ENERGY WATCH #1 - August 14, 2018
In case you still have doubts whether EVs are going to make it big, the past week saw some significant announcements giving clear pointers to where the future is headed.
As the website Venture Beat reports, “not a great deal is known about Ample — its website is still pretty much a holding page for what’s to come. But according to a statement issued by the startup earlier today, it has invented an ‘economical, rapidly deployable, and widely accessible platform that delivers a full charge to any electric car in minutes. To do so, Ample said it uses autonomous robotics and smart battery technology.’”
The San Francisco-based startup was established in 2014, and its two founders — Khaled Hassounah and John de Souza — “have sold previous startups to some big buyers, including Microsoft, Symantec, and Merck”, notes Venture Beat. “Building a scalable solution for charging electric vehicles requires a new approach to infrastructure and partners who are committed to developing electrification as the new energy downstream,” said Hassounah, who serves as Ample’s CEO.
In the UK, utility company Centrica, made a “multimillion pound” investment in Driivz, an Isreal startup that specializes in end-to-end software solutions for electric cars.
Established in 2012, Driivz has developed a cloud-based EV charging operating system that is already used by over 200,000 drivers across the globe, Centrica notes. “The Driivz platform offers charging network operators, car manufacturers and utilities an end-to-end solution to manage all aspects of EV deployment from charging, account management and driver billing, through to onsite power management that allows businesses to optimise output to chargers in line with site energy demand and costs.”
The investment has been made by Centrica Innovations, “established in 2017 to identify, incubate and accelerate new technologies with the potential to transform the way we live, work and move.”
Centrica Innovations is integrating the Driivz platform into a new intelligent EV charging service offer for businesses from Centrica Electric Vehicle Services (CEVS). “The fully-managed solution has been developed to meet the needs of organisations that want EV charging facilities for their employees and/or their depot-based fleets”, the company notes.
The CEVS offer “builds on the company’s experience as an installer of over 4,000 workplace chargers, including Transport for London’s £18m EV charging scheme, which aims to install 300 fast charging points in the capital by 2020. Drivers will benefit from access to a self-service portal that gives total control over their EV charging needs, from managing their account and setting payment plans, to planning tools that help to identify, reserve and navigate to their next charging point.”
In case you think the likes of Shell and Centrica aren’t going to change the world, then how about Aldi, Lidl and IKEA?
German discounter Lidl announced last week that it will be starting a car sharing program for its customers together with Mazda. At 50 retail sites in North Rhine Westphalia shoppers will be able to take their groceries home in a Mazda Crossover-SUV CX-3 or Roadster MX-5. Some but presumably not all of the cars will be electric. It is significant perhaps that Lidl has chosen a Japanese rather than German carmaker as partner.
Aldi meanwhile announced last week that it will be expanding its network of EV charging stations – not just at its stores, but it also wants to expand along the German Autobahnen. “So far we concentrated on urban areas and inner cities”, said a spokesman, “but we also want our customers to plan their holidays with us [with their EVs].” Note that thus far Aldi offers its customers EV charging for free at 53 supermarkets in Germany!
But Lidl and Aldi aren’t even frontrunners in Germany. Rewe, Ikea, Edeka and other retailers also offer EV charging, in many cases for free.
The unexpectedly strong demand for electric cars has resulted in painful battery shortages in various markets. As Christopher Arcus notes in an interesting article on Cleantechnica, Hyundai in the U.S. for example was unable to meet the demand for its Ioniq Electric last year, because the company cold not obtain enough batteries.
According to Arcus, this problem goes much deeper than just a temporary hitch in supplies. Most car manufacturers – unlike Tesla – have failed to invest in their own battery production. This now leaves them at the mercy of big battery suppliers. As Arcus notes, this is a key strategic failure: would any car manufacturer “dream of outsourcing engine expertise”, he asks?
It’s not that they did not try. Arcus: “The large conventional auto companies invested in a succession of failed technology, GM with Envia, Daimler with Li-Tec, and Nissan to some degree with AESC and the NEC joint venture, whose plans to sell the unit to China’s GSR were cancelled.”
But these failures were caused by a lack of expertise (choosing the wrong technology) and volume demand, “not because they had a factory. They still need the expertise, and need to make compelling EVs with volume demand, and need to figure out which cell technology is best, but now they are at the mercy of all their competition — which bids for the same factory output and may delay shipments to Daimler, thus limiting EV volumes. Daimler, BMW, VW, Nissan, Renault, as well as various Chinese electric car and electric bus companies are in competition for cells from CATL.”
According to Arcus, the car companies should take a cue from Tesla: “The model for success is shown with Tesla. Carmakers must enlist battery expertise and partner with a battery company in an exclusive arrangement where they benefit from factory output. Failing to do that is like a conventional car company failing to owning an engine factory or have any significant internal combustion expertise. That would be unthinkable.”
