Author: Jennifer Sensiba

Fēnix News

World’s Biggest Battery is Making Big Money

The Hornsdale Power Reserve in southern Australia. Image by Google.

A recent piece at Seeking Alpha explains that Tesla’s giant installation of grid-connected batteries is doing very well financially.

For those unfamiliar, the Hornsdale Power Reserve in southern Australia is a big bank of lithium-ion batteries located next to a large windfarm. The idea is to charge the batteries when power is plentiful and release the power back into the grid when extra power is needed. This is done in two ways: by giving big boosts of power (for 10 minutes) when there’s a problem with the grid, and by load-shifting power under normal circumstances to help make renewables more reliable.

While the Seeking Alpha post goes into great detail, the important thing is this: the world’s biggest battery is not only doing well, but it’s doing well in ways that people didn’t predict. The battery is providing the services they expected when it was built, but also doing things unexpected, like allowing some peaker plants to stay off.

Because of all of this, the battery is about to be expanded 50%. With around 50% renewables in that part of Australia expected to grow further toward 100%, they’re going to need more storage not only to do what has been done already, but for new roles on the grid.

While this may seem pretty far flung from the business of replacing the batteries of vehicles like older Nissan LEAFs, that’s really not the case. Keep in mind that big batteries like the one in Australia are made up of many smaller ones, and are ultimately made of the same kinds of cells you’d find in an electric vehicle.

There have been many experiments, including in the United States, with using EVs to do the same things this big battery in Australia is doing. By allowing utilities some control over EV charging, and allowing them to take some energy from the batteries at key times, EV batteries have been able to be part of a broader solution and not just a load on the grid.

Industry News

A 150 mile EV–50 Years Ago

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype and feel like we are at the pinnacle of technology today. In many ways, it’s true, but in others, we aren’t moving along as fast as we might think.

People familiar with old AMC cars, like the Pacer and the Gremlin, will recognize this right away. This car didn’t make it to production, but it definitely inspired the style of cars that followed in in the years later.

Background

While AMC didn’t have the deep pockets of the “Big 3” automakers, several developments pushed them to produce this prototype.

First, air quality was getting downright lousy in major American cities. Smog, smoke, and other contaminants were getting to the point where kids couldn’t go outside on some days. This was especially true in cities like Los Angeles that were designed around the automobile. Congestion and gridlock on major routes only made it worse, as cars would sit and pollute while going nowhere.

This all led to legislation meant to clean up the air. Most people know about CARB, federal emissions equipment requirements, unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters, and the beginning of air testing for vehicles in many places. What is less known is that the federal government also provided funding for electric vehicle research, prompting automakers to start these efforts.

Finally, the 60s and 70s were a time when the United States found itself struggling with reliance on foreign oil. During the worst of it, people put up with shortages and long, long gas lines as some countries choked off the supply of fuel to push the U.S. political buttons. Electric car prototypes, which didn’t make it to production, did show the public that automakers and the government were looking for other options.

AMC and other automakers were experimenting with a variety of different drivetrain and engine options at the time, including GM’s rotary engine program that AMC planned to procure engines from. While none of the alternative power plants made it to production, it was definitely a time of innovation that led to the later success of electric vehicles.

What Made This Vehicle Unique

Like many other EV prototypes of the era, the Amitron was small and light. It had a much more aerodynamic shape than most blocky cars of the era, and was designed more for efficiency than for speed or utility.

What made this vehicle different from the other efforts was its two-stage battery pack. Lithium-ion batteries of the time were the best possible option for energy density, but chemistries of the day simply weren’t up to the task of providing high amounts of raw power or charging quickly when trying to use regenerative braking. To solve this problem, engineers decided to use a bigger lithium pack to charge a smaller nickel-cadmium pack that could handle acceleration and regenerative braking.

This put the Amitron ahead of other manufacturers’ prototypes, which couldn’t accelerate quickly or provide regenerative braking. The few that could used odd battery chemistries that were prohibitively expensive and/or had very poor longevity.

After The Amitron

After the Amitron, AMC did go on to produce other prototypes, some based on the Amitron. Most didn’t go onto any kind of mass production, but the overall shape and style of the Amitron did inspire the Pacer and Gremlin production gas vehicles.

AMC ultimately did produce a limited run of small EV Jeeps for the U.S. Postal Service, with several hundred put into service for a few years in the most polluted cities. The “Electruck” didn’t set any records with its 33 MPH cruising speed and limited range, but was a good fit for the USPS mission of delivering mail.

