Leclanché, the oldest battery company in the world and the largest lithium battery manufacturer in Europe, has embarked on a special strategy to drive the electrification of transport forward. “We are giving priority to the electrification of buses, ferries, and other mass transport systems”, says CEO Anil Srivastava. “Electrification is much easier to manage for buses that follow regular routes than for passenger cars. And once a standardised charging system has been developed for buses, passenger cars can make use of it.” Energy Post spoke with Srivastava at KIC InnoEnergy’s Business Booster event held 21-22 October in Berlin.
“Universal charging stations enabling heterogenous users – that’s what’s needed to literally electrify the transport system”, says Anil Srivastava.
The Indian-born CEO of energy storage and battery manufacturer Leclanché is a relative newcomer to the battery world. But before he joined the 105-year old Swiss company in June 2014, he built up an impressive CV both in- and outside the energy sector. He was Chief Executive of a large offshore wind business in Germany, Chief Executive of Areva Renewables, member of the Areva Group’s executive committee, and held executive positions in ICT companies such as TomTom and Alcatel-Lucent. Storage, he says, was a sector that was still missing from his experience. “And storage is where it’s happening. So when I was asked to join Leclanché, it was a challenge I could not resist.”
Leclanché, quoted on the Swiss stock exchange, with large manufacturing facilities in Germany, is a unique player in the battery sector in that it’s a fully integrated company. “We do everything in-house: from the basic chemistry powder to cells to modules to battery management systems. We can supply a customised solution for all our clients – we don’t force any chemistry on our customers.”
“The biggest challenge for electric cars today is not cost of storage. It’s standardisation”
After a strategic reorientation, the company spent 120 million Swiss Francs over the last seven years to build up a portfolio in lithium batteries, says Srivastava. “We now have Europe’s largest and most advanced lithium producing facility, in Germany, with a capacity of 1 million cells per year.” (75-160 MWh)
Of course this is not quite the scale of Tesla’s proposed “gigafactory” in Nevada, which will reportedly cost $5 billion. But Srivastava has his doubts about the Tesla plan. “There is so much hype in this business. I hope Elon Musk will be right, but I don’t believe in hypes.” In any case it is impossible to compare the Tesla factory with Leclanché’s plant, he says. “We are focused on large industrial storage systems for electricity markets and mass transport fleets, not on the consumer and automotive space .”
To explain what his company does, Srivastava notes there are two types of cells on the market today: high-density cells for consumer applications such as smart phones, which need to be small and light, and which Leclanché does not produce – and so-called power cells, for electric vehicles and energy applications, which need high charging power. “The predominant technology in these power cells today is lithium-titanate oxide”, he says. “And that is the core strength of Leclanché. Globally only Toshiba and Leclanché produce lithium-titanate batteries at industrial scale.”
Although this may give Leclanché a good starting position, the company is not content to sit back and watch the market grow passively. It has developed a strategy intended to actively boost electric transport in Europe. An unusual strategy. According to Srivastava, the biggest challenge for electric cars today is not cost of storage, as many people think. Costs are steadily coming down. “Prices in Europe today are down to €600/kWh at the system level. We will be able to reduce them another 20 to 30 per cent in the next three years.”
“The problem is that renewable power producers get paid for producing power that is not used. That’s a criminal waste”
Rather, says Srivastava, “the fundamental issue for this industry is the standardisation and availability of charging. Every carmaker has its own charger. It’s as if every carmaker had its own petrol stations. That doesn’t work.” The way to tackle this challenge, he says, is through the public transport sector: “The electrification of mass transport. Buses, ferries, trams, trains.”
This at first seems counterintuitive. Full-electric passenger cars are hardly very popular with consumers yet. Wouldn’t it be even more difficult to electrify much bigger vehicles such as buses? But Srivastava says that’s a misconception. “A bus has a predefined route. You can easily program its charging pattern. You can have a charging strategy for an entire fleet in a city. It’s a closed loop, easy to manage. You can’t do that for passenger cars.”
What is more, once the charging stations are in place – Leclanché calls this “universal charging points of presence” or C-POP – then passenger cars can make use of it too. “This is the way for electric driving to take off, with mass transport leading.”
The company is already putting this strategy into practice. In Bruges, Belgium, it unveiled its first full-electric buses on 19 October, in partnership with bus manufacturer Van Hool and trasnport company Bombardier, during the trade show busworld Europe. Three electric buses were handed over to the Flanders public transport company De Lijn. In Denmark, Leclanché is building the biggest electric ferry in the world, an assignment it won through a public tender from the European Commission.
Srivastava is convinced that in time electric vehicles will transform the transport sector, just as renewable energy will transform the electricity sector – if the storage puzzle can be solved. “The missing bit so far has been competitively priced storage. That bit is now within reach.”
“Storage does not need subsidies, I want to be put on the record for this”
However, policymakers need to give the final push, says Srivastava. In the electricity sector, he notes that the current market structure does not provide the right incentives for storage. “For 20 years we have been giving incentives for renewables. That’s fine, but now we need to make sure the market is balanced properly. What happens now is when we have excess renewable energy, for example wind energy at night, it’s simply driven into the ground, thrown away.”
This excess renewable power should be stored, says Srivastava. “The problem is that renewable power producers have no incentives to invest in storage. They get paid for producing power that is not used. That’s a criminal waste.” The incentives should be switched to storage, he says, adding, “I want to stress I am not talking about subsidies. Storage does not need subsidies, I want to be put on the record on this. Three years ago, yes, storage was not competitive. Today it is. But feed-in tariffs should take into account the value of storage. Where there are incentives they should be properly distributed.”
Power stations on wheels
Once this last part of the puzzle is put in place, we will be able to enter the new energy world: “Storage is the last bit missing to make energy flow transparently between current grid infrastructure and the future energy flows. Energy is where people are. That means in today’s world energy has to be a lot more mobile. Cars and buses are power stations on wheels. Distributed generation and use will change the landscape like we have never seen.”
Srivastava on fuel cells and flow batteries
Will future electric cars run predominantly on (hydrogen) fuel cells or on batteries? According to someone like Tony Seba, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles cannot compete with batteries. But Srivastava sees the technologies as complementary. “If you have a bus inside a city, it can run on a lithium-ion battery. But if it goes long distance, lithium will be too expensive. Then you can use a fuel cell as a range extender. The two systems can be integrated.” As to flow batteries, “can they work for bulk storage? Yes”, says Srivastava. “For fast charging? Absolutely not.”
Srivastava says this is a revolution that’s already happening, here in Europe, “although people don’t realise it, because there is not this Silicon Valley type of hype about it”. He mentions UK transmission system operator (TSO) National Grid as example. “They have said they want to create artificial inertia in the grid. Why? Because in ten years they will have 60% intermittent renewables. Inertia is needed to keep the grid stable and they are already preparing for that now. They need it because they are not connected to the European Grid on the continent ”
In continental Europe if we have a system of universal charging points for transport, we can use that to stabilise the grid, says Srivastava. “It’s a form of distributed generation.” The old centralised model will be turned upside down. “Producing power in a large plant, transporting it down high-voltage lines and distributing it onward through lower-voltage lines – that system will be reversed. Local people will be producing and consuming their own energy. Sometimes they will take energy from the high-voltage grid, sometimes they will give it energy. Imagine what new opportunities this will offer.”