February 3, 2013 – Vol.17 No. 47

SWAP OR RECHARGE:
WHICH MAKES BETTER BATTERY BUSINESS?

by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News

 

Cars aren't smart phones. Nor are they tablet or laptop computers. If you hadn't noticed cars are little bit bigger and need a lot more energy to operate than any kind of rechargeable personal electronic device you can think of. Any of those things you can plug into any one of the billions of grid-connected electric outlets worldwide.

So far, rechargeable consumer electronics are a smash hit. But, just because rechargeable electronics work so well it doesn't automatically mean the same for rechargeable electric cars. As the first sentence in this story states: Cars aren't the same as personal electronics.

None the less, developers of electric cars are hoping that they can follow the same successful business model as consumer electronics: Build nifty devices that offer a great experience (that is gas-less, emission free driving) that can be plugged-in anywhere (well eventually, when a national and global network of charging stations is built).

While they forge ahead with rechargeable cars, electric car developers are largely ignoring two other successful business models that have been around for more than a century. The first is the network of gasoline filling stations that allows unlimited driving and has obviously contributed greatly to the success of the automobile. And the second is the use and sale of replaceable, disposable batteries to power all kinds of electric devices, except perhaps those personal electronic devices. A variation of those two success stories may not only be a better and cheaper match for electric vehicles, but add something that's missing from the rechargeable electric car business model: Making money at recharging, in the same way that oil companies make money (a rather lot of it) at "recharging" petrol-fueling cars with a fresh tank of liquid energy.

In other words, replacing or swapping batteries in electric cars, rather than recharging them, would be a money maker for those who did the swapping. Because swapping would require some work and equipment, and facilities to do the swap, it would cost more to swap batteries than to plug in cars to the grid in a home or parking lot somewhere.

Electric car advocates might bristle at the thought of paying more than a few dollars for a battery fill-up of electrons from the grid. However, they might find that electric cars might be cheaper, and have the same unlimited range of gasoline cars, if they were willing pay more to have their electric cars "refueled" by swapping batteries instead of recharging them. Just as importantly, from a rapid commercialization standpoint, if there was money to be made (read that as profits to be made in refueling electric cars) there'd be more private investment and a more rapid switch to electric vehicles would take place. There's nothing like making a fast buck to bring in investment and advance a technology. (There is some truth to the story that it's the wealthy that create jobs.)

The proof that there's money to be made – big money – in refueling or reenergizing is, of course, the oil companies. And, though chump change compared to what big oil makes, the replaceable battery business has been pretty solid, it seems, for a century or more. Think of all those flashlight batteries you bought and threw away. Think of all the money thrown away along with those batteries. (A note here: I'm not suggesting one time use, primary, disposable batteries for use in electric cars. I'll get to that in a bit.)

The money to be made in recharging will be mostly by the existing power companies for electricity sold to charge-at-home homeowners and to those operating charging stations. But the money to be made in replacing batteries are those who do the actual swapping and charge for that service, as well as those who recharge spent batteries when outside the car. (Those money-makers could be the same people.)

The replacement battery scheme would require an abrupt change in the direction of electric car development is now moving. As it is only Better Place is developing a battery swapping. In this change cars would have to be specifically designed to accept replaceable batteries. Equipment would have to be developed to remove and replace batteries from vehicles (money to be made here too.) And batteries would have to be developed that were easily reenergized without charging – this is the different part. Without going into extreme detail, batteries have been developed in the past, even commercialized, that were mechanically rechargeable by replacing spent (really oxidized) parts of the battery (the anodes) with fresh ones. Those batteries employed common low-cost metals such as zinc and magnesium in their electrochemistry. The replacement of spent anodes with fresh ones brings the battery up to full charge. The spent anodes are recycled by the way.

Electric cars that had their batteries replaced or swapped with automated equipment would be reenergized in a few minutes, just like filling a car with gasoline. Short reenergizing times would mean unlimited range just like gasoline cars. Further, though I have only scant proof, it will probably be found that batteries that are mechanically recharged have longer run times than batteries that are recharged, leading to greater range. And further, those mechanically recharged batteries would be much less expensive than rechargeable batteries now in use in electric vehicles since they would use lower cost metals.

Technology advances much faster when investments can turn into profits. A battery swap and reenergize business model offers many opportunities along the way to make money. As it is, the electric vehicle build-out, as small as it is, is being kept alive by taxpayer dollars and regulations. The sooner investors find ways to make money at electric vehicles, the faster it will get away from government assistance and the better off we'll all be.

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