Having spent a month singing Le-c’s praises and after a quiet week where she just did her job ferrying me around efficiently, quietly and incredibly cheaply (€1.80 for 240 kms driven; 2 home charges of 90c each and one fast charge at the the DC charger at Lunny’s in town which costs nothing!), today I’m going to concentrate on the most important part of her innards i.e. her battery. Discussions on electric vehicles centre almost exclusively on the battery; range and charge (time and cost) and to a lesser extent requests for equivalents to internal combustion engine horse-power, the latter point usually from serious petrol-heads (and one that I must admit having made up the answer to on occasion while assuring them that it’s fast). The hitherto ignored question of battery life-expectancy is what I’ll be concentrating on today; my passing reference to a life-expectancy of 8-10 years’ in last week’s blog prompting Eamonn to comment that it would be an important consideration in the decision to buy an EV sent me searching for more information. A fascinating meander around the web taught me much, tested my very rudimentary knowledge of chemistry, as battery technology is basically a branch of chemistry, but left me feeling that the future looks bright on all battery-related considerations!
Electric vehicles have been around for over 100 years, at the beginning of the 20th century a car buyer had 3 choices of power systems; electric, steam and the internal-combustion engine, of which the last was the least common. Most electric cars ran on lead-acid batteries although Thomas Edison, he of the light bulb amongst other inventions, promoted Nickel-iron batteries and drove a 1914 Detroit electric model 47 using this type of battery, which had a range of 130 km, albeit with a top speed of only 30km per hour (Henry Ford’s wife also owned one). The internal-combustion engine (ICE) won out in the end due in large part to the aforementioned Henry’s mass-production methods and the discovery of crude oil in Texas which made the ICE more affordable. Electric vehicles fell out of favour until the end of the century with the massive increases in petrol prices due to peak oil looming and the state of California’s passing laws forcing car manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient and lower-emission vehicles prompted car manufacturers to invest in developing electric cars.
The current battery of choice is the Lithium-ion (aka Li-ion) and though major advances have been made in its performance over the last 10 years it is still very expensive to produce. The relatively high price of the electric car is due to the cost of the battery, the 24kWh battery in a Nissan Leaf costs US$13,632 (€10,278) which translates as US$568 (€428) per kWh. A very considerable cost if it needs replacing in 8-10 years and one which would give serious pause for thought in the ‘to buy or not to buy’ decision. It also explains why the Renault Zoe is so much cheaper than the competitors as the price is for the car only, the battery is leased from €70 a month upwards depending on the number of kilometres you do per month.
However, it’s not all gloom and doom, there are three reasons to be cheerful in this story, the first is that the life-expectancy is likely to be much longer than previously thought, the second that there is a possible second life for the battery after its car powering days are over and the third that the cost is projected to fall significantly in the next 7 years.
According to Mikaël Cugnet of the French Atomic Energy Commission, in a speech delivered to the American Chemical Society in April of this year, EV battery packs, if managed properly, could operate reliably for 15-20 years, he claims that the 8-10 year estimate is based on accelerated testing done in labs and is not representative of real world usage. ‘Managed properly’ are the key words there; temperature and charging techniques are the most important factors. As the ESB people stated in reply to Eamonn’s comment last week, our temperate climate is well suited to Li-ion batteries (mind you I wonder does the damp not depress them?) as batteries exposed to high mean-temperatures degrade faster than in colder climates. The wrong charging techniques can also shorten a battery’s life; Li-ion battery packs need to stay as close as possible to 50% charge, according to M. Cugnet, going no higher than 80% and no lower than 20% and should be subjected to as few fast charges as possible, it is much better to charge the battery overnight. Le-c will have to give up her trips to the DC charger and I the bacon sambos that accompany them!
A battery pack is considered spent for EVs when it falls below 70% capacity but can still be used to store energy for other uses e.g. storing renewable energy. General Motors engineers believe their Volt batteries could supply an additional 15 years of energy after their car life has finished. This suggests a market for second-hand batteries is possible thus helping to offset the cost of buying a new battery for the car.
But the most cheerful news of all is that the cost of the batteries is predicted to fall by as much as two-thirds by 2020, down to US$200-250 (€150-188) per kWh which would bring the replacement cost of a 24kWh Leaf battery down to between €3600 and €4512, not for nothing but considerably more palatable than at present. This is according to an analysis done by US business analysts McKinsey. This fall in price will be possible through economies of scale as demand rises and more factories come online to produce more batteries as well as through a reduction in the cost of components and technical advances that increase the capacity of the batteries.
One additional reason for optimism is the fact that so much investment is going in to research and development of other new battery chemistries such as lithium-sulphur, lithium-air, zinc-air, and magnesium, other materials scientists are targeting aluminium-ion and even coming full circle back to lead-acid as possible EV solutions.
My apologies if you’d checked in to find stories of Le-c’s adventures in Leitrim and fair play to you for sticking it this far if that be the case, it was a quietish week though we did have a lovely visit to Rosharry outside Mohill where 264 years of experience in cars fell in love with Le-c, (the fact that none of the 2 octogenarians and the nonagenarian has a driving licence matters not at all!). This morning we were out mad early to meet the members of the Marina chapter of Business Network International at their weekly meeting; they gave us a great welcome and seemed well impressed with Le-c. Sadly we could not demonstrate the charging process at the Bush Hotel, where the meetings take place, as someone was parked in the spot beside the charger…tut, tut,tut!
An event of note this week in the EV world was BMW’s launching their all electric vehicle on Monday, called the ‘i3’ (madly creative are the folks at BMW and possibly fans of Rita Marley and the girls!) - it is cute and has lots of bells and whistles but no major innovations in the important area of range; 150km. Obviously not cheap either.
Thank you ESB boffins for the (almost) reassurance on charging in lightening conditions, I think we’ll wait until the storms have passed to charge, Le-c might be small but she is very attractive and a lightening rod might spoil her sleek lines!
And the adventure continues…