Renault-Nissan CEO Rejects Battery Swapping, Leaving Better Place Stranded

By · May 06, 2013

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Renault has said the Fluence Z.E. will be the last battery swap car it makes. (Photo: Motavalli)

It’s official: despite a tentative flirtation with the concept of battery swapping technology, Reanult-Nissan won’t be making any more battery-swap cars after its current battery-swap model, the Renault Fluence Z.E. sedan, ends production. That's according to Renault-Nissan C.E.O. Carlos Ghosn, from an interview late last week with Dutch website EnergiWatch.

Currently the only real commercial application of battery swap technology comes courtesy of Better Place, the troubled venture-funded electric vehicle infrastructure company with battery swap stations in Israel and Denmark. But with Better Place relying on Renault for a supply of swap-ready Fluence Z.E. sedans, the company's future (beyond only the small markets where it now operates) looks very limited.

A Heavy Reliance on Renault-Nissan

Since its inception, Better Place has made extensive use of Renault-Nissan vehicles to first prove and later implement battery swap technology.

An early Better Place technical demonstration project with electric taxi cabs in Japan used specially-converted Nissan Rogues. By 2009, Nissan’s sister company Renault had committed to providing Better Place with at least 100,000 battery-swap compatible Fluence Z.E. cars for its operations in Israel and Denmark.

Even with the support of a major automaker, Better Place’s business model has proven difficult. Company supporters claim that official Fluence Z.E. sales in Israel—at between one-half to three-quarters of total vehicle sales—is eclipsing other global EV markets. But many of the cars are deployed in fleets through complex car leasing agreements, making it difficult to verify any signs of traction. Without other swap-ready cars on the horizon, arguments about the advantages of swapping versus charging are irrelevant at best.

Despite raising more then $850 million in venture funding since 2007, Better Place has current losses totaling approximately $500 million.  Even its network of interconnected intelligent charging and battery swap stations, not to mention a sophisticated software system that helps it manage power demand for Israel’s only electricity company, hasn’t helped elevate the company's fortunes. Since launch in Israel, less than one percent of Better Place’s planned 100,000 car fleet have been sold.

Ruthless Business

As his past record will affirm, Carlos Ghosn is often astute and always decisive. For him, a project either makes money or it doesn't. It is either worth investing in, or not.

When Better Place was founded, it made sense for Ghosn to invest in battery swap technology by producing an electric car compatible with Better Place’s system. However, Renault’s investment came at the cost of Better Place: an agreement to buy 100,000 Renault Fluence Z.E. sedans, something which helped Renault break even on the car before it was even made.

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>Carlos Ghosn, Renault-Nissan CEO, says the future lies in charging batteries, not swapping them.

Moreover, unlike Better Place, electric car technology from Renault-Nissan can work with or without battery swapping. It is no coincidence that the Renault Zoe Z.E. hatchback—already on the roads of France—comes with an onboard 45-kilowatt AC rapid charger as standard, recharging the Zoe’s lithium-ion battery to 80 percent full in 30 minutes.

As recently as one month ago, Renault executives indicated that the Zoe could be offered as a future battery swap model—if there was demand. Yet now the alliance has made its mind up. As Ghosn told Energiwatch, “replaceable batteries are no longer the main path for electric vehicles...going forward, our focus is on the charging technology."

Dead End

While Renault is committed to producing the 100,000 Fluence Z.E. sedans it agreed to provide in 2008, Ghosn’s announcement dropping support of battery swapping, any way you slice it, is a massive blow to Better Place. A vibrant market requires more than one vehicle for consumers to consider.

With improving battery chemistry and rapid DC-charging preferred seen as the preferred refueling technology by most automakers, Better Place faces a tough time finding another technology partner in a major automaker.

While rapid-charging a Zoe takes longer than Fluence battery swap, the cost of implementing rapid-charging technology is far below that of a Better Place swap station.

To make matters potentially worse for Better Place, the California Air Resources Board is considering modifications to the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Regulation, which could include removing battery swapping as a “fast refueling” technology.

What's the saddest part? If Better Place had focused on the other parts of its business—including its comprehensive interconnected grid technologies designed to ensure a utility company could manage how and when each car charged—its future might have looked very different right now.

Comments

· · 1 year ago

I'm glad to see this effort going away. Battery replacement only works if the cars share the same batteries - Shape, Size, Weight, Voltage, etc.

This limits the car makers to design cars around a battery with no clear way to improve the batteries in any way since they would be stuck to the batteries the battery replacement stations had.

Want to roll out a different battery? Think again! The car company would need to deliver tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of these new batteries to the replacement stations even before they could start selling the vehicle throughout the country.

Fast charging is a much simpler solution to the problem and while today's batteries are not good at dealing with heat (from quick charging) this problem will be solved in the near future. Either by battery design, battery material, or (hopefully) solid state batteries.

· · 1 year ago

I agree that Better Place should have focused on their smart grid software and their infrastructure of charging stations, I'd actually like to see them fall back on the charging side of their business. Like Coda who plans to go into energy storage, Better Place could go into intelligent grid charging systems.

· · 1 year ago

Of course, I didn't think this was going anywhere either, but it depends on pricing. It only works in a totally Lease situation, since no one wants to be permanety stuck with someone e'lse's battery dog, especially if you paid for a good one, and now its been swapped out.

V2G I don't think makes much sense either, except for work vehicles which need slight amounts of power incidental to the job site, much like the options Mitsubishi and ViaMotors have. Or possibly incidental emergency power to keep the fridge, sump pump, and furnace running.

· · 1 year ago

HI Bill,

V2G in the usual sense isn't what Better Place is offering: in its current iteration, there's no power flow from the car back to the grid.

Instead, smart modules in each car and charging station communicate with Better Place's central control computer. This enables Better Place to know where each car is, how full it is, and predict power demand.

For example, the system's complex software knows how full each car is at the end of the day, and how much electricity is needed to fill the battery pack back up. It also knows the usual daily routes made by each car and uses sophisticated algorithms to predict future behaviour. It knows how many cars are plugged in for night-time charging, how much electricity each will pull from the grid, and when it they will start charging, allowing it to forewarn the Israel Electric Corporation of extra demand before it is reached.

Similarly, if electricity demand is too great, the Israel Electric Corporation passes a request to Better Place to essentially 'slow down' charging, switching off cars which are already full enough for the day ahead or slowing down others.

This smart-grid system works well in Israel because Israel is essentially an island state which has to produce all of the power it consumes. It also works because Israel has a state-owned utility rather than many different ones.

The software and its complex algorithms could have made Better Place a market leader in preparing electrical grids worldwide for electric cars, and could even have been used in non electric-car applications. But Better Place's intense focus on battery swapping has led it down a very different, somewhat less secure path.

· · 1 year ago

@Nikki-Gordon Bloomfield

Hi, well the only issue here is I feel its a bit too much unnecessary effort expended on something that really doesn't use that many kilowatt hours in the first place. Where I live, people in general started using frost free refrigerators (real energy hogs), and then started using window, then later central air condtioners. This was combined a much greater load than if every single person drove an electric car. We survived without "sophisticated algorithms" then.

Actually, increasing EERs (a rather silly term used in the states since it mixes units, the real term has always been cooefficient of performance (Cop = EER/3.413) of Air Conditioners, and Refrigerators, along with greatly increased usage of CFL's and LED lighting, will save much more electricity than electric cars will ever use, again, even if every one had them. As I've stated before, I expect all this complication is merely to have an imagined justification for the ZigBee monitoring platform, something more and more Americans are getting wise to, and rejecting.

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