Is the solar panel & battery combo ready to change energy markets?

The big idea right now for solar and batteries is this: put solar panels on your roof, a battery in the backyard (or basement), and become utterly independent from the power grid, using free electricity from the sun. Batteries have long been looked to as a way to store energy solar energy during the day to be used at night, but they have long been too expensive to be used widely. But many companies are looking at 2015 as a very important year for the solar and battery partnership and I’ve heard the word “tipping point” being used repeatedly about this intersection recently.

Why all the excitement and why now? First off, traditional lithium-ion batteries — the kind being widely used in cell phones and laptops — are becoming cheaper than ever before. Electric car company Tesla and Japanese battery giant Panasonic have been working closely on lowering costs of their lithium-ion batteries significantly, and with Tesla’s “gigafactory” the companies expect to be able to reduce the lithium-ion battery cost by another third.

solar panel

Navigant Research estimates that Tesla pays about $200 per kWh for its Panasonic battery cells today, and that price could drop as low as $130 per kWh by 2020 when Tesla’s massive factory — which is expected to more than double the world’s lithium-ion battery production — is fully up and running in Nevada. Several years ago, lithium-ion batteries cost closer to $1,000 per kWh. Tesla plans to sell some of the batteries from its factory into the power grid market, and SolarCity (the installer company chaired by Tesla CEO Elon Musk) already uses Tesla batteries for a solar panel energy storage system.

Lithium ion batteries are becoming such a clear low cost platform for energy storage that other startups beyond Tesla are adopting this idea, too. At CES last week, a startup called Gogoro launched an electric scooter and battery swapping infrastructure based around modular lithium ion batteries designed also in conjunction with Panasonic. Owners of the Gogoro scooter will some day be able to swap out their two depleted batteries at a nearby battery swap station, and they will likely pay a subscription for access to the batteries.

Gogoro's electric scooter and battery station

Gogoro’s electric scooter and battery station

But it’s not just the economics of lithium ion batteries that are driving the pairing of solar and batteries. Other startups have been developing newer, low-cost battery chemistries that are optimized for the power grid, like Aquion Energy and Ambri. Aquion Energy last week announced that one of its largest battery installations to date (2 MWh) is going into a solar system on the Kona coast of Hawaii.

The surge in solar panel installations is one of the main drivers behind this grid battery trend. There’s a lot bigger market these days for solar: More than a third of all new electricity installed in the U.S. in the first three quarters of 2014 came from solar panels, both utility-scale solar and solar panels on residential rooftops. That’s second only to new natural gas plants.

Battery stacks and modules in Aquion Energy's factory. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Battery stacks and modules in Aquion Energy’s factory. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Solar companies, like SunPower, SolarCity, Sunrun and others, are doing deals with battery makers, looking to offer new services. Startup Stem, which uses distributed battery packs to work like virtual power plants, is working with Kyocera Solar.

Then there’s the grid battery market that’s being opened up by the state of California’s aggressive mandates for energy storage. California utilities are being asked to buy 1,325 megawatts of energy storage services by 2020, and utility Southern California Edison has already said it will buy 250 MW of energy storage systems. Part of SCE’s plans will be made up by a huge 100 MW battery plant from AES Energy Storage and a 85 MW contract from Stem.

Tesla's image of its clean powered factory. Courtesy of Tesla.

Tesla’s image of its clean powered factory. Courtesy of Tesla.

So clearly, utilities aren’t worried about energy storage in general, because they will some day be major users of this technology. But in the short term, some are worried about so-called grid defections. If your solar panels and battery offer you all the electricity options you need, why do you need the utility?

However, according to a recent report from Moody’s, batteries and clean power are just still too expensive to be too threatening right now. Moody’s said that even with battery prices at $200 per kWh, and solar panels at $3.50 per watt, these technologies are “an order of magnitude too expensive to substitute for grid power.” Battery prices would have to be closer to $10 per kWh to $30 per kWh range to be cost competitive widely for the power grid, said Moody’s.

Those costs might be difficult for (most) residential customers to justify, but it could be a different story for commercial building owners. GTM Research says the market for solar panels paired with batteries will surpass $1 billion in annual revenue by 2018 (up from just $42 million last year), with collectively 318 MW of solar and storage capacity installed in the U.S. by that time. One in ten new commercial solar customers will opt for an energy storage addition by 2018, predicts GTM Research.

