ARPA-E’s RANGE Program Will Boost Battery Innovation

On the eve of their annual Energy Innovation Summit, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has announced funding for a new program focused on improving electric vehicle (EV) battery technologies. The new Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems (RANGE) program “seeks to improve EV range and reduce vehicle costs by re-envisioning the total EV battery system, rather than working to increase the energy density of individual battery cells,” as stated in the agency’s press release. The program’s establishment represents just the latest positive sign of the Energy Department’s commitment to foster battery innovation.

As MIT Technology Review reported last year, a $2.4 billion grant program under the 2009 Stimulus resulted in a substantial gap between domestic EV battery production capacity and actual battery demand. To be sure, while manufacturing capability is essential, demand for EVs and EV batteries by extension will only grow when battery technology can exceed expectations. And to accomplish that goal, ITIF has argued, policymakers need to emphasize battery innovation and “put the battery before the electric vehicle” – a need that has been underlined by the recent Broder-Tesla spat. Fortunately, the … Read the rest


New Energy Innovation Hub a Step Towards BatteryShot

One of the recommendations of the ITIF report Shifting Gears: Transcending Conventional Economic Doctrines to Develop Better Electric Vehicle Batteries is the creation of a “BatteryShot Initiative” to “coordinate government battery RD&D efforts and establish a clear metric for success”. (This follows the initiative of a 2011 Innovation Files blog post). In late November, the Department of Energy (DOE) took a step in that direction and announced the creation of a new Batteries and Energy Storage Hub. The Hub, to be formally known as the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), will be located on the Argonne National Laboratory campus and “will combine the R&D firepower of five DOE national laboratories, five universities, and four private firms in an effort aimed at achieving revolutionary advances in battery performance”, as noted in the press release.

JCESR (pronounced “J-Caesar”) will actually be the 4th Energy Innovation Hub, with Hubs for energy efficient buildings, fuels from sunlight, and nuclear reactor innovation, respectively, all having been established since 2010. JCESR certainly has a strong foundation in Argonne National Laboratory – researchers at the Lab were instrumental in developing the battery … Read the rest


CalBattery Breakthrough a Product of the National Innovation Ecosystem

California Lithium Battery Inc. (CalBattery) – a start-up established in 2011 – has announced the development of a potential battery breakthrough that could significantly increase energy density and reduce costs. As the battery industry continues to struggle with performance and cost issues, especially when it comes to electric vehicles, technology breakthroughs are central to creating a competitive industry. While the CalBattery news is potentially important, however, the overlooked story here is how the company is a successful product of government investments in clean energy innovation. CalBattery’s breakthrough is a composite anode material for lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) – one of the three main components of battery technology along with the cathode and electrolyte. The anode is the material in which an electric current flows into the battery. For most advanced batteries used in the market, graphite is typically used because it is lightweight and has a relatively high energy density. In comparison, silicon offers a much higher energy density potential, but is typically not stable enough for commercial use – after a few charges the silicon cracks and the battery is inoperable.

To solve this issue, CalBattery’s technology embeds nano-silicon on … Read the rest


A123, Solyndra, and EV Battery Innovation

Battery maker A123 Systems Inc. recently filed for bankruptcy protection, making it the latest in a series of clean energy companies to falter. Without a doubt, this unfortunate development is set to become the next political football in much the same way Solyndra has dominated the energy policy debate. But let’s be clear, A123 is not Solyndra. Solyndra’s downfall was falling silicon prices and rampant Chinese green mercantilism erasing any competitive edge its technology had in the market. On the other hand, A123 has had to deal with an acute business problem: no one is buying electric cars yet so the demand for its batteries remains low. But what really sets A123 apart from Solyndra is that A123 still developed genuinely innovative technology. In fact, Johnson Controls – the U.S. company that is purchasing A123’s key assets – will continue manufacturing during the bankruptcy process and A123’s innovative battery is still set to power the all-electric Chevrolet Spark. As ITIF Senior Analyst Matthew Stepp is quoted as saying in the Detroit Free Press, “This isn’t going to be the last we hear of A123’s battery technology. This is just … Read the rest


Shifting Gears: A Growing Debate on How to Electrify U.S. Transportation

Last week, ITIF released Shifting Gears: Transcending Conventional Economic Doctrines to Develop Better Electric Vehicle Batteries, which explores the challenges confronting today’s electric vehicle (EV) industry and presents an “innovation economics” strategy for overcoming them. It has added to a growing debate on the short-comings of today’s EV policy approach and better ways energy policy can support electrifying U.S. transportation. Politico correctly summarized the core issue: better EV batteries are “the unseen force behind electric vehicle sales,” but “neither higher taxes nor domestic and international subsidies have spurred enough [technology] momentum.” Referring to Shifting Gears, Politico states that “The only answer is a robust R&D strategy to develop much better and cheaper batteries to dramatically lower the cost and increase the performance of EVs.” As ITIF Senior Analyst Matthew Stepp put it in a Bloomberg Businessweek article that highlights the report, “Government investment in high-risk, high-reward technologies is critical.”

