Navigant Research Blog

2015: A Turning Point for Batteries

— January 30, 2015

One of the biggest energy stories of 2014 was the emergence of battery-based energy storage as a reasonable option for grid management.  But the battery industry is just getting started.  This year, the energy news cycle will be led by batteries on all fronts.  This year will mark the tipping point that sees batteries become not only an accepted part of our electricity grid and transportation network, but also a key underpinning to the global economy.

Beneath these developments is a single realization that the world is beginning to accept: that high-quality advanced batteries are becoming very cheap.  As Navigant Research’s Materials for Advanced Batteries report explains, a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery that was priced at more than $1,000 per kWh in 2009 can now be bought for a third of that.  And there is no visible end to the reductions in pricing.  This price decline is caused by three factors:

Manufacturing scale: The world’s battery factories are capable producing some 100 GWh worth of Li-ion cells this year.  While not that much will actually be made (Navigant Research expects that 2015 will see some 65 GWh of Li-ion batteries produced), the manufacturing scale is now in place to enable the enormous growth of the use of batteries that is to be expected as pricing comes down.  And the capacity is only growing with time.  When Tesla Motors and Panasonic build their GigaFactory in Nevada in 2017, global manufacturing capacity will be increased by 50%.

Manufacturing expertise: It’s been 24 years since Sony introduced the first mass-produced Li-ion battery.  It’s taken that long for manufacturers to make these products at high efficiencies and high speeds.  A typical production line can now crank out 4 times the batteries that the same machines were able to produce just 5 years ago in the same amount of time.

Supply chain maturity: The chemicals that go into Li-ion batteries used to be specialty, batch-processed chemicals.  Now that the industry is so large, they have been converted into continuously processed commodity chemicals.  This means cheaper input materials, which in turn translates into cheaper batteries.

Golden Age

Now that these three factors have conspired to result in an environment of cheaper Li-ion batteries, the industries that use those batteries will see dramatically increased demand.  Here are some key events expected in early 2015 that will help usher in this golden year for batteries:

New automotive launches: Three cars will be unveiled in early 2015 that have the potential to be enormous sales leaders.  The 2016 Chevy Volt might make the Volt become a reasonable alternative to other low-priced compacts, even in this age of cheap gas.  The Model X, Tesla’s version of a high-end crossover, has the potential to be even more popular than the launch of the Model S in 2013.  And the BMW 5-series electric vehicle (EV) could hit the sweet spot of a mid-size luxury EV.  Even if only two of these three models turns into a global success, it will mean dramatically higher EV sales in 2015.

The great California grid rush: Each of the major California utilities has now issued requests for proposals for grid energy storage systems.  Combined with the final announcement of the winners of the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) bid in Hawaii sometime this spring, these programs will see the most extensive purchases of grid storage systems in history.

Additionally, new products in the e-bike, e-scooter, and portable appliance markets will see dramatic growth in the thirst for batteries in those markets as well.  All told, 2015 is shaping up to be a historic year for the battery industry and for the industries that buy batteries to make their products popular.

 

E-Scooters Get Their Own Network

— January 5, 2015

A San Francisco-based startup with Asian roots called Gogoro announced on January 5 that it is launching a line of futuristic battery-powered electric scooters and an e-scooter charging network that, for a monthly fee, will provide unlimited battery swapping and cloud connectivity.  The concept of battery swapping for electric vehicles has been tried before – most notably with the epic failure of Israeli startup Better Place (and with a little bit more success by Tesla Motors).  But this venture might have a much happier ending.

To understand how Gogoro might succeed, let’s first examine why Better Place failed.  Although the company made a number of personnel and strategic missteps, the fundamental problem of the Better Place model was that the battery switching stations were too expensive and too complex.  Another major problem was that the financial projections didn’t pan out because battery costs were still too expensive at the time of the firm’s launch in 2012.

Swap It Out

Gogoro, which has engineering facilities in Taiwan and whose CEO, Horace Luke, was the design mastermind behind Taiwanese cell phone manufacturer HTC, solves the complexity issue with a smaller battery pack: the Gogoro Smartscooter uses two batteries, each about the size of a Kleenex box and containing about 1 kWh of energy.  The user merely takes the battery out by hand and inserts it into the vending machine-like switching station.  Six seconds later, a fully charged battery comes out of the machine and can easily be reinserted into the scooter.  A fully charged pair of batteries provides the user almost 60 miles of range in an urban driving environment.

To solve the battery cost problem, Gogoro has two aces up its sleeve.  The first is timing: we are in a period of dramatically shrinking lithium ion battery costs.  What would have cost more than $1,000 per kWh a few years ago can be had for as little as a third of that today.

Gogoro’s other advantage is its strategic partnership with Panasonic, one of the largest battery manufacturers in the world.  Gogoro will use the same battery cells, made by Panasonic, that are used by Tesla Motors for its Model S battery pack.  And if it can grow quickly enough, Gogoro will get Tesla-type volume discounts.  Navigant Research estimates that Tesla pays approximately $200 per kWh for its Panasonic cells today, and that price is expected to drop as low as $130 per kWh by 2020 once the recently announced Tesla/Panasonic Gigafactory is up to full capacity.

