Navigant Research Blog

GE Boosting Batteries’ Brains

— October 1, 2012

Since July 2012, when General Electric first opened the doors of its energy storage facility in Schenectady, New York, big claims about the potential for growth in the energy storage market have become common.  GE claims that its energy storage business could generate up to $1 billion in revenue annually in just a few years.  So what will it take to get there? GE’s activity in 2012 highlights one of the most prominent challenges for advanced batteries: battery operation and lifecycle expectations.

The cornerstone of GE’s energy storage business is the Durathon battery, a sodium metal halide technology that was acquired from Beta R&D in 2007.  Five years later, GE opened the Schenectady plant to support the deployment of Durathon units ‑ for which it recently received $65 million in new orders.  These revenues appear to be an early return in a market that has significant potential in quite a few different applications.  GE’s role in the advanced battery sector, however, is not limited to the Durathon battery; the company has moved to address one of the primary challenges in commercializing advanced batteries: adding intelligent management battery management systems (BMSs). The intelligence behind battery management is crucial for defining the value battery storage can add to each application and for maintaining the health of battery systems.  That value, in turn, will define the return on investment (ROI) for advanced batteries, which to date remains rather ambiguous for many applications.  Through in-house R&D on components and external software partnerships, GE is working to advance intelligent battery management to drive better battery operations that can ultimately enhance the value delivered by battery systems and thus higher returns for end-users.

In-house, GE Global Research is conducting research on small sensors for advanced batteries, which can be embedded in the system to monitor the health of cells, collect operational data, and trigger a BMS to optimize battery usage.  For this research, GE received an ARPA-E grant to continue work in conjunction with the Ford Motor Company.  Concurrently, GE has established a partnership with Xtreme Power to deploy the Xtreme Active Control Technology (XACT) management system to enhance the operations and value of the Durathon battery.

Battery technology advances incrementally, and GE has acknowledged that the challenges for advanced batteries are not just in materials science, but in developing tools to assess how these batteries will operate once deployed.  GE’s knowledge of power systems and electrical technology, along with its research expertise, brings significant weight to the advancement of battery intelligence, which is critical to developing the business case for advanced batteries.


In Big Cities, Fleets Turn to Alternative Fuels

— October 1, 2012

Last week I spotted an alternative fuel vehicle in Washington, DC: a hybrid Coca Cola delivery van.  According to Coca Cola, this truck, which is one of 700 operating in North America, uses 30% less fuel than its traditional counterpart.

What motivates a company operating more than 200,000 vehicles to consider alternative fuels and drivetrains (i.e.  integrating cleantech) into its fleet?  At the end of the day, it comes down to lowering operating costs.  But there are other factors that are making the switch easier.  For one, there are now more choices than ever.  Next, fleets are a great market for cleantech.  And finally, cities are taking a closer look at emissions and human health – and are encouraging businesses to do their part.

The clean transportation options for fleet managers include natural gas, hybrid vehicles, and hydrogen fuel vehicles.  ITM Power, a United Kingdom-based hydrogen electrolysis company, targets fleets.  ITM Power has coupled its electrolyzers (which generate hydrogen from water) with solar PV for completely “green” hydrogen fuel for fleets.

With their predictable routes, fleets are an ideal market for alternative fuels and drivetrains.  Range anxiety is less of an issue if a vehicle has a fixed route.  Fleet operators are also highly conscious of fuel efficiency, since fuel costs represent part of the cost of delivering the product to the customer.  In some markets, fuel costs – mainly diesel – are high, volatile, or both.  The idea of using less fuel or cheaper fuel is appealing for the bottom line.

Motivated by savings, these fleets are producing benefits that also carry over to society.  Lowering emissions of all types makes cities healthier places to live.  In order to improve air quality, city governments are sending market signals to firms operating fleets (and to government agencies that operate fleets).  The U.S.  Department of Energy has been operating the Clean Cities Initiative since 1993.  The Initiative, which includes Washington, D.C., has a mission to encourage “alternative transportation deployments.”  A similar, global effort is run by the C40, which advises 58 cities globally on how to reduce emissions and improve human health as a result.  Twelve cities are targeting transportation as one the key areas for emissions improvements.


Plugfest Marks Milestone for Interoperable HEM Devices

— October 1, 2012

We take for granted interoperability among technical gadgets.  From laptops to mobile phones to printers, we expect a basic level of common functions like being able to send a text message no matter the mobile phone or network.  Smart grid home energy management (HEM) gear currently lacks some basic interoperable capabilities – but not for much longer.

Testing among makers of electric meters, thermostats, appliances, and gateways is taking place, and by next year the latest interoperable devices should be on the market, helping to fuel wider adoption of devices that enable consumers to better manage their energy consumption.

In late July the ZigBee Alliance, the Wi-Fi Alliance, and the HomePlug Alliance formed the Consortium for Smart Energy Profile Interoperability (CSEP), which promotes Smart Energy Profile 2.0 (SEP 2), an emerging standard for connecting HEM devices to the grid.  The three companies have successfully finished their first interoperability “Plugfest” – the actual testing of gear to make sure it interoperates as planned.  More plugfests are scheduled in coming months as the consortium moves to finish its certification program.

Assuming the testing moves ahead smoothly, the ecosystem of vendors, utilities and consumers will be able to rely on SEP 2 as the common glue for energy management and automated demand response programs.  As noted in our recent report, Home Area Networks, the lack of a standard for devices to communicate and share information has inhibited the market’s growth.

The hope among industry players is that all of this behind-the-scenes work will lead to a slew of new products that work seamlessly, and that attract a wave of customers who embrace home energy management.  That’s possible, but what’s more likely is a slower rate of adoption for the next year or two as products mature and consumers discover what works and what doesn’t as they aim to reduce their energy consumption.


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