway bought 10% of BYD for $230 million in 2008. Despite some recent stumbles at BYD, the company’s market capitalization has grown to about $33 billion, so Berkshire’s stake is now worth about $3.3 billion. Not too shabby.

Lately, I’ve been in contact with  U.S. investors  who are bullish about the firm. One of them, Shai Dardashti, a Buffett admirer who runs a small money management firm, pointed me towards this seven-minute company video. It’s worth watching (although it ends abruptly for reasons that I haven’t been able to determine).

This video is fascinating in light of  BYD’s remarkable but brief history. Since 1995, it has evolved from a manufacturer of cell-phone batteries into one of China’s largest automobile companies and it is now making a major push into clean energy, both with the manufacturing of solar panels and  utility-scale batteries to store energy. (For more on BYD’s energy storage plans and MidAmerican Energy, see Warren Buffett’s Big Battery Play at GreenBiz. Recently, the city of Los Angeles’s Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and BYD said they would work together to develop a grid-scale battery project for renewable energy storage. [click to continue…]

Warren Buffett’s BYD: Revving up, fast

BYD's e6 electric car

Warren Buffett is a busy man, and never more so than during Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meetings, sometimes called the Woodstock of capitalism, which attract thousands of people each year to Omaha, Nebraska.

But Buffett found time during this year’s gathering to sit down for an hour with Chuanfu Wang, the chairman and CEO of BYD, the Chinese company that makes cars, batteries, electronics and solar power equipment.

And why not? Berkshire’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings unit bought a 10% stake in BYD for about $230 million in September, 2008. Today, it’s worth nearly $2 billion.

That’s a nifty return, even by Buffett’s standards.

“BYD is really running on all cylinders,” says Li Lu, a BYD investor and money manager who brought the company to the attention of Berkshire vice chairman Charles Munger several years ago. Munger took the idea to Buffett and to MidAmerican chairman David Sokol, who now sits on BYD’s board.

I wrote a FORTUNE cover story about BYD in 2009, met with Mr. Wang in Shenzhen and late had the pleasure of meeting Li Lu. He’s a fascinating guy—participated in the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, then fled China, earned business and law degrees at Columbia University and for the past 13 has run an investment firm called Himalaya Capital. He’s been an informal adviser to BYD and traveled to Omaha with Mr. Wang. Li Lu now lives and works in Pasadena, Ca., where we met last week.

warren_buffett_byd.03The most important thing to know about BYD—the letters are the initials of the company’s Chinese name, but they have come to stand for Build Your Dreams–is that the company has enormous ambitions. It aims to be not only the world’s biggest carmaker, but a leader in cheap solar power and utility-scale battery storage as well. Mr. Wang, the founder and chairmen, has said that he believes that the automobile and energy industries are on the verge of a major transformation. Buffett, Munger and Sokol all told me that they were really impressed with Mr. Wang–not a bad trio of endorsements.

BYD’s been in the news lately for three reasons. In March,  the company announced a joint venture to develop electric cars in China with Mercedes. The idea is to combine Mercedes’ design excellence with BYD’s technological savvy, particularly with respect to batteries, and the Chinese firm’s access to its home market. “Daimler’s know-how in electric vehicle architecture and BYD’s excellence in battery technology and e-drive systems are a perfect match,” Mercedes chief Dieter Zetsche said at the time.

Last month, BYD announced that it will open its North American headquarters in a downtown neighborhood of Los Angeles. Mr. Wang was joined by California Gov. Schwarzenegger and LA Mayor Villaraigosa at the ceremony and, interestingly, the company said it would put more than its electric cars on display—it will showcase “solar panels, energy storage systems and advanced LED lighting products” as well.

To lure BYD, the city of Los Angeles promised to buy some of the company’s electric vehicles, including buses; to  streamline the approval process for installing charging stations in garages; to make it easier for people to install charging stations in their homes and to display a BYD car at LAX, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Third, BYD and KB Homes, the big homebuilder, announced that they would build homes together that not only include solar panels on the roof but batteries in the garage–so that the owners can enjoy solar-powered electricity even when the sun’s not shining. This is a big deal, as the Sunpluggers blog reported:

Off-grid solar owners for many years have used battery banks to store their generated electricity for later use, but the plan for the KB Home development – smack in the middle of a grid-tied suburban subdivision – could help alter the trajectory for adoption of both solar electricity and plug-in vehicles.

BYD is already growing fast, as Li Lu reminded me. It has about 160,000 employees, most in Shenzhen and Xian in  China, but others at offices in the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary, Romania, Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan and Hong Kong. (There’s even an office in Shaumburg, Illinois, where Motorola is a big customer for BYD’s batteries and handsets.)