Cool and Clean

Gogoro has one more big advantage going for it: the world’s young people are begging for alternatives to car ownership.  They want clean, affordable, yet stylish transportation alternatives.  This trend is as true in scooter-crazy Asian cities as it is in North America.  Traditional scooters are too dirty, dorky, and noisy to provide an appealing car substitute for most young people.  But Gogoro’s scooter will be affordable enough (although pricing hasn’t been announced, it should be cheaper than most other e-scooter options because the battery isn’t part of the purchase price) and stylish enough (CEO Horace Luke is a renowned industrial designer whose accomplishments include the Xbox game console and the much lauded HTC smartphone lineup) to be attractive to young urban dwellers in many countries.

 

With New Plant, Alevo Claims Major Battery Advances

— November 10, 2014

Swiss manufacturer Alevo has launched a new battery and grid storage division in North Carolina that it promises will lead to hundreds of megawatts worth of battery-based grid storage projects.  The U.S. subsidiary hopes to manufacture its formulation of lithium iron phosphate (known in the industry as LFP) batteries in the 3.5 million square foot Concord, North Carolina factory.

Alevo’s battery chemistry is not new – there are dozens of LFP manufacturers (most based in China) cranking out hundreds of megawatts of batteries for portable power and grid storage applications.  However, Alevo claims that its formulation of the chemistry (primarily its secret electrolyte additives) will enable its LFP batteries to last as long as 43,000 cycles of full discharge.  If such a cycle life is proven in the field, this chemistry will represent the most durable lithium ion (Li-ion) battery available today.

An Impressive Debut

Alevo also claims that it uses a non-flammable electrolyte, which makes its battery less prone to catching fire than most grid storage batteries.  Although the company won’t discuss manufacturing costs, LFP batteries have relatively cheap material inputs, opening up a potential path toward low-cost cells.

During the unveiling ceremony at the Concord plant (complete with a drawing back of the curtains on stage, swirling searchlights, and wolf whistles from the employees that packed the audience – all for a 20-foot shipping container), the air-cooled battery bank was displayed, along with its Parker Hannifin inverter and fire detection and suppression equipment.  Alevo also highlighted its big data and analytics capabilities, which it says are needed to help deploy and optimize the energy storage system.

While Alevo seems to have plenty of capital behind it (Reuters reported that Swiss investors have put up more than $1 billion), as well as several global partnerships, it has significant challenges ahead.  The most important of these focus on the battery cells themselves: real-life durability and manufacturing cost.

Two Challenges

On the durability front, Alevo’s internal accelerated testing of 43,000 deep discharge cycles is indeed impressive.  But accelerated testing is an imperfect science.  Batteries tend to perform very differently in the real world over the course of decades, as opposed to laboratory benchmark tests that model expected long-term battery durability.

As for manufacturing costs, Alevo has a hard mountain to climb to learn how to become a battery manufacturer, especially with the challenges that LFP technology brings to the factory.  Unlike other Li-ion chemistries, LFP requires very finicky vacuum technologies that make large-scale manufacturing hard to do efficiently.  Many other LFP manufacturers have assumed cheap manufacturing costs only to find that the chemistry left them with much higher costs, lower yields, and more failures than expected.  While other cobalt-based Li-ion chemistries have higher costs for material inputs, the manufacturing processes are much simpler and easier to scale.  Alevo’s claims are impressive; proving them will be another matter.

 

Energy Storage Enjoys a Breakthrough Day

— November 5, 2014

While most Americans were paying attention to election results, news emerged out of California that truly heralds a new era for the energy storage industry.  Southern California Edison (SCE) announced that it will acquire 2,221 MW of new generation assets, of which 250 MW will be energy storage systems.  This is the end result of the lowest-cost resource request for proposal (RFP) that is designed to eventually replace the generation provided by the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant.

While the sheer scale of the announcement is staggering (no utility has ever purchased 250 MW of non-pumped hydro energy storage before), the details of the announcement are even more impactful.  SCE was expected to use some of this bid for energy storage (it listed energy storage as a preferred resource on the RFP), and Navigant Research assumed the energy storage part of the purchase would be about 50 MW.  By ordering 5 times that amount of energy storage, SCE is making a very loud statement about how highly it values energy storage as a grid management tool.

The Land Rush Begins

Another important aspect of this move is that it was done on a completely level playing field.  SCE decided to purchase 250 MW of energy storage because it felt it had a higher value than any other generation asset (including natural gas, wind and solar).  That in itself is an extremely important positive note for the energy storage industry.

Even more important for the industry is that SCE’s big vote of confidence for energy storage happened just before the launch of three big RFPs that were designed as part of the energy storage mandate that California is forcing on the big utilities.  By December 1, 2014, all three of the large investor-owned utilities in the state will introduce a total of more than 200 MW of energy storage purchases.  It’s the energy storage industry’s equivalent of the Oklahoma land rush.

Other Big Deals

A couple of other important nuggets regarding the SCE announcement:

  • AES Energy Storage will be building a 100 MW battery plant that will dwarf all existing battery power plants.  Over the last few years, AES Energy Storage has discussed how such a plant might work, but now it will have a chance to actually implement a battery peaking plant.  If this project is successful, it will open up a completely new business model for the energy storage industry that could, in the long run, be the largest segment of the stationary storage market.
  • San Francisco-based startup STEM won an 84 MW contract that will make up hundreds (if not thousands) of distributed battery packs working on the customer side of the meter.  Like many other behind-the-meter energy storage system integrators, STEM has preached the concept of distributed battery packs that, in aggregation, work like a virtual power plant (see Navigant Research’s report, Virtual Power Plants).  STEM will be the first company to implement such an idea at scale in the real world.  If it succeeds, then other players like Coda Energy and GreenCharge Networks will also benefit.

Whatever your politics, for the energy storage industry, it is morning in America.

 

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