This souped up electric scooter could transform energy use in cities

The only stretch of road that wasn’t being pummeled with some of the wettest weather San Francisco has ever seen on a Thursday afternoon in mid-December was right under a freeway overpass in the Dogpatch neighborhood. It was there that a small group of parka-wearing, umbrella-donning bloggers filed out of a bus and lined up along the road to watch a brand new type of electric scooter race up and down the street.

The driver — who’s a professional, we were assured — spun doughnuts with the scooter, imprinting a tight black circle onto the pavement, and leaning over with one knee far enough to look like he and the entirely black matte scooter are going to topple completely over. Entrepreneur Horace Luke, who is the co-founder, CEO and chairman of the company behind the scooter as well as a major designer of the scooter tech, called out instructions to the driver in Mandarin, as the writers (myself included) clap enthusiastically after each stunt. We were happy to be outdoors after several hours of corporate PowerPoint presentations, and happy that the driver had yet to skid out of control on one of the road’s many wet spots.

Gogoro's electric scooter.

Gogoro’s electric scooter. Photo taken at a demo on December 11, 2014 in San Francisco. Image courtesy of Gigaom/Katie Fehrenbacher.

The company behind the all-electric scooter, and its accompanying energy tech, is called Gogoro and it looks like it could be one of the most ambitious energy-focused startups to launch in 2015. While the company, which was founded in 2011, emerged from stealth mode in late October 2014 with news of a $150 million in funding from some of Asia’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, at that time the Gogoro team had refused to explain just what kind of product that amount of financing was going towards building.

Now, for the first time, with plans to officially launch at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Monday, the Gogoro team is finally ready to talk about what they’ve been up to. They’re calling it the world’s first launch of a “smartscooter and battery swapping infrastructure.”

Gogoro-Burnout

The idea

Gogoro's electric scooter charging station.

Gogoro’s electric scooter charging station.

Gogoro is much more than the manufacturer of an electric scooter that can do tight doughnuts, though that is an important part of its concept. For those that follow energy startups, the easiest way to explain Gogoro is like Better Place with electric scooters, but with much more of a focus on vehicle innovation, potentially much smaller overhead, and with an emphasis on densely-populated mega cities in Asia.

Gogoro is looking to build out a network of battery swapping stations — one every 0.8 miles is ideal, the team said — that will act as the energy infrastructure for its scooters. The company will then sell the battery swapping service as a subscription to its users. The swapping stations are supposed to take just six seconds for a scooter driver to use, delivering two fully charged batteries on demand.

The underlying infrastructure that will connect these scooters and charging stations is wireless connectivity, a mobile app and smart data analytics in the cloud. The scooter itself has a wireless network connection, the driver uses a wireless key fob to unlock the scooter and the swap stations, and customers will also have a mobile app that will be able to guide a driver to the nearest swap station with available charged batteries. The team referred to their scooters as a large version of the internet of things at the December event.

Gogoro's batteries and charging station.

Gogoro’s batteries and charging station.

The comparison to Better Place — which I expect will be used ad nauseam by the time CES is over — is one that’s not necessarily going to please the Gogoro team given Better Place’s spectacular failure, having declared bankruptcy two years ago. But some obvious similarities are there, so we’ll just call out the elephant in the room.

But if executed well, Gogoro could potentially avoid some of the problems that dragged Better Place down, like unfocused geographic expansion, high costs, lack of demand for its vehicles, and a flawed go to market sales model.

The ambition behind Better Place and Gogoro is similar: it’s no less than a bid to change how the world uses energy for transportation, delivering its customers vehicles that use electricity for fuel instead of gasoline, combined with a system that routes around the long time it takes to charge today’s modern lithium-ion batteries with standard charging equipment.

Gogoro's electric scooter and battery station

Gogoro’s electric scooter and battery station

When most people think about climate change and transportation, they think about removing or replacing gas-powered cars. But modern gas-powered scooters deliver emissions into the atmosphere and contribute to air pollution in many cities, sometimes even more than cars do. Some cities have even banned gas-powered scooters as a way to clean up the air, and are providing significant government incentives for electric two-wheelers.

Gogoro’s Luke called the company’s sweeping vision “the beginning of something huge,” which he thinks could “kick start an industry.” He effused that sleepless nights are now his new normal as he’s just so excited about their product’s potential.

Gogoro co-founder & CEO Horace Luke.

Gogoro co-founder & CEO Horace Luke.

