Consumer Adoption of PEVs—Batteries are Long Pole in Tent

In 2011, global management-consulting firm Accenture conducted a worldwide consumer survey on the electrification of private transport ...

by Russell Lefevre, IEEE Steering Committee on Electric Vehicles

In 2011, global management-consulting firm Accenture conducted a worldwide consumer survey on the electrification of private transport called “Plug-in electric vehicles Changing perceptions, hedging bets.” The survey attempted to answer a series of questions:

  • Are consumers aware of and do they understand plug-in vehicles (PEVs)?
  • Do they intend to purchase a PEV in the coming years?
  • What matters most to consumers considering PEVs?
  • What charging and charging services do consumers prefer?
  • Do they have a preference for EVs or plug-in hybrid EVs? If so, why?

The results showed that consumers are aware of the emergence of PEVs, but only 30 percent of respondents said they know enough about PEVs to decide on one for their next car purchase. Two-thirds of respondents want more information before they decide. Most drivers worldwide strongly favor PEVs’ replacing conventional vehicles.

For example, 86 percent of Chinese respondents and more than 76 percent of Italian respondents favor this transition.

U.S. respondents, however, are 46 percent in favor, which is below the worldwide average.

PEV Adoption Drivers: Charging Points, Batteries, Cost

The importance of factors in motivating people to buy a car was one of the issues examined. Most important was that 63 percent of respondents wanted a charging point available at home.

The next highest importance was attached to a battery range equal to a full tank of a conventional car with 53 percent.

Following this was that 51 percent wanted the total cost of buying and running an EV to be lower than for conventional gasoline and diesel cars.

Following these factors were: the option to fast charge the battery and the ability to charge at work or public parking lots.

Not as important were government subsidies or tax exemptions to cover the additional cost of owning a PEV vs. a conventional vehicle.

The utility industry is making great strides in EV charging stations, and most readers of this article likely are actively involved or touch this subject regularly. The focus, however, of this article is to shed some light on the second and third PEV adoption drivers mentioned, which are determined almost entirely by batteries.

Batteries

The distance one can travel in an EV depends on the battery specific energy, meaning the capacity for storing energy per unit of weight. A significant cost of an EV is the battery. There have been recent reductions in the cost per kilowatt-hour, but batteries remain the most costly system in an EV.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in the 2010 report “Batteries for Electric Cars” examined the state of electric car battery technology, focusing on lithium-ion batteries. The battery characteristics of interest were: specific energy, specific power, safety, performance and life span, as well as life cycle cost.

Each is important, but most critical are cost and specific energy.

The BCG noted that the specific energy of battery packs in 2010 was in the range of 80-120 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg). If the specific energy were to double to about 200 Wh/kg, the typical battery weight of 250 kilograms (551 pounds) in a small car would lead to an EV range of about 190 miles. This is a reasonable target to alleviate most consumers’ range anxiety.

The cost, however, remains an obstacle. The cost of a lithium-ion battery is difficult to determine, and estimates vary significantly.

In a recent report, however, Pike Research, which specializes in global clean energy markets, predicted that the cost per kilowatt-hour would fall by one-third to $523 by 2017.

This implies the current price is nearly $800 per kilowatt-hour. If this estimate were correct, the battery for a Nissan Leaf whose capacity is 24 kWh would be $19,200. The battery for a Chevrolet Volt, at 16 kWh capacities, would cost $12,800. Even lowering these estimates to Pike’s forecast of $523 per kilowatt-hour, the costs remain high and will impede consumer adoption.

A common statement across the industry is that a reasonable battery price should be about $250 per kilowatt-hour, which would spark consumer adoption.

Recent news releases indicate a possibility that important improvements in cost and energy have been made. During the 2012 ARPA-E Innovation Summit in late February, Envia Systems unveiled a lithium-ion battery that achieved 400 Wh/kg at $150 per kilowatt-hour. The company estimates it will take three years to come to commercial production. When fully developed, this battery would enable a small EV with performance equal to a gasoline car to be sold for $20,000 to $25,000.

Also in February, IBM announced it expects to have a working prototype of a lithium-air battery in 2013 with commercial status by 2020.

A lithium-air battery’s theoretical extremely high energy density could approximate that of conventional gasoline-powered engines. Although a commercial battery is many years away, the promise is so significant that researchers worldwide are working on the concept. There are no publicly available cost or achievable energy-density estimates. If the lithium-air battery becomes viable, however, it could mean a major move toward mass EV adoption.

These announcements have led to optimism in the EV community, yet it remains difficult to estimate PEV penetration rate into the light-vehicle market and when. Prudent utilities and energy service providers will prepare for a significant penetration while monitoring technology development.

In March, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) published “An Action Plan to Integrate Plug-in Electric Vehicles With the U.S Electrical Grid.” The report was prepared by stakeholders of virtually all affected elements. A key recommendation was to create a consistent regulatory framework nationwide, including:

  • Stakeholders should create a market for PEV charging services. Decisions by public utility commissions, local governments and PEV service providers regarding household electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) should streamline the installation process.
  • Stakeholders should work together to determine electricity rate structures that maintain electrical grid reliability.
  • Stakeholders should work together to determine how PEV owners can pay their fair share of transportation infrastructure maintenance.
  • Standards bodies should work together to develop vehicle-charging standards.
  • Stakeholders should ensure consumer privacy is protected.

Power and energy industry and battery providers must build or strengthen their relationships and communicate closely on progress. A great place to do this is at EV conferences such as the 2012 IEEE Transportation Electrification Conference to be June 18-20 in Dearborn, Mich., and the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) Electric Vehicle Symposium, EVS26, which was May 6-9 in Los Angeles.

EV battery technology development is rampant and advancement is imminent. When battery milestones are achieved—when the specific energy of batteries increases and the cost decreases—EVs will have reached a cost and driving range that will attract consumers.

The goal is that the utility and energy providers will be ready to charge them.

Author

Russell Lefevre, Ph.D., is an IEEE smart grid technical expert and is chairman of the IEEE Steering Committee on Electric Vehicles. He is a Fellow of IEEE and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a past president of IEEE-USA and the Aerospace and Electronics Systems Society. As a Congressional Fellow, he served as science advisor to West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller. In 2011 he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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