India is considering battery swapping for electric cars rather than charging stations as it seeks to spur adoption of cleaner transport in its notoriously polluted and crowded cities.
“Considering the constraints for space in urban areas for setting up charging stations at scale, a battery-swapping policy will be brought out and interoperability standards will be formulated,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in her budget speech Tuesday, without going into detail.
The private sector will be encouraged to develop “sustainable and innovative business models for battery or energy as a service,” she said, improving the overall efficiency of the EV ecosystem.
Swapping an expended battery out of an electric car and replacing it with a fresh one, as opposed to charging the existing battery back up again, isn’t a concept that’s gained widespread acceptance outside of China. It was tried by EV pioneer Elon Musk last decade but ultimately abandoned due to poor uptake.
Still, there are some big advantages, namely speed and convenience. Videos on YouTube show battery swaps being completed in less than 10 minutes, including maneuvering the car into the changeover bay. Downsides include high startup costs — building an automated swap station can cost 10 times as much as setting up a fast-charging station — and batteries are the most expensive part of an EV, making it a capital-intensive business.
But India, which has fallen behind other major markets such as China and Europe in the shift to clean vehicles, needs to play catch up. EVs sales in the nation account for just 1% of the total versus as high as 30% in some cities in China. The sparse charging network and high prices — in a country where people on average earn less than $2,000 a year — have impeded wider adoption of EVs in Asia’s third-largest economy.
Sitharaman’s announcement buoyed shares of battery makers, with Exide Industries Ltd. rising as much as 2.9% and Amara Raja Batteries Ltd. climbing as much as 2.4%.
“A battery swapping policy could be a big booster for all the startups already working in this space,” Rajeev Singh, partner and automotive lead at Deloitte India, said. As well as helping to spur EV adoption, it could “also help drive electrification of fleets, especially for last-mile connectivity,” he said.
Fast Charging vs Battery-Swapping: Which One Is Better?
Back in the days when a Nissan Leaf barely had enough range to cross the city boundaries, electric vehicles were considered a bigger problem than the one they tried to solve, city pollution. Not only had they a limited range of about 70 miles (113 km), but also lacked fast charging, with the charging time taking hours. Besides, there was almost no public charging. This is the context that prompted the idea of battery-swapping as the better alternative to charging the battery.
Battery-swapping allowed for a fully-charged battery to be installed in minutes. Besides, it was seen as a way of lowering the price of electric vehicles, as the cars were essentially sold without the battery. Instead, EV owners paid a subscription for the battery and so the “battery-as-a-service” concept was born. Better Place was the company that pioneered the concept, but failed to make it popular.
Better Place partnered with Renault for a trial in Israel and Denmark, but things eventually fell apart. Not only the battery-swapping station were eye-wateringly expensive, at $2 million each, but the Israelian company failed to get other EV makers onboard. In 2012 the company was liquidated, and the battery-swapping was eventually declared one of the most spectacularly failed technologies of the 21st century. But not before Tesla tried (and gave up) to offer battery-swapping for Tesla Model S one year later.
Today the battery swapping is still considered by many a viable alternative to charging the battery. While fast charging has become the norm in western countries, Chinese companies like Geely and NIO still push in the battery-swapping direction. Both operate in China an extensive network of automatic swapping stations that can change a car’s battery in less than a minute, without the driver even getting off the car.
It seems like the nirvana of EV ownership, faster and more convenient than refueling an ICE car at a gas station. NIO announced this September it completed the fourth million battery swap so it must be successful, at least for NIO and its customers. It seems we have a solid proposition here, why not make it the norm around the world?
Well, before jumping to conclusions we have to look at all the aspects of the battery-swapping vs fast charging dilemma. Surely there is something that made Tesla abandon the concept back in 2013, right? The American company cited several reasons including the cumbersome swapping stations and lack of customers’ interest, but there are other reasons to consider, too.
Perhaps one of the more important ones is about the technicalities of modern electric vehicles. Li-Ion battery is arguably the most complex component of an electric car, and they tend to become an integral part of the car’s rigid structure. They usually involve sophisticated temperature management systems to keep them cool under heavy acceleration and warm before plugging them into a fast charger for maximum performance. This means that water hoses go in and come out of the battery pack. You see now how swapping the battery is a big no in this case. Besides, optimizing batteries for swapping means standardization and it’s quite difficult to get several automakers onboard to make it a large-scale enterprise. Hell, they couldn’t even agree on a charging plug. Even for NIO, it means having unique batteries for all its vehicles. While not impossible, this severely limits the options for a car maker. It also means simpler designs, less performant vehicles, and shorter battery life as water cooling is out of the question.
But the last nail in the coffin is the dizzying pace at which both electric cars and DC fast-charging stations advance. Today’s new EVs routinely deliver over 300 miles of range, with Lucid Air’s EPA range at a maximum of 520 miles. This is a lot more than most people drive in one leg and they still have to stop for a coffee, anyway, why not do it at a fast-charging station? In 20 minutes, you can recharge a modern car’s battery to allow for another long journey. In the case of Lucid Air above, we are talking about 300 miles of range for 20 minutes of charging.
The convenience of fast charging is undeniable, especially when you put that in contrast with the complexity of the swapping stations. This also comes with the need to have a lot of car batteries lying around and even ferry them from station to station, according to drivers’ demand. That’s not to say the battery-swapping is a dead end. It might be an opportunity for ride-hailing operators and other EV fleets where even the shortest downtime cuts into earnings.
