Re-Purposed Electric Car Batteries and Its Effects on Electric Car Adoption/Driverless Car Adoption

Last night I attended the Churchill Club event in Melbourne on the future of batteries. There was a great panel presenting and the discussions covered a range of battery technologies, including Ecoult which is commercialising the CSIRO ultracapacitor technology for lead acid batteries.

In particular I was interested in the presentation by Relectrify CEO and Co-Founder Valentin Muenzel who talked about Relectrify’s mission to use electric car batteries that were no longer useful in energy storage applications. This was interesting because as part of my research for a book that Chris Rice and I are writing on the future of driverless cars I had been looking at the adoption rates of electric cars as part of the rise of driverless cars. In that research I had come across an assessment by Ark Investments that had calculated the net present value of an electric car battery in a specific energy storage scenario as shown in the following table:

Ark Invest battery depreciation table

source: https://ark-invest.com/research/ev-batteries-value – accessed June 20th 2017

The basic principle is that while a battery in an electric car might have its performance degrade to a point where it is no longer useful for driving, that battery will still have significant storage capacity (think about your phone battery after 18 months – it still works but its capacity is reduced).  If you can buy that battery cheaply and adapt it to storage use then you have a cost effective solution.

Of course the Net Present Value calculation in the table is for a specified energy reserve use which has a higher price, and nobody buys an asset for its Net Present Value otherwise all you do is get your money back over time. In discussions with Valentin he told me that without giving away commercial secrets the model for them is about 50% of the value of a new battery. This is important because the cost of new car batteries is falling. An analysis of battery prices by Bloomberg New Energy Finance in January showed the pace of that change:

battery prices falling fast from Bloomberg

source: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-30/tesla-s-battery-revolution-just-reached-critical-mass  

Now this is the price of the battery itself which is not the same as an installed battery system but the progress has been amazing, and mirrors what we have seen in solar energy. No great basic technology breakthrough, but significant technology improvements driven by the cost learning curve. In a separate report Mckinsey has stated that electric vehicle batteries fell to $227/kWh in 2016 with Tesla claiming to be below $190 per kWh (Electric vehicle battery cost dropped 80% in 6 years down to $227/kWh – Tesla claims to be below $190/kWh) Rumours have also circulated that Tesla has got the battery costs down to $125 per kWh (Tesla is now claiming 35% battery cost reduction at ‘Gigafactory 1’ – hinting at breakthrough cost below $125/kWh) although the truth of that remains to be seen. There is no doubt about the rapid pace of changes occurring, just the quantum of that change.

Valentin and I also discussed the model for autonomous vehicles given that a fleet model or a car sharing model means that cars would travel far more kilometres in a year. For an electric car this means that the battery will reach its degradation limit more quickly as the battery would be charged and discharged more often. Interestingly for Valentin this meant that the battery would be worth more for repurposing, because outside of the energy capacity the battery still retained, its relative newness means the technology is likely to be more advanced, and safety and physical deterioration characteristics would be much better.

Given that storage is likely to become far more important in the future given changes in the energy generation mixes around the world it puts a slightly different complexion on the costs of electric cars. It is our view that the end game for driverless cars is mass fleets supplied as a service with hardly anybody owning a car. If electric car batteries only last 3 years in shared driverless vehicle but have significant re-sale value it lowers the lifetime cost of a kilometre travelled and therefore accelerates us to the point where the cost of running an electric car is lower than running a fossil fuel car. Lifetime cost factors less into individual car ownership decisions but if you own 50,000 cars in a mass fleet in a highly competitive market it becomes it becomes a much more important factor. This changes adoption rates and also the balance between fossil fuel and electric cars.

The effects of this will be lumpy as Valentin advised that different batteries have different degrees of difficulty for repurposing as stationary storage. This is related to the original design decisions made for the battery technology which were originally made with the purpose of electric cars in mind, not stationary storage. For example apparently Tesla has stated that their car batteries will not be repurposed and that is due to the design constraints in their battery technology.

A note of caution:

In a discussion with John Wood (CEO of Ecoult) he quite rightly warned me to be careful of the public statements of battery manufacturers and suppliers on their lifetime use. Given that we are talking about changes in technology and lifetimes of 10-15 years which are therefore untested in the real world, those are wise words.

 

Image credit: The featured image is from http://www.relectrify.com/

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