Luke is a gadget and product visionary. He was formerly the chief innovation officer at HTC and also worked for almost a decade at Microsoft, helping deliver products like Xbox. If you don’t watch yourself, you’ll probably start coveting whatever he’s pitching.

While Luke doesn’t have a background in the auto or scooter industries, he told me he’s always been interested in vehicle design and has followed it since he started his career in tech. The fact that the Gogoro team is tackling the design of the scooter more like a connected large mobile gadget than a traditional 2-wheeler might end up being an advantage.

The back view of the Gogoro electric scooter.

The back view of the Gogoro electric scooter.

The tech

Luke’s co-founder and Gogoro CTO is Matt Taylor, and he’s like the Wozniak to Luke’s Jobs — Taylor worked with Luke at both HTC and Microsoft. While Luke spent most of his time during the media day in December talking about the cool aspects of the scooter design, or the world-changing opportunity, Taylor went deep on the engineering and the strategy.

Taylor said he and Luke were interested in building a new type of scooter partly because “the scooter has been relatively static for the last ten or twenty years,” making the market “an intoxicating opportunity.” More importantly, building an electric scooter can be done at a fraction of the cost of building an electric car from scratch: 1/10th to 1/15th of the cost, Taylor estimated. Scooters are also already more popular in some emerging densely-populated urban areas like cities in the Philippines and Indonesia than cars are, with 200 million scooters operating worldwide.

The dashboard of the Gogoro electric scooter.

The dashboard of the Gogoro electric scooter.

The cost of Gogoro’s battery swapping infrastructure — which are modular units that start off the size of an ATM and can be scaled up — are planned to be much lower than the cost of battery swap stations that have been built for cars, like Better Place’s network. Luke said they cost “under $10,000 per unit,” and they just need to be plugged into an outlet to operate. Beyond that they don’t need any more infrastructure.

Gogoro showed off a working swapping station at the event in December and the process of swapping the two batteries out of the scooter appeared to be pretty simple. Drivers find the closest station with batteries using the mobile app, use a key fob to sign into the station, pull out the (somewhat heavy, but manageable) 20-pound batteries out of the scooter, and pop them into open battery slots. The swapping station then spits out two fully charged batteries, which the driver places back into the scooter.

Gogoro's mobile app for iOS

Gogoro’s mobile app for iOS

Over time, depending on how you drive and charge, the Gogoro network can learn how you use batteries and can optimize the system for you. For example, if nine times out of ten you charge batteries on your Monday morning commute, the network will remember that and could in theory reserve them for you.

Lower costs could be one of the key differences between Gogoro and Better Place, which raised $850 million in funding over its six years of existence. Gogoro so far has closed on $50 million, and is raising another $100 million, though it will likely need more money to launch commercially in cities with its swap stations.

Another important difference between Gogoro and Better Place’s strategy is that Gogoro has spent three years developing a scooter that is high performance and (they hope) highly desirable. Better Place, working with Renault, made its first car, the Fluence, with a swappable battery. The car was pretty boring and average and there weren’t a lot of takers. Gogoro is looking to make a cool in-demand scooter that draws attention like Tesla’s Model S or Apple’s iPhone.

Gogoro's electric scooter parts.

Gogoro’s electric scooter parts.

Gogoro has re-imagined almost every aspect of the scooter’s design using technology, connectivity and computing. It’s more like what Nest was looking to do with its learning thermostat than what traditional scooter manufacturers have done with electric scooters. There are already a decent amount of companies making electric two-wheelers out there — from startups like Zero Motorcycles and Brammo, to big car companies like BMW — but none of them have taken the electric scooter itself so seriously.

Luke and Taylor said every part of the scooter was redesigned from the ground up for urban mobility. There are no off-the-shelf parts.

It’s not a motorcycle, so don’t expect the best two-wheeler on a race track. It has been designed for quick and tight turns as well as abrupt stops and starts in cities. The scooter can go 0 to 31 mph in 4.2 seconds (it maxes out at 60 mph) and can lean left and right at 45 degrees. I wouldn’t dare attempt that kind of lean with the gas-powered Vespa I have access to at home.

Gogoro's extreme lean

Gogoro’s extreme lean

The scooter weighs a little over 200 pounds without the batteries (just over 240 pounds with the batteries) and has a roomy 0.85 cubic feet of underseat trunk space even though it has two big batteries inside. The entire body, and many of the parts, are made from aluminum to make it as light as possible. The chassis can also open up for swift maintenance, which is a neat design feature.