It would be decades before more serious efforts like the GM EV1 and Nissan LEAF came along, but the Amitron’s 150-mile range and advanced features did show automakers that a practical and usable electric vehicle was at least possible. That alone gives the little car a very good legacy.

Fēnix News

Nikola’s Battery Claims Draw Skepticism

A recent article in Forbes shows us that there’s a lot of promise in battery technology, but big promises draw big skepticism.

Double the density, less than half the weight, and at half the cost–that’s what Nikola Motors’ CEO Trevor Wilson promised to show us in the second half of 2020. Such battery cells would revolutionize the industry, but only after giving Nikola Motors a big edge over the competition.

Wilson’s claims weren’t backed with much other information, but he did tells Forbes that the improvements came from eliminating costly metals such as nickel, cobalt and magnesium, use of a “free-standing electrode” and a “whole different type of chemical, with a lithium component.” 

Understandably, battery experts are going to be skeptical of such claims. One said, “…it’s safe to dismiss this out of hand.” while others said it was unlikely, but possible with sulfur-based chemistries. Many scientists and companies are working on improved battery cell technology, and it surprised them to hear Nikola make such claims.

While there’s just not enough information for anybody at Fēnix to make heads or tails of this and say it’s true or not, we do know that eventually battery chemistry will radically improve and that battery technology is definitely going to improve over time.

That’s one of the great things about being able to upgrade your EV’s battery. With electric vehicles like the Nissan LEAF, you don’t have to be stuck in 2010 forever. As battery technology improves, we can help you stay at the front of it over time.

Fēnix News

Lithium-Ion Batteries Are Hitting a Tipping Point

A recent article in Forbes shows us that lithium-ion batteries are about to hit a major milestone, and it’s going to transform more than the EV industry.

Over the last 9 years, prices for lithium-ion batteries have dropped considerably already. In 2019 dollars, we’ve already gone from over $1100 per kWh of storage to only $156 today. That alone is a major factor in the increasing affordability of electric vehicles. Further, it makes it easier and cheaper to keep existing EVs around, as it’s cheaper to restore the battery packs with newer cells that are not only better, but cheaper than what came with the car originally.

The major tipping point happens at around $100/kWh, and that’s projected to happen around 2023. However, the author does point out that even the Forbes data is probably behind the times. The writer says that his sources already are seeing prices pretty close to $100 today.

Why is $100 important? Mostly because it’s the point where the battery production is competitive with the older technologies that battery packs seek to replace. For example, an EV can cost the same as a gasoline-powered vehicle without losing any of the savings inherent to an EV. At this point, there’s no reason to keep buying gas vehicles (at least in places with good charging infrastructure).

The advantages of cheaper lithium-ion batteries don’t stop there, though.

One major industry that’s going to see big changes is the utility industry. Cheaper grid storage will lead to less dependence on “peaker” plants, and will allow more excess renewable energy to be used through the times when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. That’s not all, though. Microgrids, home energy storage (plus solar), and a number of other technologies will start lessening reliance on the grid itself.

EV charging and other high-power equipment will also be interacting with the grid in much cheaper ways. Utilities make a lot of money from customers who pull large amounts of power for short periods by charging a whole-month “demand charge” for the extra juice. This money does go to financing the extra infrastructure needed for high-draw users, but it’s also a great way to keep prices low for people drawing less juice.

As charging stations and other industrial users install battery packs, though, this changes. Instead of pulling their peak power use directly from the grid, they can pull it from a battery that slowly recharges the whole day. That way, utilities don’t get to charge for demand peaks, but often will need to leave the expensive infrastructure in place, and that’s assuming that the company keeps pulling power from the grid at all most days.

Finally, there’s the issue of the non-electric industries impacted. The largest will be the oil industry, as people shift away from oil for transportation and for energy generation. Just like coal, other industries will also be disrupted.

As battery technology continues to get cheaper, the effects become harder and harder to predict. We are likely to see things get more and more interesting in the coming years!

Fēnix News

All EV Batteries Aren’t Equally Clean

Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

An important thing we like to keep in mind at Fēnix is that all batteries aren’t the same. While a battery cell’s ability to hold energy, charge fast, and last a long time get most of the press, there are other factors we have to keep in mind. One of the most important is where the battery’s components come from.

A recent piece in Greentech Media illustrates this well. While many like to focus on the cobalt and lithium mining in battery production, one of the most common components in battery cells is graphite, like you’d find in the common #2 pencil we all grew up with in school.

