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Electrification in the energy industry evolves a new ecosystem

Battery production is fundamental to electrification. A whole new ecosystem is rapidly evolving, as the battery manufacturing cluster is tightly connected to vehicle manufacturers and energy industries, including charging system providers. Battery recycling is also on the rise.

Inside the expanding battery manufacturing industry, the area that is developing rapidly is the Lithium-ion battery industry. Its market size keeps growing fast at an annual average rate of nearly 10% priced in USD. In terms of volume, the global Li-ion production was around 750 GWh in 2020, and the prognosis is 2.500 GWh by 2025.

“This huge expansion in battery production will lower costs. The pricing trend is supported by more factories built closer to key markets shortening transport routes”, says Etteplan’s technology director Anton Nytén from the battery technology unit.

Avoiding challenges and risks

The top risk factor is product safety. The users of battery technology should not be worried that the batteries pose any danger to them or the environment. Safe systems are achieved only by rigorous engineering, battery design, and finally, manufacturing processes that follow standards and regulations from the beginning of the development process.

The most critical safety challenge is thermal management of Lithium-ion batteries. Thermal runaway, a chain reaction where the heat increases and there is no way to stop it, rises from manufacturing defects, poor design, or external abuse.

“Good thermal management is very important. Temperature impacts the battery most, its lifetime, and safety. The temperature should never exceed the specification, and there should not be any temperature gradience in the battery pack either,” Anton Nytén says.

Battery developers and manufacturers have a great responsibility to prevent all potential root causes leading to thermal runaway events.

Smart charging and solving the AC/DC problem

The battery and energy industries go hand in hand with the charging infrastructure. A good charging infrastructure for EVs requires plenty of balancing to enable a good customer experience and efficiency across all the variations of charger standards.

Charging should be fast and convenient, and cost management should be easy. For some customers, it is important to connect the charging system to a fleet management platform as well.

“Fast charging produces quite a lot of heat, and temperature is the biggest enemy for the lifetime of a battery. There is a fine line how much fast charging you can use to avoid shortening the lifetime. Also, charging fully is a bad idea”, Anton Nytén tells.

Electric motors use alternative current (AC) while the battery needs to receive its electricity in direct current (DC). Charging power from the grid always uses AC. The conversion can happen onboard or outside the vehicle at the charger.

The need for conversion causes several problems. The prevailing solution is to equip vehicles with an inverter that converts AC to DC to enable charging directly from the regular grid. However, the inverters slow down the time to fully charge an EV, and AC chargers often deliver less than 22 kW of power.

To solve the problem, universal off-board DC chargers have always been used. They enable fast and easy charging but aiming at universal solutions limits both charging speed and power. DC charging also introduces a different problem: reaching the peak power limit of the electric grid. If several EVs are being charged at the same time and place, the grid will eventually protect itself from an overload and reduce the power that it provides.

Storing renewable energy in EVs

Large-scale battery storage systems are necessary to balance the fluctuating output of renewable energy. For utilities, even a brief massive surplus causes an unhealthy economic situation.

No wonder that storing electricity raises a lot of attention. If surplus energy could be stored, it could be sold when the winds are weak, at night, or when the sun is not shining. In the UK, for instance, it is estimated that a battery storage system could save the national energy system up to £40 billion by 2050.

Quite surprisingly, the fleets of electric vehicles put together provide an option for storing renewable energy. By 2040, the batteries of global EVs will make over 30 TWh of storage capacity.

Theoretically, EVs could store surpluses of renewable energy. In practice, this massive energy pool is not available to the grid by default. It would require bidirectional charging through a vehicle-to-grid system (V2G), which enables sending electricity back to the grid at peak times. To avoid disturbing the vehicle’s owner, this could happen only when the batteries have been fully charged.

In addition, when the lithium-ion batteries in vehicles have degraded to a point when they are not useful anymore, they can be repurposed. Automotive companies are already piloting recycled EV li-ion batteries that have been integrated into stationary energy storage systems.

Electrification in the energy industry is a big challenge from many perspectives.

“Whatever position you are in the industry, you must ensure the whole supply chain to ramp up production. If you work with assembling something based on batteries, you need to supply the right type of battery cells. If you are a battery producer, you must have enough raw materials, such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel, that are not abundant metals,” Anton Nytén says.

On top of existing engineering skills, companies need a mix of expertise in battery technology, charging, energy storage, and electric motors. They must be aware of regulatory requirements for batteries and chargers, product safety standards, and cyber security of applications. In addition, everyone needs to consider the complete value chain from raw materials to the charging infrastructure and recycling.