Fisker Automotive seems to be close to bankruptcy and just went through a hearing on Capital Hill. We invite GigaOM Readers to share their thoughts on the electric vehicle maker and how this news will affect the larger cleantech sector.
Tesla continues with its goal of getting EVs to the mass market after announcing its fourth-quarter earnings. But the challenges the Model S-maker faces are many, and there are limits on how much the company can scale.
Google announced last week that it would use thermal storage to cool the $300 million data center it’s building on 15 hectares of land in Taiwan. The search giant has been experimental in its data center design with everything from seawater cooling to water recycling, and it’s the first time it’s tried thermal storage to cool its power hungry data centers.
Thermal storage typically involves using ice or a liquid coolant that is chilled or frozen at night when power is less expensive, and then deployed in a heat exchange system during the day to cool servers. From the perspective of Google, it’s able to draw and store the energy it needs overnight in a thermal form.
What’s interesting about Google’s choice of thermal storage is that while the technology has been around for a while, it signals interest from Google in using stored energy to cool its data centers rather than just drawing power direct from the grid when it needs it.
The holy grail for energy
Energy storage has long been the holy grail for those favoring renewable energy since the inherent intermittency of wind and solar mean that storing power when the sun is shining and the wind blowing is critical for the times that it isn’t. Battery storage tends to lead the conversation about storing energy, exhibited most recently by the massive 36 megawatt hour BYD made battery storage station in Zhangbei, China. (The ultimate energy storage solution is, of course, fossil fuels, which have been so successful because they are energy dense and portable.)
But there’s experimentation with energy storage beyond football field sized battery projects. At The Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics conference last month, energy investor Bill Gates briefly mentioned that he’d invested in an energy storage startup he was calling “gravel on ski lifts.” The company is Energy Cache and has a very simple idea–fill buckets with gravel on a “ski lift” at the bottom of a hill, haul them up a hill, and release them back down the hill to produce electricity when it’s needed. The process is essentially using gravity to store energy.
What it means to store energy is also expanding. As demand response gets more bidirectional with power customers able to both power down and power up depending on utilities’ needs, many are starting to view the heating or cooling of a building as a means of storing energy. What’s driving this is the fact that we’re starting to see cases of “renewable energy waste,” times when the wind is blowing hard and there isn’t sufficient demand for that power.
Being able to signal an industrial building to heat when renewable energy generation is strong allows that power to be captured and stored. Companies like Grid Mobility and Enbala Power Systems are working on ways to help power customers increase their use of renewable energy as well as build the software to make it easy for them to draw additional power when it’s abundant. (For more here, check out my research note, “The big data tsunami meets the next generation of smart grid companies,” subscription required.)
Energy storage in the home and car
On a residential level, many folks have pointed out that hot water heaters are great thermal stores of energy. If a quarter of America’s hot water heaters could communicate with the grid to turn off at peak hours (or take renewable energy when it’s available), it would save customers $420 million a year. Duke Energy has considered using water heaters as energy stores in order to balance out fluctuations in solar power generation.
But the other dark horse in the energy storage race is electrical vehicles. While vehicle to grid (V2G), allowing utilities to store power in EV’s batteries and draw it back when needed, remains a dream of some, the bigger issue down the line may actually be spikes in overnight demand. Thinking back to Google’s choice of thermal storage, the premise is that drawing off-peak overnight power and storing it thermally has cost advantages. The same is currently true of electric vehicles, which charge overnight.
But in 10-15 years the number of EVs on the road may be significant, so much so that charging them all at 2 a.m. overwhelms the grid. Which is why companies like Toyota are working on technology to put EV drivers in communication with utilities to incentivize them to schedule charges at the best time for the grid. If EVs really take off, the utilities might have to reconsider vehicle to grid technology because they’ll need to utilize electric vehicle batteries as energy stores.