While graphite is a great substitute for toxic lead in pencils, it has much more important properties in batteries. Graphite is very conductive, and its layered composition allows it to work very well with lithium ion to store energy.

Greentech points out:

This is the crux of the emissions issue: Graphite is only produced by crushing and then roasting a mined product or as a byproduct of coal mining or oil refining…

These two types of graphite, natural and synthetic, compete in the battery anode materials market; the split of demand was around 50:50 in 2018.

Synthetic graphite is the higher-cost option for anode material, but its higher purity makes it preferable for use in premium batteries. Most battery anode producers use a blend of synthetic and natural materials, balancing costs and performance. But increasingly, the lower electrical resistances and greater consistency offered by synthetic have resulted in advanced technologies, such as NCA and NMC 811, coming to use more synthetic graphite.

They go on to point out that the demand for synthetic graphite (that comes from fossil fuel production) is only projected to go up in the next few years, as advanced battery technology needs it.

While there are limits to what we can do when making our battery packs, we do keep the environment in mind and try to do our best in that regard. We take the cleanliness and decency in our supply chains seriously, and strive to not only do our best in that regard but continue to improve going forward.

We will be announcing a new recycling partnership in the next few days, with this partnership Fēnix Power will be able to recycle 100% of the batteries we take out of service!

Fēnix News

Bollinger’s Prototypes

Another thing we saw at the Los Angeles Auto show was Bollinger’s latest prototypes. At their booth, they had both the pickup and the SUV versions.

We got a good look at the interior, suspension, and cooling systems, but couldn’t get many good photos because the trucks were swarming with YouTube personalities all trying to film at the same time.

What we did see was a nice, simple truck that’s designed to be a truck. There were no fancy displays, extra features, or creature comforts. There wasn’t even carpeting, so you can simply wash mud and dirt out with a garden hose if needed.

What it lacks in luxury, it has in terms of bare off-road capability. We saw a simple suspension with Hummer-like portal gears at each wheel to keep maximum ground clearance.

Another interesting thing we noticed was that the cooling system draws most of its air through either side of the hood. Not only does this protect it from rocks and other off-road debris, but should make servicing the system a lot easier than on many other liquid-cooled EVs.

While the Bollinger shocked a lot of people with its upcoming $125,000 price tag, it’s definitely a no-nonsense truck that’s designed to do one thing and do it well.

EDITOR/FOUNDERS NOTE:
Some of you may notice we have a new contributor on the team with posts like these, Jennifer Sensiba has joined us and will be bringing both Fēnix news, and articles like these to share exciting things going on in the EV industry. We’re excited to have her on board as a content contributor and helping spread the word about what we’re doing at Fēnix Power.

With this post, I’m a bit jealous of Jennifer! I’ve been following the progress of Bollinger quite closely and am one of those who had a reservation in for their original 2 door concept. My interest in Bollinger comes from both my own long-time interest in off-road exploration, having owned more Jeeps than I care to admit, but in the EV space, they represent something I think the industry as a whole seems to forget: That a vehicle being electric doesn’t mean it must also be a small/compact economy hatchback. You can electrify any vehicle class and see the impressive performance and usability gains associated with EV. Bollinger gets this, and I hope others will follow suit!

-John Bysinger

Fēnix News

A Quick Look at the Upcoming Mini Electric

When I was at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week, I saw a few very interesting cars and a whole lot of cars that looked like clones of each other, right down to the drivetrains. While not amazing in terms of specs, the upcoming electric Mini is going to at least shake things up a bit.

While it has the same classic-inspired looks as other Minis, they changed a few things. Obviously, they added an electric drivetrain and a battery pack in place of the gasoline-powered inner workings it had before, but they changed a lot of other little things to make it unique.

For starters, they added a lime green/yellow accent package, including touches on the front grille area, custom wheels, mirrors, and a few other areas.

The front grille emblem.
The same emblem on the side marker area.

In addition to the exterior cues, interior cues and controls are set up to not only match the theme, but help create a good driving experience.

While it has digital displays, it’s set up to stay true to other Minis in shape and placement. Also, it still has switches and knobs (for ease of use while driving and keeping one’s eyes on the road).

The shifter and multi-control is set up for simple operation. To go forward, tip the shifter back. To reverse, tip the shifter forward. It gives a good, positive engagement, so you know whether you got it into the right “gear”. Putting it into Park is done with a button, and the parking brake is electronic.