BYD sold about 450,000 vehicles in 2009, up 170 percent from a year earlier, and it intends to sell about 800,000 this year, nearly all of them gasoline powered. The company’s all-electric car, called the e6,  is currently running as taxi in Shengzhen in small volumes. Rollout is slightly behind schedule, but more are expected to be produced this year.  Unlike the U.S., China has yet to lay out a policy for subsidizing electric cars, which has slowed things down. The car will cost about $40,000, the company has said. It hasn’t talked about a timetable to bring the car to the U.S. or Europe, which could be a big export market because prices there are high.

Li Lu
Li Lu

“The big challenge now is to bring down the initial cost,” Li Lu told me. Eventually, BYD would like  to sell the car for about the same price as conventional vehicles, and win over auto buyers by offering them lower operating costs and higher performance. “The only way to conquer this market is to provide a product that is comparable at the beginning and superior in the end,” he said.

BYD’s greatest strength is in battery technology, the company’s first business. Manufacturing a safe, reliable, long-lasting, and fast-charging battery for a car at an affordable price is a complex and costly undertaking. The Chinese firm believes that it has an edge over its rivals.

“There are not many in the world that have comparable experience and expertise,” Li Lu says. “They seem to have  a commanding lead right now.” The BYD technology is super safe, its batteries will last a long time and they will cost less than competitors, he said.

All that remains to be seen, of course. But BYD has not one but three opportunities to change the world–with its electric cars, its rooftop solar panels with battery storage and with large-scale batteries that could be used by electric utilities to store solar or wind power.

If BYD succeeds in even one of those businesses—let alone all three—it will become one of the most important clean tech companies in the world.

Brainstorm Green: The Home Edition

FORTUNE’s third annual Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment starts today (Monday), and one new twist this year is that you can play along at home.

BstormGreenHorizonta2B4F8FFor the next three days, many of the plenary sessions at the event, which is being held at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point, Ca., will be shown on the web. People who sign up to attend online will be able to ask questions, I’m told. This is an experiment, an effort to see how a virtual conference will work and, of course, to expand FORTUNE’s business. (Hint: You can tune in for free this year, but that may not be the case in the future.)

As the co-chair and creator of Brainstorm Green, I’m obviously biased but I think we’ve got a great lineup again this year. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few days to focus on the conference. Here are some  highlights:

Today (Monday) at 3:05 p.m. (all times are listed as Pacific Time, so this is  6:05 in the East), Lee Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart who is now chair of the executive committee of the Wal-Mart board, will talk about Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts with John Huey, the editor in chief of Time Inc. John is a great interviewer who once wrote a book about Sam Walton, so this session should be a treat.

Following that session, at about 3:50 p.m.,  I’ll be asking some of America’s most important environmental leaders: What Do Environmentalists Want? Joining me will be Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Yarnold of the Environmental Defense Fund and Mike Brune, the new head of the Sierra Club. We’ll talk about the outlook for climate legislation in Washington, as well as such hot topics as nuclear power and geoengineering.

Later Monday, I’ll talk to Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI, about “sustainability as a team sport.” [click to continue…]

Brainstorm Green’s all-star team

William Clay Ford Jr.
William Clay Ford Jr.

Before I head to Copenhagen this week for the global climate extravaganza, I want to bring you the latest news about Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment. I’m delighted by the caliber of leaders and thinkers who have agreed to speak at the event, which will be held April 12-14 in Laguna Beach, CA.

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, who was a huge hit last year, will be back in 2010. Ford (the company) is one of the few bright spots in the U.S. auto industry, as you know, and while it took a long while coming, the firm seems committed to hybrids, electric cars and other environmentally-friendly technologies, including wheat-straw reinforced plastic and other bio-based materials. Hybrid sales are taking off, as the company recently reported:

  • Ford Motor Company’s year-to-date hybrid sales are 73 percent higher than the same period in 2008, fueled by the introduction of hybrid versions of the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan
  • More than 60 percent of the sales of Fusion Hybrid are by non-Ford owners – with more than 52 percent of those customers coming from import brands.
Stewart Brand

One of the best books that I’ve read in a long time is Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand, so I’m thrilled to announce that Stewart will be featured at Brainstorm Green. In the book, he brings a fresh perspective to nuclear power (he’s for it), geo-engineering (he’s intrigued) and megacities (they are both green and engines of economic growth). You can be sure he will challenge conventional wisdom at the conference.

Three powerhouse leaders of the enviromental movement–Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense and Mark Tercek of the Nature Conservancy–are also planning to attend. Fred and Frances have ben at the event before, and they both plugged into the Washington scene, which will surely be a topic this spring, while Mark, formerly of Goldman Sachs, will be able [click to continue…]

Exclusive: Warren Buffett’s utility man

As Washington debates climate change, a lot of utility company CEOs have assumed high-profile roles: Jim Rogers of Duke Energy is appearing in commercials with the Environmental Defense Fund, David Crane of NRG Energy has emerged as a leading advocate for nuclear power and Michael Morris of American Electric Power, the nation’s biggest coal-burning utility, naturally talks up clean coal.