“Conventional car companies are in a quandary”, notes Arcus, “where the only sources for batteries to compete with Tesla are companies like LG Chem, SK Innovation, CATL, and Samsung SDI, which are just beginning advanced NMC 811 production over the next year. It seems that only Tesla figured EVs would be successful this early and planned ahead to build a gigafactory to supply the vast amount of cells necessary to build the large numbers of electric cars consumers want. Even Tesla has to expand its battery factory size and efficiency by 3× to fulfill demand for both storage and EV batteries. The original plan was for 35 GWh for cars and 50 GWh total. The updated plan is for about 100 GWh for cars and 150 GWh total.”
Still, one could sympathize with the car manufacturers: unlike internal combustion engines, batteries are simply not their core competence. Tesla, by contrast, may be viewed as much as a battery manufacturer than a car manufacturer (indeed, this could even be called Tesla’s weak spot).
Becoming a battery specialist also means that you need expertise on how battery technology is developing. This is not at all clear yet. For carmakers one problem is that batteries, unlike internal combustion engines, are not made just for the EV market. They are also used in the electricity sector and in consumer goods.
The website Quartz published a big story last week entitled “The next major innovation in batteries might be here”, which discusses at least one alternative technology that is being developed next to lithium-ion batteries, namely the lithium-metal battery.
Not that the author, Akshat Rathi, has really uncovered a breakthrough. Rathi’s report is one in a long, long series of battery innovation reports of breakthroughs that “might” be around the corner. Nevertheless, it makes for interesting reading for market watchers.
Rathi has interviewed Dave Eaglesham, the CEO of Pellion Technologies, a Massachusetts-based startup, who believes “his company has made the leap beyond lithium-ion that will bring the battery industry to the next stage of technological disruption. He and his colleagues have accomplished something researchers have been struggling with for decades: they’ve built a reliable rechargeable lithium-metal battery.”
“Pellion’s battery can pack nearly double the energy of a conventional lithium-ion battery, making it able to, for example, double the time a drone can spend in the air. That 100% increase in energy density is a step change compared to the annual 10% or so improvement the battery industry currently averages. If Pellion overcomes early limitations, its batteries have the potential to power a Tesla car for 800 km (500 miles) on a single charge, rather than today’s upper limits of 400 km.”
That’s still an “if” of course. Ironically, oil giant Exxon – not known for its enthusiastic embrace of electric cars – worked on this technology already in the 1970s, notes Rathi, at a time when there worries the world might run out of oil. In the 1980s, Sony invented the graphite anode which turned out to be much safer than the metal anode and which went on to conquer the market.
Now however, “we are brushing up against the limitations of the graphite anode. Next-generation applications such as cheap electric cars and electric airplanes will need batteries that carry the same amount of energy but weigh a lot less and take up a fraction of the space of today’s batteries.”
Nevertheless, lithium-metal technology has proved to be a tough nut to crack. “The industry is littered with examples of companies that tried to build a lithium-metal battery but failed”, notes Rathi.
What does Pellion do differently? It “doesn’t start with lithium metal inside. Instead, the battery is manufactured in the exact same way as a conventional lithium-ion battery, including using a liquid electrolyte, a widely available cathode—and an anode that begins its life as a copper sheet. That’s crucial because it allows Pellion to use existing lithium-ion battery factories in Asia, where it’s much cheaper to manufacture batteries.”
“In its discharged state, the Pellion battery has its lithium ions sitting snugly inside the cathode. The magic happens when the battery is charged for the first time, and the lithium ions travel from the cathode and deposit as a layer of lithium metal on the copper anode. The first charge is carried out in a state when the battery is completely sealed from the outside environment, and thus the newly formed layer of lithium metal is protected. This configuration is called zero-lithium or lithium-free.”
“It is quite an impressive feat,” says Venkat Viswanathan, a battery expert at Carnegie Mellon University. Another expert (who asked not to be named due to press restrictions at their lab) called it the “holy grail” of the lithium-metal battery.
However, “Pellion’s battery does have limitations. It typically takes three hours to charge the battery fully, and it’s not cheap. While experts Quartz spoke to about Pellion’s battery were impressed by the achievement, many expressed concerns about the limited number of life cycles: it can only guarantee 50 charge-discharge life cycles.”
“That’s much lower than the approximately 300 life cycles needed for a battery to go in a smartphone or the 1,000 life cycles required for electric cars. Eaglesham says the company’s latest models in development can last much more than 50 charge-discharge lifecycles than the batteries it sells. But Viswanathan says that going from 50 life cycles to 500 is a much harder proposition than what Pellion has achieved so far. Steven Visco agrees. He is the CEO of PolyPlus, a California-based startup, and he thinks that using a liquid electrolyte, which Pellion’s battery does, fundamentally limits how many lifecycles a lithium-metal battery could achieve.”
So, Rathi concludes, “Pellion’s claims need to be taken with a grain of salt.”
You can see where the problem is for the car manufacturers who need to become battery technology specialists.
You can also see why car manufacturers – and oil companies – might prefer to see hydrogen-fueled cars win out over EVs. Hydrogen technology fits in much better with their competencies and is also much more difficult to master for outsiders.