A diversity of storage technologies is emerging, mostly because we haven’t seen the types of breakthroughs in battery technology that everyone has been hoping for (just look at the massive resources available to the mobile industry for R&D and still people are unhappy with the battery life in the iPhone 4s). There’s no silver bullet here but there’s some momentum toward testing new energy storage technology to help store energy when it’s cheapest and when it’s most available.
Question of the week
The news this week that Google is going to experiment with thermal storage to cool its Taiwan data center is another step toward moving power consumption to the evening. The systems works by drawing power overnight, when it’s cheaper, to freeze a liquid solution that then is thawed during the day, absorbing heat from the chugging servers. This theme of shifting consumption to non peak hours as a tool to “store energy” is not limited to Google’s project. Smart grid startups like Grid Mobility are trying to help industrial sites take renewable energy to do energy intensive applications like heat buildings, when the energy is most abundant, and at risk of not being used (there’s a new concept of “wasted energy” that renewables bring into the equation). And the entire EV infrastructure will be centered around charging at night. It’s hard to see it right now, but as we transition to solar power in many areas, we could be looking at a situation ten years out where there’s actually a power crunch at night.
Despite tepid sales of EVs, NRG Energy’s electric vehicle charging network project eVgo is rolling out chargers in public places like malls in Houston and Dallas. The company is getting in early, snapping up agreements to place its chargers at key points of visibility, good security and high traffic. NRG is betting that if it builds it, they will come, and with direct current fast chargers that can charge an EV in as little as 15 minutes, what’s not to like?
The proprietary subscription pricing model is what’s not to like. EVgo is selling access to the charging stations on a cellphone model where for a 3 year contract at $89 a month, customers get free installation of a home charger as well as access to all of the public chargers with electricity included at eVgo network stations (for $49 a month, you just get the home charger).
The problem with this charging network is that using it is proprietary. You can’t even access an eVgo charging station if you don’t have a subscription. And if you do have a subscription, you are extremely reliant on there being an eVgo charger where you need it. Because after plonking down your $89 a month, who wants to pay more money when one finds themselves in a location where you need a charge and the only charger available isn’t an eVgo charger.
The issue of proprietary charging networks isn’t unique to eVgo and it represents a future customer experience problem for the electric vehicle industry. While other charging networks like Ecotality’s Blink and Coulomb’s ChargePoint may not employ strict subscription models, they penalize customers for not carrying company specific RFID cards that switch on their network chargers. Imagine needing the gas card of every gas station you go to get the best deal or the best service.
If you don’t have their company specific RFID cards, Ecotality’s Blink Network allows payments with “Blink codes” that can be obtained from a mobile device at double the price of using a Blink member card. And Coulomb’s ChargePoint requires drivers to call a number and provide their credit card over the phone if they don’t have a ChargePoint card (you can use contactless credit cards, which few people have, to pay at the station). The inconvenience aside, consider having to call a service late at night in a dimly lit parking lot and provide one’s credit card number in order to charge one’s car. Talk about the kind of user experience that would have Steve Jobs rolling in his grave.
A coming problem for the automakers
I spoke with the founder of EV Charging Pros, John Kalb, who has worked with numerous retail and commercial establishments throughout Northern California on public charger installations. “The charging networks believe the RFID cards allow them to control the customer experience but it’s not creating a customer experience that allows the market to grow,” he said. Right now the automakers have early adopters and enthusiasts for customers who don’t necessarily mind carrying different EV charging cards, but as Kalb noted to me in a previous conversation, what happens when you’re Nissan and you want to sell 400,000 EVs.
What’s on the horizon is the potential for automakers to be in conflict with charging network operators in a way that they never were with gas station owners. The charging operators want proprietary systems because they want to optimize their relationship with their customer so that they can allow interesting payment schemes like letting mall owners offer discounted charging to people who frequent the mall. But this vision comes at the expense of the wider market need, which is about making it as easy as possible for EV drivers to access a charge.
