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EV Car Batteries: It’s Not (Just) How Cheap You Make ‘em, It’s How You Make ‘em Cheap

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world2steven · · 5 years ago

We are all hoping for success in President Obama’s and Energy Secretary Chu’s plans for reducing the cost of EV batteries. However, there appear to be some tough technological nuts to crack. Until that happens, the best way to reduce the cost of those batteries – and perhaps give a big push to the development of renewable energy – is to use existing technology and economics to reduce their cost. In addition to subsidies, a two-pronged effort is needed.

The first step is employing existing technology to allow owners of EVs to take advantage of their energy storage potential for purposes of providing emergency power. Grid reliability together with the high cost of dedicated battery backup systems currently make the use of such dedicated systems uneconomic for most EV owners. The potential value of this capability was demonstrated by many technology-savvy EV owners during super storm Sandy. But their success was achieved with ad hoc hardware and methods which most EV owners would not dare employ for fear of violating their warranties – even if, to begin with, they had some idea how to proceed.

Nissan, with its LEAF, has taken the first step in this regard. See But this technology is not widely available in the U.S., if it is available at all. And without the help of a talented tax lawyer, it is highly unlikely any of it would be tax deductible if it were. To my knowledge Government Motors (GM) has yet to undertake such a development. No doubt some within that, ah, ‘private enterprise’ would squawk if forced to comply with the development of yet another government-mandated product (and without the usual profit margins). But with its Volt, GM has proven its ability to ‘get it right’ once GM’s executives resign themselves to committing their engineers to a task.

The potentially more interesting possibility involves what is called ‘vehicle to grid’ (V2G) technology. A big choke point in the development of renewal energy has been the intermittent nature of its principle sources, sun and wind. What is required is energy storage for those times when the ‘sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow’. It is possible to get down in the weeds here and point out that various forms of ‘pumped storage’ – the oldest and most common of which is essentially man-made hydroelectricity – are potentially able to provide this capability IF various issues of ‘political economy’ are resolved, e.g. perhaps principally compelling utilities to relinquish at least part of the profit extracting potential (‘economic rent’) possible if such storage is provided exclusively with privately owned resources.

This necessity of relinquishing potential rent-extracting opportunities to EV owners may partially explain the reluctance of utilities to more enthusiastically encourage the development of V2G technology. But for EV owners there is currently a very real reason to be less than enthusiastic about V2G. The batteries in their cars are high-performance, big-ticket items possibly not suitable, not ‘economic’, for daily cycling by utilities potentially able to employ them in lieu of building standby ‘peak load’ generating capabilities.

Someone beyond my pay grade needs to cost this out and see whether the use of existing EV battery technology can ever be cost-effective for both EV owners and utilities paying them some rent for access to and faster degradation of their batteries. If it is - or can be – then V2G could be a potential solution for the ‘sun don’t shine’ problems connected with renewable energy.

But even if it isn’t, the use of EV batteries for emergency power provision may be ‘worth it’ to their owners – even if they don’t also possess renewable energy generation capabilities and even if they don’t receive subsidies for deploying the required technology. But GM – or somebody – must take the first step in developing reliable, warrantable V2G technology, even if that grid extends no further than the EV driver’s home. Nissan and SMA with its new Sunny Boy 3000tl-us inverter, which allows continued operation of home owner solar panels when the grid is down, have taken the first steps. It is time for others to follow, maybe even time for the government to pony up another part of that unspent $25 billion to help them, if necessary.


· · 5 years ago

I won't address any stated or implied government subsidies of battery cost (from research involved in battery development to the end user). The breakthrough that is needed in battery power can only come from improvements in KwH per pound of battery weight (we'll assume that such a battery will not be made from unobtainium, or some composition of materials that would automatically price it out of any conceivable market). What is needed is an order of magnitude increase in battery capacity, and my admittedly limited knowledge of he weak nuclear force, the basis of any chemical battery, just won't let me see where that's coming from.

· · 5 years ago

@rico567 - if I recall correctly, technologies like the lithium air battery and nano-carbon (?) were supposed to yield that order of magnitude increase. If, like nuclear fusion, nothing is on the horizon, it seems to be that EV purists holding out for these breakthroughs and encouraging others to take the plunge are doing the EV movement a dis-service.

I know bunches of LEAF owners still hoping Nissan is going to have one of those vaporware batteries ready for their cars when the existing one rolls over. There is going to be some serious disappointment and anger, especially in regions with hostile climates where that is going to happen sooner rather than later.

And even with an order a magnitude increase, at the end of a 500 - 700 mile drive you are going to have to cool your heels for a while until that big battery recharges. So you have to add safe quick-charging battery chemistry to the list (or bring back A Better Place).

Seems to me an article on what EV buyers can reasonably expect in the near term is overdue. If you really need those long miles, buy a Volt or ... EV partisans should not be holding out false hopes that EVs will be 'just like' their old ICE's - if only the public would spring for another couple of billion in charging stations.

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