Whether hydrogen has a big future in transport is very questionable, however, certainly in passenger cars. One of its problems is safety. As Bridie Schmidt writes on the Australian website Reneweconomy, “the highly flammable gas in its pure form must be compressed and stored safely in order to be transported for use as a fuel.”
Schmidt reports that now, however, “a breakthrough method developed by [research institution] CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] to transport hydrogen safely in the form of ammonia was tested in Pullenvale, Brisbane.”
CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall was one of the first to take a ride in the vehicles supplied by Toyota and Hyundai, both automakers who have invested considerable time and money in the development of fuel cell technology for cars, writes Schmidt.
“CSIRO principal research scientist Michael Dolan said it was the first time, worldwide, that a hydrogen car had been powered by hydrogen derived from ammonia.”
“It’s an important link in the hydrogen value chain that we think we’ve solved, so that will enable something much bigger,” Dolan told Reneweconomy. “We are effectively undoing the Haber-Bosch process [which has traditionally been used to transform hydrogen into ammonia], starting with hydrogen from a source, where you take nitrogen out of the air and make ammonia, which we think helps transport hydrogen over long distances and long time scales.”
“We extract hydrogen out of ammonia, and using our membrane we can extract it,” Dolan continues, explaining that as the process is a chemical one that can be fuelled by renewable electricity, it is considered a low-emissions process.
“Ammonia stores almost twice as much energy than liquid hydrogen and is easier to ship and distribute, opening up possibilities for an export market.”
“This is a watershed moment for energy,“ Marshall said. “We look forward to applying CSIRO innovation to enable this exciting renewably-sourced fuel and energy storage medium a smoother path to market.”
How much of a “watershed moment” this innovation in hydrogen technology will be, remains to be seen of course.
On the same website, Reneweconomy, author Bryce Gaton notes that what used to be one of the main advantage of hydrogen over EV charging, namely the speed of fueling, is being lost with the advent of ultra-fast EV chargers.
Gaton writes that “the recent start of the US and European roll-outs of 350kW chargers using the newly agreed 350 kW CCS standard (called Ultra-Fast charging to separate it from the 50 kW CHAdeMO and earlier 50 and 150 kW CCS fast-charging) … [will] allow a 100 kWh EV battery to charge to 80% in less than 15 minutes. That equates to adding another 400 km worth of charge in the time it takes to drink a coffee. “
For owners with EV batteries around 40 – 60 kWh (the commonest battery sizes currently), an 80% charge would take 5 to 10 minutes after travelling 300 – 400 km.
By contrast, “hydrogen refuelling would take a little bit less time – but remember, for FCEVs [fuel cell electric vehicles] you are locked in to always taking 5 min to refuel via a hydrogen station every time you need fuel (as well as actually finding a hydrogen station!) versus the couple of times a year that you would use ultra-fast DC charging on a long trip.”
In other words, to compare ultra-fast EV charging to hydrogen charging is comparing apples and oranges, because most of the time EV drivers will not need to use ultrafast charging at all.
Gaton notes that “ultra-fast DC charging is now rolling out across Europe with Ionity (a collaboration of BMW, Daimler, Ford, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche) having now installed six stations and promising a total of 400 charger stations (with an average of six charging stalls each) to be installed by the end of 2019. Meanwhile, Electrify America (the US$2 billion business to support EV charging set-up by VW as part of the settlement for Dieselgate) has begun installing 350 kW charging stations across the USA and Canada.”
He concludes that “given the paucity of hydrogen refuelling stations in the world (there are 36 in the whole of the USA and Canada for example), the speed that ultra-fast charging is rolling-out at, plus the future megacharger truck charging network from Tesla – I would suggest that the future is looking a whole lot dimmer again for the hydrogen car than it did even at the start of 2018.”
But could all these battery-powered EVs and hydrogen cars be made obsolete by cars that are totally powered by solar cells?
Not for the time being perhaps but sometime in the future? The latest initiative in this field is from German company Sono.
As Reuters reports, this Munich-based start-up “has taken advantage of the strong Bavarian sun this summer to test the final development of the charging system of its Sion car, an all-electric solar vehicle that lets you charge as you drive.”
Production of the Sion, a fully-electric vehicle that has solar cells integrated into its bodywork and can be charged via solar power or from conventional power outlets, “will start in the second half of 2019 and the company has more than 6,500 orders which it aims to start selling at 16,000 euros ($18,540) next year”, according to Reuters.
Sion will have 330 solar cells attached to the vehicle’s roof, bonnet and sides and its battery system will offer a range of around 250 km (155 miles) before it needs recharging.
“We have a seat heater, there is air conditioning, there is a large infotainment system where I can also connect my phone interactively, which means I really have a full vehicle which is very simple, has no frills,” Laurin Hahn, co-founder and chief executive of the startup told Reuters.
Sono is not the only company working on solar integrated cars. Ford launched a prototype in 2014, but that has not been heard from since. There are also various university teams working on prototypes.