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Go electric, but let’s get ‘smart’ first

03 November 2010

With generous government grants for electric vehicle (EV) purchases due to come into effect early next year, EV adoption by consumers could be heading toward a tipping point. And while utilities and cities around the world are wondering just how they are going to meet the power demands of millions of EVs, some believe the all too well-publicised environmental and economic benefits will be stunted if the charging cords of these vehicles cannot be plugged into a smarter grid.

In a recent article in Forbes magazine, GE’s digital energy business vice president, Bob Gilligan says that with charging infrastructure still in the early development phase, the novelty of a few electric cars might be absorbed by the current power system; but as conventionally fuelled cars are replaced by their EV counterparts, they could begin to overwhelm the current power grid if not charged during off-peak periods.

“During peak periods utilities are forced to activate additional, more expensive ‘peaker’ plants to meet spikes in energy demand,” he writes. “Those increased operating costs translate into higher consumption costs for consumers, which means it’s more economical for EV drivers to recharge when the power is ‘on sale’ during off-peak periods.” Mr Gilligan says that the national EV infrastructure envisaged by industry players is more than just chargers in home garages. Rather, it’s nothing short of “electrified versions of gas pumps” that will be needed.

He forecasts that, by 2015, there will be an estimated three million EV charging stations installed worldwide; this year, a mere 20,000 installations are expected to come on stream.

Mr Gilligan says the grid needs to be upgraded to support the new EV world. Not doing it will keep some consumers away until a comprehensive infrastructure is in place. To make this happen, he says, partnerships need to be forged to develop technology standards so utilities and tech companies can be “on the same page and know how to invest.” On the consumer side, increased awareness about exactly what a smart grid is – and how it’s needed for EVs, needs to happen at the same time. “Only then will we get the most out of an electrified transportation network.”

But before we get too carried away by the charging issue, there is that little matter of vehicle pricing – perhaps the one key factor that stands between what we have now and a world filled with electric vehicles. At the moment, EVs are expensive and recent market research data published in the United States shows that 69 percent of consumers in that country consider price the most important factor in purchasing a vehicle. Most of them expect to pay less than $30,000 for an EV; and that presents a serious problem, given that the cheaper EVs currently cost around $33,000.

Governments, environmentalists, and manufacturers hope that as demand for EVs rises, economies of scale will reduce production costs enough to make them affordable for the average consumer. But critics say the EV industry faces technological barriers that will mean cost reductions may be at least ten years away. With the battery currently accounting for almost half the purchase price of an electric vehicle, it is difficult to ignore this essential component as a target for cost reduction.

A123 Systems, a leading manufacturer of EV batteries, and a spin-off from the research labs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has enjoyed a recent injection of funds from GE that will enable it to supply lithium ion batteries for 500,000 plug-in EVs annually by 2013. But the question remains as to whether EV costs will decrease quickly enough and to the extent that consumers will finally be encouraged to buy them.

In a recent interview published in the online newsletter, GE Reports, A123 vice president Andy Chu was asked a straight question: what makes the battery so expensive? Mr Chu says it is a combination of costs, including those of the production equipment, the battery materials themselves, and the processing; testing can be added to the list he says, but the first three are the most significant. But can any of these factors be reduced with economies of scale?

The battery separator uses a polymer material, which isn’t very expensive,” says Mr Chu. “It’s when you make it into a specific form that it becomes expensive. Over time, as people improve the processing, it will become less and less expensive. In addition, electronics are already mass-produced commodities, and you can reduce the cost as you increase the production, and design better circuits.”

Then there’s the question of materials. Where the lithium ion battery is concerned, Mr Chu cites nickel, cobalt, and manganese as three of the higher cost items – cathode materials that are also in high demand for the manufacture of laptop computer and mobile phone batteries, which is likely to keep their costs high for some time to come. However, A123 believes it is making headway on this particular issue.

The company uses a patented nanophosphate technology, the nanophosphate being a form of lithium ion phosphate. Instead of costly nickel, manganese, and cobalt, it uses iron – clearly a less expensive material that gives A123 reason to believe that its iron-based battery will be less expensive in the longer term. Cathode material, however, is only a portion of the cost; copper, too, is an important constituent, but Mr Chu is confident that significant cost reductions are on the horizon.

So much for cars. There are about 250 manufacturers of heavy industrial vehicles worldwide but most do not make EVs. Between them they will make about 700,000 of these vehicles in 2010 and most participants have under $20 million annual sales. By 2015, specialist market researcher IDTechEx estimates that the demand for heavy industrial electric vehicles will be comparable to that for light industrial/commercial electric vehicles.

Hybrid technology is of great relevance to heavy outdoor vehicles, but there is little evidence of any significant take-up at present. However, hybrid technology is likely to be eagerly adopted by the heavy industrial vehicle sector, as it becomes more affordable and reliable, and because it offers high power delivery for long periods of time and is particularly suited to frequent stop-start operation. A hybrid heavy electric vehicle for relatively long range outdoor use outperforms its conventional counterpart on a number of counts, and market leader, Caterpillar now offers several diesel electric series-hybrid heavy tractors and bulldozers from its large portfolio.

Quite apart from that derived from the powertrain - be it purely electric or electric hybrid - there are other sources of energy available to users of heavy industrial plant, thanks to the work that is currently being undertaken in the field of energy harvesting. Another Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off, Levant Power Systems has shown that energy harvesting shock absorbers in large vehicles can each generate as much as one kilowatt of energy. Large vehicles have large surface areas available for embedded photovoltaics and the harvesting of vibration and exhaust heat, too, present some interesting opportunities.

If you are lucky enough to be anywhere near San Jose in California during the early part of December, and are interested in EV developments, then a major conference and exhibition organised by IDTechEx will be well worth investigating. The event  - Future of Electric Vehicles (December 7-8) – covers all forms of electrically driven transport, whether by land, sea or air. Full details are available here.

Les Hunt


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