Taylor said that a couple key innovations on the engineering side of the scooter came from the falling prices of power electronics, and better access to powerful magnets, which has enabled a new class of motor for the scooter. Gogoro’s smart motor can use software to achieve what larger motors are capable of, said Taylor.

Gogoro's electric scooter can quickly open up for maintenance.

Gogoro’s electric scooter can quickly open up for maintenance.

The company also has a lot of interesting plans for personalization of the scooter, in similar ways to how cell phones are personalized today. The scooter can have customized sounds, light sequences (from its LED lights), accessories, and colors.

The battery

Gogoro has also done a lot of work on designing the scooters’ batteries, which are the key to the entire energy system. The startup was able to seal a technology and marketing partnership with Panasonic, and the two companies co-developed modular energy-dense batteries with the Japanese giant in the same way that Tesla has done with Panasonic for its cars. Gogoro’s battery packs are made up of the small format lithium ion batteries that Tesla is using for its cars.

The Panasonic deal is huge for Gogoro; it gives them credibility and reliable batteries from the get go. But it could be a benefit for Panasonic, too. Panasonic has been searching for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk that can develop services using its batteries. The battery behemoth intends to greatly expand its battery sales for the power grid and automotive markets over the next few years.

One Gogoro battery. Two fit in the electric scooter.

One Gogoro battery. Two fit in the electric scooter.

Gogoro’s batteries have a range of 60 miles, driving the scooter around 25 mph within a city, and a lifespan of 500 cycles, which is about five years. While that lifespan might cause problems in a car like the Model S — you would need to replace the expensive pack every 5 years — Gogoro customers won’t own the batteries, so when batteries get old, the company will just take them out of rotation in the network. The batteries also have smart computing and connectivity including 25 sensors, near field communication and 256-bit security encryption.

What’s next?

O.K. enough about the tech; you’re probably wondering if this is going to actually happen or not. Are we looking at another Better Place?

Luke said the development on the scooters and charging tech are 95 percent done, and the next step is to do a trial of the tech with the right city. They plan to launch the scooter and charging networks commercially in 2015.

The company is talking to cities right now looking for the best partner to launch with. The first trial of the tech will be very important for the company to act as a test bed, and to help the team figure out what they need from an optimal city. Better Place’s launch in Israel was deeply flawed.

Gogoro logo from the rear

Gogoro logo from the rear

You can guess that cities in Asia will be some of the first to try out this tech. Not only are governments in countries like China willing to incentivize these types of technologies, but two-wheelers are far more popular in these regions than in some Western cities. “Any city that adopts two wheel vehicles is our target market,” says Taylor. Gogoro’s funding also has come from some of Asia’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, including Sam Yin, from Ruentex Group, and Cher Wang, the co-founder and chairwoman of HTC.

Gogoro is still a pre-commercial company, so it’s hard to tell how successful the plan will be. It’s no doubt ambitious, but it will have to jump a lot of hurdles to get to market successfully. There will be a lot of risks involved.

Will 18 to 25 year old scooter enthusiasts in cities in Indonesia and the Philippines actually covet the scooter? I’m not particularly connected to that demographic so it’s hard for me to tell at this point. We’ll just have to check back when sales start.

Gogoro connected driver

Gogoro connected driver

Will Gogoro price the scooter and energy subscription at a point where users will want and afford it? The company is not revealing how much it will charge at this point, but says the scooter will be priced comparable to a gas-powered scooter. I would think the company would want to use the energy subscription plan to subsidize the scooter, in the same way that telcos sell subsidized iPhones and two to three year calling plans.

Gogoro will also probably have to reach some kind of critical mass in a city with its battery swap stations to attract a lot of customers. That’s the issue with these types of networks: it’s a chicken and egg problem. While the Gogoro stations are cheaper than Better Places were, the sheer number of stations needed would likely add up. The company will probably have to raise significantly more money to go commercial.

The stations in these cities might also be pretty vulnerable, and will have to be managed well, both with software but also protected from thieves. Lithium ion batteries can easily be sold off into secondary markets.

Despite all the caveats, Gogoro’s idea is promising, it could be an important step toward getting the world off of gasoline in cities in the emerging economies, and the team has made a lot of progress. But I think executing this idea will be pretty difficult.

Updated at 10:48AM on January 5th to clarify that Gogoro has closed on $50 million in funding, and is looking to raise another $100 million.