Defenders of the current system point out that early adopters don’t mind the charging systems being deployed, and I suspect that eVgo’s all you can charge plans have a great appeal for car owners who want to pay one fee for all their energy use. But EVs won’t exist in 5 years if the auto industry can’t move beyond early adopters and offer a convenient charging network. Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf sales have been disappointing, and EVs are getting caught up in the current politicization of cleantech, which led GM CEO Dan Ackerson to note in The New York Times last week that GM “did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag.”
The interesting thing about EV charging is that it actually has the potential to make everyone’s life more convenient. We’re accustomed to having to take a trip to the gas station to fill up, but what if we could charge our cars while shopping or being at work. Any retail, government or commercial entity with some parking real estate can offer charging. It’s a lot cheaper to install an EV charger than putting in a gasoline pumping station, and if level 3 direct current charging specs are ever resolved, charging one’s car will be a 20 minute affair.
It’s already slow going with EV adoption. Let’s not make this any more complicated.
Question of the week
NRG Energy is rolling out EV chargers in Dallas based on a subscription plan similar to cell phone contracts. The interesting part of the plan is that NRG Energy will install the home charger in exchange for a three year contract at $50 a month. What’s of concern is the $90 plan where in addition to the home charging station, drivers can access NRG’s fast DC chargers at places like malls. What’s going on with the EV charging infrastructure right now is a land grab aimed at locking up key charging real estate and making charging networks proprietary. This is an awful system for EV owners and for the automakers selling EVs. Imagine having to subscribe to one gas company and only being able to fill up at Chevron. Charging stations need to function with a simple financial transaction per charge so that competition between charging stations can occur and so that drivers can have access to the maximum number of stations. EV sales are already slower than hoped. Let’s not make this more complicated.
Tom Gage, the former CEO of AC Propulsion which developed the drive train for the Tesla Roadster, is keeping the dream of vehicle to grid (V2G) charging alive. My colleague Katie Fehrenbacher reports that he’s formed a new company, EV Grid, to work on V2G technology. The barriers to V2G are well known. Not enough EVs to start with, questions about voiding the warranties on EVs if they are converted to V2G, lack of clarity surrounding how much utilities would pay for the extra grid storage. I interviewed Roger Melen of the Toyota Infotechnology Center in January, and he vouched for the fact that utilities and automakers are worried about EVs impact on the grid 10 years from now when there are a lot more EVs on the grid. Melen spends his days figuring out optimal communications systems between car owners and utilities for managing and scheduling EV charging. And it could be that tipping point of EV market penetration when there are enough EVs on the road where the utilities have no choice but to tap them for extra juice, if only to satisfy and work with the increase in total EVs on the grid.
GigaOM Pro readers scrutinized the consumer cleantech industry this week, tracking big news from Tesla and digging in to the intricacies of the Honeywell-Nest lawsuit, which threatens to stifle the green startup industry.
From yesterday’s coverage of the unveiling of Tesla’s all electric SUV/minivan hybrid, it’s clear that the reporters at the company’s LA design studio were pleased with what they saw. I’m personally less interested in the Delorean doors or the fact that the car is the first electric vehicle for soccer moms (I actually believe it being all electric hurts it in that market). What grabs me about the car is that it appears to have excellent trunk space owing to the fact that the electric motor takes up much less space than an internal combustion engine. It’s also extremely fast and handles like a sports car. 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, just like the Model S sedan it’s based on. These two traits differentiate it from any other SUV or minivan out there, even the Porsche Cayenne. A lot has been made of the fact that the Prius was environmentally friendly, but when you’re selling 400,000 units a year, most of your buyers are not environmentalists. In fact, when I ask Prius owners what they like, they almost all say that the seats go down which makes it awesome for road trips, and well, it’s just a really well designed car. We’ll have to wait for better EV charging infrastructure before the Model X sees any road trips.
This is the year of the electric vehicle rollout. Offerings in the EV space will explode with everything from a long-awaited plug-in Prius to the first all-electric SUV, from Tesla. And the most innovative aspect of this flurry may not be that the vehicles are electric but that they are ushering in the era of the connected car and an entirely new relationship between a driver and his vehicle.