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5 things to know about electric vehicle batteries

The buzz out of Bloom Energy today about the latest strategy for its fuel cell energy servers (it will offer them "as a service") underscores the importance of storage technology when it comes to green energy approaches. It resonated especially loudly with me since I just spent an hour on Wednesday afternoon listening in on briefing about electric vehicle battery technology, held by the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

The buzz out of Bloom Energy today about the latest strategy for its fuel cell energy servers (it will offer them "as a service") underscores the importance of storage technology when it comes to green energy approaches. It resonated especially loudly with me since I just spent an hour on Wednesday afternoon listening in on briefing about electric vehicle battery technology, held by the Electric Drive Transportation Association. (The link I've provided will lead to an audio recording of that call.)

What, you may ask, do electric vehicle batteries have to do with energy storage? Well, pretty much everything when it comes to whether these cars will succeed or fail.

The focus of the call on Wednesday was on advances in lithium-ion electric vehicle battery technology, which isn't a surprise based on the participating companies: A123 Systems, which makes the battery of choice for the Volvo C30 Electric and the CityCar, and Johnson Controls Power Solutions, which just started shipping batteries to Azure Dynamics, which is the technology company providing the drive technology for the Ford Transit Connect Electric Vehicles.

For perspective: Bloom Energy uses solid oxide in its fuel cells. Some of the other companies that are popping up in the energy storage space, such as International Battery, are focusing on lithium-ion; others, such as Maxwell Technologies, are hanging their hat on ultracapacitor technology.

Here are my key takeaways from the call:

  • Forget the heat and AC? One thing that very few people have talked about (to me at least) is how much energy vehicle climate control -- heat for the stupid weather we are having in the Northeast right now and AC for the stupid humid summer we are likely to have. One of the participants in the call notes that the heating system in a car can eat up to 6 kilowatts per hour, which will absolutely take away from your "capacity for mobility." Blankets anyone?
  • The company car factor. Fleet adoption will be critical in the adoption of electric vehicles, according to Mark Wagner, vice president of government relations for Johnson Controls. That's because economies of scale are needed to help spur cost reductions and continued improvements in battery technology.
  • Leave your impatience at the door. Electric vehicle owners who need instant gratification -- aka, a fast charge for your vehicle in minutes rather than hours -- will do so at the expense of battery life. So, those who expect the charging experience to mimic the fueling experience you get at your local gas station will be in for a rude awakening.
  • Who will "buy" batteries? This one is particularly interested and there are a couple of dynamics involved. First off, they will degrade over time. So, while you might have 100 miles of range to start, you might have 70 miles over time. Will that be enough or will consumers need to replace batteries every few years, much as they might with the ones currently used to kickstart your combustion engine. It is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, what happens to the old batteries. The executive on the call believes they will be reused. But who will take them back and where will they wind up and who will "own" them, given the environmental considerations of disposing of batteries? Charles Gassenheimer, chairman and CEO of Ener1, another company on the briefing, says used electric vehicle batteries might conceivably wind up as energy storage for the grid, which he contends is in sore need of storage technology. "Electricity is consumed as it is created. If you have any way of storing this on a large scale, you add a lot of robustness to the system," he says.
  • Don't forget safety. Where the battery sits in your car might be a consideration for performance and safety. A123, for example, thinks the best place for a battery is in the center of the car, away from the crumple zones.