May 27, 2010
Better Place Swappable Batteries Make Sense?
Michael Kanellos takes a look at the obstacles to the Project Better Place proposal to use swappable leased batteries in electric cars.
This is America, after all. We hate renting. Graduating from renting an apartment to buying a home has become enshrined as hallmark of adulthood. And if there's one thing we hate more than renting, it's sharing stuff with strangers. Who had this battery before me? Is that smoke coming from the hood? The first time someone gets in a bad accident or the car conks, watch them blame it on some stranger's battery.
He lists 5 obstacles, including resistance of car companies to standardize on a single battery factor. I see this as a very big obstacle for a number of reasons. The sizes and shapes of cars differ so much. The car companies developing pluggable hybrids and pure electric cars are using different battery suppliers who are using different lithium chemistries and fabrication techniques. The car companies are also competing on how they package the battery cells. They are looking for competitive advantages in their battery choices.
One of the big differences we can see now between electric vehicle (EV) and pluggable hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) makers is how much they allow their batteries to be discharged. GM, trying to assure very long battery life and satisfied customers, is basically using only half the capacity of the batteries they are putting in the Chevy Volt. By contrast, Tesla, Nissan, and some of the other EV makers are going for various deeper discharge cycles. You can find a wide spectrum of trade-offs on battery life being made by different PHEV and EV makers. They do not want to give up their individual trade-off decisions to unite around a single trade-off choice that won't be optimized for all market segments.
Another problem with the leased approach that he doesn't mention is ease of removal and insertion. A car has to be designed for ease swapping. Yet engineering is all about trade-offs. An easily swappable design rules out many storage locations for the batteries and even adds weight to make the packages easy to swap.
It is noteworthy that the two governments that have embraced this approach so far, Israel and Denmark, both have geographically small and fairly densely populated countries that do not have a lot of car traffic flowing in and out of them. Maybe leased swappable batteries would have a better chance in Hawaii than in mainland US states.
For pluggable hybrids (e.g. the Chevy Volt due out late 2010) battery swapping doesn't make sense. Since pluggables really fit well with America's lower population density I see a smaller role for pure electrics here than in smaller denser populated countries.
A substantial portion of the people in the US whose car usage patterns map well to a pure electric car probably will always recharge at home or at destinations (e.g. drive to visit family or friends and recharge at their house or recharge at the office while at work). The ubiquitous availability of electricity is a fundamental difference compared to gasoline and diesel fuel. No special stations with special refueling tansk needed. If, due to declining oil supplies, we some day drive most of our miles under electric power then the number of gasoline and electric fueling stations will be far fewer than the number of gas stations that exist today.
Finally, if I was going to drive an electric car I'd want to own the battery. I'm not arguing that's the best use of my money. I just like fewer bills and to be in fewer contracts in my personal life. Keep It Simple Stupid.
Clearly the battery swapping stations can ( and probably will be ) standardized in such a way that for small, medium and large size cars, the robots at the swapping station will provide different types of batteries. And swapping can be made very intelligent at the electronic level also: for instance, when you travel to Europe with a laptop computer, you can plug the adaptor to the 220 volt outlet instead of 110 volt, and the computer still works.
In any case, note that within a few years, both Denmark and Israel will have completely installed their charging pods in every street, and their swapping stations in necessary locations; and by 2020, both Denmark and Israel will have closed most of their gas stations, and the majority of their people will be using this standardized system. Initially their cars will be made by Renault-Nissan, but later other competitors can join the system. After all, the totality of the gasoline cars are standardized to use basically the same kind of gasoline.
What's more, Cherry, which is China's main automobile giant , actually agreed to adopt the Better Place business model. In China the decision has already been made in favor of pure electric cars, and they are already building nuclear power plants like mad. The only issue is how to charge these cars. If you buy the battery with your car, you will be stuck with an obsolete battery within a few years. This is the main reason it is a good idea to subscribe to the battery exchange model of Better Place.
Here is the collaboration agreement between Cherry and Better Place:
In Tokyo electric taxis using the Better Place model are being demonstrated already:
I admit that I haven't kept up with flow battery development. If researchers can crank up the energy density of the electrolyte solution, vanadium flow batteries would be perfect for electric cars. Recharge by plug overnight and at work, replace the electrolyte at filling stations on longer trips.