Business Insider’s Alex Davies concurs, pointing out that while the conventional policy approach has been to either subsidize EV purchases or impose taxes to increase the price of gas cars, the report “lay[s] out a … Read the rest


E&E TV Interview on Electric Vehicles

ITIF released a new report today titled Shifting Gears: Transcending Conventional Economic Doctrines to Develop Better Electric Vehicle Batteries. The report explores the challenges confronting today’s electric vehicle industry and presents an “innovation economics” strategy for overcoming them. ITIF policy analyst and report co-author Clifton Yin appeared on E&ETV for a discussion on the subject. You can watch the interview here. The transcript is reproduced in its entirety below:

Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I’m Monica Trauzzi, and joining me today is Clifton Yin, clean energy policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Clifton, it’s nice to have you on the show.

Clifton Yin: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: You’ve just released a new report on the economic policy tools that have been used to develop and grow the electric vehicle sector industry in the US. Why have vehicle subsidies and carbon taxes failed as economic drivers in this sector? … Read the rest


Put the Battery Before the Electric Vehicle

Technology Review observed yesterday that there is a substantial gap between domestic electric vehicle battery production capacity and actual battery demand. The article notes that three years after the Obama administration distributed $2.4 billion in grants to electric vehicle battery manufacturers as part of the Stimulus, while the industry is expected to have a battery production capacity of 3,900 megawatt hours in 2013, expected demand next year will only amount to 330 megawatt hours. (The Nissan Leaf has a 24 kilowatt-hour battery; 3,900 megawatt hours is thus the equivalent of 162,500 Nissan Leaf batteries). The result? “The factories funded by those grants are sitting idle or operating well below their originally intended capacity.” This troubling development is further evidence that too many policymakers and electric vehicle advocates are putting the cart before the horse, or, more fittingly, the electric vehicle before the battery.

Increasing the nation’s battery manufacturing capability is meaningless so long as demand for electric vehicles remains low, and that demand will remain low so long as the nation manufacturers underperforming batteries. “The problem is simple,” according to the Technology Review article, “People aren’t buying enough electric cars, … Read the rest


Electric Vehicle Tax Credit Money Better Spent on Battery Development

Last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report analyzing the effectiveness of the Electric Vehicle tax credit and the results aren’t good. It concludes that the tax credit is unlikely to make electric cars affordable relative to conventional gas cars. But this finding shouldn’t be unexpected. America isn’t going to realize a completely electric transportation sector by subsidizing costly and low-performance first generation electric cars. Rather, America will switch to electric vehicles en masse once there are cheap and viable electric vehicle options to choose from, which requires significant innovation.

The tax credit provides a $7,500 credit to consumers that purchase an electric vehicle. On paper that seems like a significant incentive. But as the CBO summary of the report notes, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles (also known as all-electric cars) require a tax credit of more than $12,000 at the very least “to have roughly the same lifetime costs as a comparable conventional or traditional hybrid vehicle…Consequently the credits will result in little or no reduction in the total gasoline use and greenhouse gas emissions of the nation’s vehicle fleet over the next … Read the rest


Ambri and Utility-Scale Storage: Another Emerging Story of Government Investment in Energy Innovation

Utility-scale energy storage start-up Ambri is emerging as a potential clean energy game changer, but is also a budding story of the role of government in supporting breakthrough technologies. Its potential impact cannot be overstated. Utility-scale energy storage is critical for making clean energy-produced electricity a viable option everywhere.

Intermittency is a key drawback of using solar and wind power (in addition to the higher costs of existing technologies) at grid-scale (i.e. to power a city or region). The amount of energy produced by the sun and wind varies greatly over time and “when intermittent electricity sources like solar make up more of the power supply mix,” Sydney Kaufman of Solar Novus Today observes, “utility operators have less control over how much power is produced. This is one of the largest hurdles to increasing renewable grid penetration and it causes utility managers to have to constantly be prepared for dips in renewable output.”

Utility operators have typically compensated for the ebb and flow of renewable power by running back-up natural gas power plants that can be quickly brought on line, but as Kaufman points out, this “means that at … Read the rest


One Step Closer to Game-Changing Electric Vehicle Batteries

Envia Systems’ breakthrough battery is one step closer to commercialization after a public vote of confidence last week from the CEO of General Motors (GM), Dan Akerson. ITIF has previously blogged about the battery, which performed at an energy density of 378-418 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg) in independent tests. In contrast, conventional electric vehicle batteries possess substantially lower densities – the battery of the high-end Tesla roadster, for example, has an energy density of 121 Wh/kg, while the Nissan Leaf’s is 79 Wh/kg. GM is conducting further tests on the battery, but its CEO expressed hope that it could be installed in an electric vehicle in just two to four years. “These little companies come out of nowhere, and they surprise you,” Akerson remarked in regard to Envia. “I think we’ve got better than a 50-50 chance to develop a car that will go to 200 miles on a charge. That would be a game changer.”

Envia and its battery did not come out of nowhere, of course – they were in large part the product of a supportive energy innovation ecosystem. As related in a previous blog post, … Read the rest