Navigant Research Blog

Will the Natural Gas Boom Help EVs?

— November 11, 2014

Natural gas is better used to generate electricity to power electric vehicles (EVs) than as a direct transportation fuel, according to a new study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  The study, entitled Well-to-Wheel Analysis of Direct and Indirect Use of Natural Gas in Passenger Vehicles, rates EVs powered by electricity from natural gas as being more energy efficient, less polluting, and cheaper to fuel than natural gas vehicles.

A contributing factor in the analysis is that natural gas power plants, especially combined cycle power plants, are very efficient in creating electricity, and when that electricity is used for locomotion by an electric motor, the net efficiency is higher than that of a natural gas engine.  The study assesses losses and energy used throughout the system, including leaks during transportation (from pipelines, etc.) and during compression and decompression of the gas in the case of compressed natural gas vehicles.  In the case of EVs, the study assesses power losses throughout the distribution grid, EV charging, and the power transfer to and from the battery.

As seen in the figure below, the study concludes that even a low-efficiency natural gas power plant would provide a more energy efficient source of electricity than using gasoline in a car.  The study used the Nissan LEAF and the natural gas Honda Civic GX as the baseline for the vehicle fuel efficiency.

Wheel-to-Wheel Energy Use

(Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

Emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2, are also lower in the case of EVs when either the current mix of generation sources or any type of natural gas power plant are used to create the electricity.  And, as is well known, electricity is also cheaper as a transportation fuel.  Oak Ridge estimated at time of the study that natural gas costs $1.65 per 25 miles for compressed natural gas vehicles, compared to $1.02 for electricity.

Pipeline Peril

It may seem counterintuitive that an extra step in fuel conversion (i.e., gas to electricity) would still be more efficient, but the greater efficiency of stationary gas turbines relative to small engines (as referenced here by Forbes) explains the math.

However, turning natural gas into electricity for EVs requires sufficient pipeline capacity, and a surge of EVs could overwhelm the regional grid if charging occurs at peak times.  Natural gas also has to compete with other forms of generation on price, and there’s no guarantee that the surplus of natural gas from shale would find its way into EVs, as it may simply replace coal.

The study makes the case for facilities that have combined heat and power to add EVs to the fleet instead of adding the significant cost of a natural gas refueling station.  Conversely, a significant argument for natural gas vehicles is their longer driving range and lower upfront cost.  If an EV’s driving range of 80 to 100 miles doesn’t match with the driving requirements, then the economics or efficiencies won’t matter.

 

Wireless Power Promises New Capabilities for Smart Buildings

— November 11, 2014

In the science fiction universe, transmitting power over great distances is remarkably easy.  A shield generator could be placed on, say, the forest moon of Endor and beam its power to an orbiting space station.  Lamentably, in the real world, such extensive wireless power transfer remains elusive.  But 2015 is poised to be a pivotal year in wireless power.

Current wireless power solutions focus on charging mobile phones and electric vehicles, and both are gaining momentum.  On the mobile phone front, the first commercially available products based on the Alliance for Wireless Power’s Rezense standard will soon hit the market, while the Wireless Power Consortium’s competing Qi standard continues to expand around the globe.

In the auto industry, wireless technology represents the future of plug-in electric vehicles and could be a factory option as early as 2017.

Smart Building Applications

The promise of wireless power extends beyond these early adopter markets – particularly in smart buildings.  The proliferation of the Internet of Things in buildings is currently hindered by limitations in power and communication capabilities.  University of Washington professors Joshua Smith and Shyam Gollakota have an innovative approach to tackling both problems wirelessly.  The two have started Jiva Wireless to develop the solution and plan on taking a leave of absence in 2015 to focus on bringing products to market as early as 2016.

Their approach is to harvest ambient energy in the form of Wi-Fi, TV, and cellular transitions.  As detailed in Navigant Research’s report, Energy Harvesting, these types of systems are already gaining traction in a variety of applications.  What’s novel about the Jiva Wireless approach is the use of ambient backscatter communication, which selectively absorbs and reflects radio frequency (RF) signals, effectively combining power and communication into one function.

Landscape without Wires

The launch of Jiva Wireless adds to an already crowded field of wireless power solutions.  Many of these solutions, as promising as they may be, have yet to make it to the real world.   Funding of these companies does not appear to be a challenge, though.  Energous, a company developing a wireless power solution using radio waves, raised $24 million in an initial public offering in March, despite not having a commercially available product.  Similarly, uBeam, which has a prototype that uses ultrasonic waves to transfer power, just received $10 million in Series A funding, bringing the total amount of capital raised to $12 million.

Wireless power incumbents are shifting, as well.  Duracell, an early adopter of wireless charging for mobile electronics and the pioneer of Powermat technology, is being split from its parent company, Proctor & Gamble, as part of a strategy of divesting non-core businesses.  Meanwhile, JVIS and d-Wired are attempting to resurrect conductive wireless charging by licensing intellectual property from FliCharge.  The shifting landscape of wireless power providers indicates an interesting road ahead in 2015.

 

Massive Outage Highlights Bangladesh Grid’s Fragility

— November 11, 2014

On November 1, the Bangladesh power grid suffered a massive, countrywide blackout that took well over a day to restore.  Only the most critical or prepared institutions and government agencies that had adequate diesel generation backup power had electricity, while the rest of the 160 million people in the country were totally in the dark.  The power outage brought much of normal life to a standstill, forced hospitals to rely on backup generators, and even plunged the prime minister’s official residence into darkness.  Meanwhile, the garment industry and other manufacturers that represent 80% of Bangladesh’s exports were idled.

Initial reports suggested that the outage occurred when protective relays tripped at the interconnect substations between the India transmission grid and the Bangladesh transmission grid, where much of Bangladesh’s power is supplied.  While Power Grid of India, the India transmission grid operator, reported that its high-voltage transmission grid was operating normally, the Bangladesh Power Grid on the other side of the substation was down.  This sounds remarkably like the 2003 situation in United States, where much of the Eastern grid suffered an outage.

In the Dark

In my recent research, I have been looking into next-generation technologies and wide-area situational and visualization tools that transmission grid network operators are beginning to deploy to better anticipate and detect critical disturbances of the sort that likely led to this massive outage.  The Bangladesh outage was likely the largest on the subcontinent since the India blackout in 2012, where two severe power outages affected most of northern and eastern India.  The July 31, 2012 India blackout was the largest power outage in world history, reportedly affecting over 620 million people – about 9% of the world’s population.  More than 32 GW of generating capacity went offline during this outage.

In the wake of that failure, the latest 10-year transmission plans in India call for the installation of over 1,300 synchrophasor phasor measurement units (PMUs) and associated analytics installed on India’s high-voltage transmission grid to manage sub-second disturbances.

The scope of the Bangladesh outage is yet to be determined, and it will require extensive transmission grid and generation forensic analysis, using available monitored information from the hours and minutes prior to the outage.  One can only wonder whether these next-generation PMU and synchrophasor analytics technologies, implemented on the Bangladesh side of the interconnected transmission network, could have prevented this crisis.

 

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.

 

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