David Sokol, the chairman of an Iowa-based utility holding company called MidAmerican Energy Holdings, which is 80%-owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has for the most part been quieter. But Sokol and MidAmerican Energy have been positioning their business for a low-carbon future. MidAmerican’s investments in wind power mean that it generates more power from renewable source than any other regulated utility, as best as I can tell. It was Sokol, at Buffett’s request, who engineered MidAmerican’s investment in BYD, the Chinese battery-maker and auto company that is building low-cost electric cars. (See Warren Buffett Takes Charge, my story about BYD that ran last month in FORTUNE.) And now there’s more news from MidAmerican, and you heard it here first: The company will soon begin testing batteries from BYD that, if all goes well, could store electricity on a large scale at a reasonable cost.

That’s a big deal.

“We’ve never really had storage capability on utility systems,” Sokol told me recently, by phone. “Given the progress BYD has made on the technology of batteries for electric vehicles, the question is, how do we ramp that technology up so that we can use it for multiple purposes in the utility world?

“Probably the most obvious is the ability to store intermittent renewable resources, such as wind or solar,” Sokol said.

Put simply, cheap battery storage at scale would address one of the biggest drawbacks to wind and solar energy, which is that, unlike coal or nuclear power, they are unpredictable—you can only make electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

“If you can store electricity when the wind blows, and have it available when you need it, that argument goes away,” Sokol says. But he cautions: “There’s a fair bit of distance between here and there.”

Just a few details: This fall, MidAmerican will build a 2 megawatt storage facility using BYD batteries at an existing substation in Portland, Oregon, where it operates the local utility, Pacific Power. BYD, meanwhile, is building a bigger storage facility in China, and plans to build a third one in a still-undisclosed location on in southern California. That’s about all I can tell you because BYD is reluctant to talk about its research.

The 2 megawatts of battery storage in Portland will allow MidAmerican to test BYD batteries to see how well they charge, what control systems are needed to discharge the electricity and to analyze their reliability and cost. “It will let us do a fair amount of testing to understand the economics of a 100 or 200 megawatt storage facility to back up wind,” Sokol says.

Currently, electricity can’t be stored economically on a large scale except in systems that pump water uphill, then release it to generate hydropower. So-called pumped-storage systems, however, often consume more energy than they generate; they make sense only because water can be pumped uphill using cheap off-peak power, then released so the electricity can be sold during periods of peak demand when prices are higher.

Low-cost battery storage would be a dramatic improvement over pumped storage for many reasons, not the least of which is that the batteries could be located in urban areas where electricity demand is high.

Sokol has credibility when he talks about energy and environmental issues, in part because of his association with the plain-spoken Buffett but mostly because of MidAmerican’s own track record. “For the last six years, we have been very focused on trying to move our overall portfolio to the lowest carbon footprint possible,” he says. “We’re building every wind and geothermal project that we are able to.” A thoughtful and unpretentious Omaha native, Sokol is a student of business and author of a slim and insightful volume of management advice called Pleased But Not Satisfied. MidAmerican, whose subsidiaries provide electricity and natural gas to nearly 7 million customers in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountain states and the UK, had about $12.7 billion in revenue last year.sokol_sm

About 24 percent of MidAmerican’s generating capacity now comes from renewable or noncarbon fuel sources, including wind, geothermal, hydroelectric and biomass. About 50% comes from burning coal, which is about the same as the U.S. average, but its PacifiCorp subsidiary caused a stir back at the end of 2007 when it said it would scrap plans for new coal-fired power plants in Wyoming and Utah, in part because of concerns about climate change.

When we met last December in New York, Sokol explained to me that he is a big believer in electric cars because electric engines are far more efficient than those that burn gasoline. An all-electric vehicle–even one powered by today’s U.S. mix of electricity generation—produces about 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions of a gasoline-powered car that gets 20 miles per gallon. As battery prices come down, electric cars will be both cheaper to drive and cleaner than today’s fleet. Just this week, BYD and Volkswagen agreed to work together on electric cars.

Sokol nevertheless opposes the Waxman-Markey climate change bill approved last week by the House energy committee. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, he wrote that the legislation will place an undue burden on consumers because it requires utilities to pay for allowances to emit CO2 and creates a complex and unnecessary trading scheme:

The real hidden catch of the cap-and-trade system, though, is that it will require consumers to pay twice: first for emission allowances and then for the construction of new low- and zero-carbon power plants.

Sokol did say, however, that the electricity sector can achieve the 83% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 mandated by the bill. Getting there will require advanced technologies like the electric cars, large-scale batteries and solar photovoltaic panels being developed by BYD.

Founded in 1995, BYD now employs 130,000 people in 11 factories, eight in China and one each in India, Hungary, and Romania. If nothing else, the company has demonstrated that it can move fast. “Working with them,” Sokol says, “is sort of like watching bamboo grow.”