Vehicles and the battery connection

This article was previously published in Marine Renewable Energy.

The news that BYD, a Chinese electric carmaker, is aiming to triple sales this year is probably unlikely to set pulses racing. And even less so when we are talking about an increase to just 8,000 units, as reported recently by The Wall Street Journal.

But the electric vehicle business is one that anyone with renewable energy interests should be keeping an eye on, because it might just prove critical in solving green power’s intermittency issues.

As widely discussed across the energy sector, increasing renewable power’s contribution to the grid heightens the need for storage to soak up excess production and cover demand peaks.

How to store the excess power coming off the North Sea on stormy night, for example, is a challenge that could demand major projects ranging from regional interconnectors to artificial islands.

Unsurprisingly, given the expense and complexity of such options it is natural to ask whether there could be easier ways to deal with the storage problem. And in fact there is an entire industry rushing to help.

Automakers are increasingly wooing environmentally conscious consumers with low- or zero-emission vehicles. In practice there are a number of ways to cut the CO2 output of a car, ranging from hybrid engines to new fuel sources such as hydrogen.

One these options, tipped as a likely winner in the future, is an all-electric, battery-powered vehicle.

Most major carmakers now have some form of electric vehicle on the market, with leading models including the Tesla RoadsterMitsubishi i MiEV,Nissan Leaf, Smart ED, Renault Fluence Z.E., Ford Focus Electric, BMW ActiveE and BYD’s e6.

These cars all have high-performance batteries that will essentially be sitting idle apart from when the vehicle is on the road. Why not, the thinking goes, use them as a massive distributed pool of energy storage? The benefits of the concept should be fairly obvious.

Once electric vehicles go mainstream, car batteries could represent an increasingly massive storage resource, already connected to the grid.

That capital costs for deploying that resource will have been covered by the time an owner drives it out of a showroom, so utilities will get it more or less for free. And maintenance and operating costs will be similarly low.

This all sounds like a great idea, but at the moment there are not inconsiderable challenges associated with it, as well. The first and arguably biggest one is that nobody knows quite when, or if, electric vehicles will really take off.

As The Wall Street Journal reports: “Analysts expect consumer appetite for all-electric cars to remain weak because of underdeveloped infrastructure for charging facilities and concerns over affordability.”

Estimates quoted by the paper for reasonable levels of electric vehicle penetration are in the order 10 years. Even assuming electric vehicles gain in popularity, it remains to be seen whether consumers will be happy about utilities draining their car batteries without notice.

Already one of the main barriers to electric vehicle adoption is ‘range anxiety’ or the fear that the car will not make it to the next charging station. Going out with anything less than a fully charged battery is likely to exacerbate this.

Naturally, clever software of the kind being deployed in smart grids could ensure electric vehicle batteries are always topped up when they are likely to be needed for driving duties. The question is whether consumers will adopt it happily.

For now, companies like BYD are banking on public sector customers to kick-start their electric vehicle sales.

“We feel that the use of electric vehicles in public transport is the first step and a more realistic way to promote and popularise the products,” Liu Xueliang, general manager for Asia-Pacific auto sales at BYD, is reported as saying.

The strategy could be a good one as urban bus and taxi drivers are less likely to suffer from range anxiety and may have more of an incentive to want to curb fuel costs and carbon emissions. BYD, certainly, is focusing on the taxi sector and will be knocking out 2,000 buses on its production line this year.

It may be some time before one of them comes down your road, but for renewable energy in general it could be good news indeed to see accelerated adoption of electric vehicles.

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