It's not just having a fairly new battery all the time, it's also that the value of the battery isn't lost if the car is scrapped. Even if the battery is damaged in a collision, most of its cells can probably be re-used to rebuild other batteries.
Utility load-levelling isn't the only use for older batteries. People who do relatively little driving could lease such batteries at a discount, leaving the car plugged in for V2G when not in use. This would displace fuel use while leaving most of the benefits to the grid intact. Short, regular daily routes would get the most benefit from this.
Nobody I know has any problems swapping propane tanks for grills. Why would they have problems doing the same with their batteries?
That sounds more like a problem for marketing people to solve, and problem that should be far from insuperable.
I expect battery recycling to work just as well for owned batteries as for leased batteries.
But people swap propane tanks because they have to. If I could drive my car into my garage (of course, first I'd have to have a garage) and plug it in to a cable dangling from the ceiling to get charged later at night when electricity is cheaper then I'd much rather to that than go to the battery swapping station.
There's another point I should have raised in my post: If you do not recharge your electric car at home then trips to the battery swapping station will be more frequent than trips to the gas station. Electric cars will have shorter ranages. Do you want to go to the battery swapping station 5 times more often than you now go to the gas station? I know I don't.
The difference between owning and leasing a battery is that you'll probably pay 9+% interest on a car loan to own a battery, but the leasing agency will pay much less and also be able to take depreciation on their asset.
There are several points that are often overlooked with battery swapping:
1. A huge issue with this plan apropos the auto manufacturers is that the technology is anything but settled yet. You can see this in the myriad of automaker, supplier and battery manufacturer public statements and leaks. The optimization of the system between cost (initial and warranty), safety, driveability and efficiency is necessarily very tight in EVs. Settling now on a battery technology, power and voltage range and size, or worse, allowing those parameters to be determined by consensus or another company all together, ties alot of hands that are not in a position to be tied just yet. Contrary to popular belief, treating these things like legos that just snap together will not get you the most energy efficient, best performing, most reliable vehicle. That is important for EVs to be those things... poor reliability will prevent sales from taking off and it will be another 10-15 years before the next industry wide attempt at an EV world. There needs to be some time to allow the best system to evolve.
2. Also forgotten in the list and discussion is that when something as important as the EV battery is in the hands of another company, that other company has a huge impact on the perceived quality of your vehicle. The OEMs work towards and value their reputations very very much. Same goes for liability and safety (both occupant and first responder) concerns. In the recent hub-bub with Toyota, there were no front page headlines blaming the suppliers of the parts in question. In the end, the OEM's reputation is the on the hook. And like my other argument, the technology and experience is just not there to enable the OEMs with either a warm fuzzy feeling or a plan to get to the warm fuzzy feeling.
2.a. A subset is that the OEMs will not want to put their reputation on the line betting on a small unproven company/business plan like Better Place. It is a chicken and the egg problem here, so the efforts of Better Place are good, but I think their timing is off. What happens if Better Place goes under-- what happens to those cars that rely on Better Place? (and how do swappable battery packs play into the U.S. laws about spare parts being available for X number of years? just asking as I haven't seen that issue at all) Are people left with a car with an empty battery? I assume that can probably charge at home still, so it's not a total loss: maybe those customers end up with a free battery pack in the end, basically a discounted EV but without the swappable convenience they expected. That could be an interesting twist.
Better Place is just a little early in my opinion.
Some people pay cash for their cars. Some get really low interest rates due to high credit ratings.
Your points are excellent. Yes, car companies do not want to put their reputations and finances at risk with a small start-up. Yes, battery technologies are still changing too rapidly. Too many ways to fabricate, package, and control them. Just the desire to heat them when cold might create packaging requirements.
Some get really low interest rates due to high credit ratings.
They still can't take depreciation. (I know, I know; this transfers some of the cost to other taxpayers, but so do the externalized costs of oil.)
If a battery-leasing company goes under, each car is still going to have one battery. The worst that can happen is whoever buys the assets of the leasing company doesn't comply with the terms of the contract, and you can stop paying them; your leased battery becomes a free battery, and you can make a deal with anyone you like when it dies. Instead of swapping batteries on long trips, you rent a generator trailer.