Charging stations vs battery swaps: What’s better for micromobility?
The battery-recharging scheme evolved to the next level when mobility providers undertook recharging operations in-house or even outsourced this business to third parties. Trucks and vans started being piled with a larger amount of scooters that were driven to hubs and warehouses for recharging and maintenance. This model still requires combustion vehicles doing the job at a limited capacity and makes the scooters unavailable for several hours while they are taken to recharge, reducing the opportunity for generating revenue. The current battery-charging scheme is difficult to scale, unreliable, expensive and unsustainable. Truth is that the problem persists, there is currently lack of charging infrastructure, and different players are working towards two possible solutions: the universal charging station and the universal battery swap.
Universal Charging Station
We are already familiarized with EV charging stations, as electric cars rely on a dense and ubiquitous network of ECS where users can leave their vehicle charging while parked. These are nowadays not entirely suitable for micromobility vehicles, such as ebikes and escooters, as they have different power and amperage requirements, as well as different connectors and parking infrastructure needs.
New players and industry leaders are working to develop a charging station specifically designed for micromobility that can meet the needs of these vehicles. PBSC is one of them, and they promise to organize, secure, and charge electric vehicles, all while reducing operating costs. Swiftmile offers a solar-powered station with innovative digital displays that provide public transit info, traffic alerts and generates revenue through ads.
Peter Deppe is the Co-Founder and CEO of Kuhmute, a modular and universal charging station aimed at micromobility. Their business model consists in either charging a monthly subscription fee per vehicle to mobility operators or in selling the customizable stations to shops and convenience stores. It also allows individuals to take their privately-owned scooter and charge it (and lock it securely) at a per-minute rate.
Universal Battery Swap
What if instead of waiting for vehicles to be charged at the station we could swap depleted batteries for charged ones? This is the universal battery swap concept and it fits perfectly for e-scooters and e-bikes as they have smaller, easier to handle batteries in comparison to cars. The swapping model can be implemented by hiring a battery swap team or by deploying stations across the city and assigning the battery swap task to the user through incentives.
The main advantage here is the waiting time, as the battery change can be completed in less than a few minutes. The swap-and-go scheme not only eliminates the annoying delay but also maximizes vehicle uptime, extending the available hours of revenue-making for operators. Another important benefit is that the vehicle doesn’t need to be carried anywhere to be recharged. You can transport only the battery and change it in situ, optimizing the process by reducing unnecessary recharging trips.
Tesla’s Battery Charging Vs. Nio’s Battery Swapping: What Investors Should Know
A Battery Charging Primer: Charging is key for powering the battery, which is the heart and soul of an EV. Charging of an EV can be done at home — often called Level 1 or Level 2 charging — although it can turn out to be an unviable option for individual users.
Level 3 charging, aka DC fast charging, is done through a 480-volt DC plug. This is being deployed in public or commercial settings and considerably reduces the time required for charging. It is like refueling at a gas station, as an EV owner can initiate charging through an access card given by a network or a smartphone app, with payment linked to a debit or credit card.
Tesla has its own network of charging stations, called Superchargers, that only require plugging in for automatic charging.
A user can monitor the charge status or can receive a notification when the process is complete. In 15 minutes, the charging required for up to 200 miles of driving can be done, according to Tesla’s website. The company has more than 20,000 superchargers across the globe.
Tesla’s supercharging network in China recently saw an expansion through the opening of the world’s largest supercharger stations in Shanghai.
It has about 72 charging stalls, although the power capacity is only 120 kW. Tesla’s network in California is armed with the latest V3 250 kW supercharger tech.
Nio’s Battery Swapping: The high cost, time and tedium associated with battery replacement and charging drove the innovation that is called battery swapping. In fact, Tesla tried it out in 2013 but eventually gave up on the concept.
Nio’s tryst with battery swapping began in 2014 when it introduced its battery swapping with the Nio Power Grid technology.
The company’s power swap technology is enabled by over 1,200 patents, and it takes merely 3 minutes to swap a fully charged battery, Nio said.
The company also says automatic battery and electric system checks are done during each swap to ensure that both vehicle and battery are in the best shape.
Battery Charging Vs. Battery Swapping: In charging, batteries are purchased outright, while with a swapping arrangement, batteries are leased.
The battery-as-a-service offering Nio announced last year is to complement with its swapping technology.
At the time of the announcement, the company said purchasing with the BaaS option will trim 70,000 yuan or roughly about $10,7000 off the list price of a vehicle.
The main advantage conferred by battery swapping is the lowering of the initial cost of the vehicle, and for the company, it is a strategic option to push sales.
Tesla had become highly critical of battery swap technology in recent times. Battery charging is the future and swapping does not conform with development of the EV market and will be eventually kicked out of the game, Tesla’s global VP Li Tao said on her Weibo account.
“We’ve always believed that the charging model is the best way to replenish energy for large-scale use of civil electric vehicles,” Tao said.
Nio’s Power Swap Station 2.0 allows users complete a self-service battery swap with only one click while staying in the car, which saves time for users.
Analysts are of the view that high-end services such as one-click charging could make batter swapping a more convenient option for users. However, until swapping is made applicable for a large commercial scale, it is unlikely to emerge as the best option for consumers.
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