Finally, it’s worth noting that they haven’t finalized the US design. What they showed us at the Auto Show is set up for a European CCS standard, and not the US plug with the integrated J1772 port.

We may yet see changes before they finalize the new design for the U.S. market. Regardless of how all these fun variations turn out, we’re looking forward to building our batteries to fit the Mini too in 2028!

Fēnix News

Why North Carolina?

After our previous post announcing our new facility, we noticed a lot of you asking the same question: “Why North Carolina?”

We know that there are a lot more EV drivers in places like California, Portland, and Seattle (our founders are from Washington, originally), but there are a number of very good reasons we decided to set up shop near Charlotte, NC.

The first thing that led us to North Carolina was how much friendlier it is to manufacturing and actually building things. There was a great pool of investors in that area, but most focused on software and design, but didn’t have a good grasp of the challenges and opportunities available building things instead of software. Investors and our partnering businesses in the area all understand businesses that build real, physical things, and that helps a lot.

There are also much greater challenges in terms of government regulations on the west coast. We intend to run a safe and environmentally friendly operation, but won’t run into as much roadblocks and red tape here.

Positive Things in North Carolina

The advantages to this area aren’t all in the negative. This part of the country also has a lot going for it.

One thing people from other places tend to underestimate is North Carolina’s EV scene. “When I first got to North Carolina, I went to an EV meetup near Asheville,” said our CEO John Bysinger. “More EVs showed up there than to any meetup I had ever attended in Seattle–easily three times as many.”

The truth is, the Piedmont area between Birmingham, Alabama and Raleigh-Durham, NC is going through a lot of rapid change. While not known like Silicon Valley or the major east coast cities for innovation or wealth, that is something that has been changing for decades.

America 2050, a study project identifying regions with great growth happening in the early 20th century, identifies the Charlotte area as part of a greater “megaregion” that includes the Piedmont, Memphis, and Nashville. We have everything from vehicle manufacturing (including the Nissan LEAF) to space industry in our region.

The low cost of living and high quality of life in the Southeast are two reasons for this megaregion’s booming population,” the America 2050 page says. ” The region is facing challenges associated with its growing population, such as increased traffic congestion, runaway land consumption, and inadequate infrastructure, which it hopes to address with sustainable solutions.”

While we already have large cities like Atlanta and Nashville, we are in a unique position throughout the rest of the region to build our growing cities smarter and more robust than other established cities that are dealing with major congestion and pollution issues. Even our large cities still have room for improvement and change that the megacities on the coasts do not enjoy.

Along with this opportunity comes a lot of startups we have the pleasure and opportunity to work with. While we can’t list them right now, we know that our area, and the surrounding region, is a great place to do sustainable business.

Fēnix News

Introducing Our LEAF Test Fleet

In a recent post, we gave you a quick peek at our new facility. Yes, we know there are a lot of questions people have about the facility, and we are listening! Soon, we will have posts with answers to most of these questions.

Before we do that, though, we wanted to give a peek at our growing fleet of LEAF vehicles. Our goal is to have a LEAF for every major change made, which means we need most model years on hand. That way, we can test every year to make sure all of our customers get what they need with no ugly surprises.

Most of the customers with the biggest problems are owners of 2011, 2012, and 2013 LEAFs, so we started there.

This is our 2011 LEAF, and his nickname is BlueLeafy. His battery isn’t in the best shape (like many his age), but he’s all ready to help keep many of his brothers and sisters on the road. His nickname (like the others) was given to him by his owner who is lending him to us for our testing. We will be returning BlueLeafy fully upgraded with our technology after testing is complete.

This is our 2012, nicknamed “RedBull”. There’s not a lot to share about this one, other than that it’s also degraded and needs some new life. However, our staff has used this one to run errands, and we know it’s running well before we have had any chance to make repairs or improvements. RedBull can go 30-40 miles on a charge and doesn’t have a CHAdeMO port.

This is our 2013, nicknamed SweatLeaf. This one might have to be more of a teardown and deep-testing car. While it’s degraded like the others, the onboard charger is broken and can’t take a charge any more. For a car that only runs on electricity, and relies a lot on home charging, that’s a far less than ideal condition.

Either way, it’s going to be doing many, many other LEAF owners a huge favor by saving their LEAFs from dying.

Keep checking back or subscribe to our blog to get more updates as we add more years of the LEAF to our testing fleet!

Fēnix News

How Far Batteries Have Come

Fenix is working to help solve big problems for many EV owners with aging batteries, and it’s easy to get caught up in that. What’s harder to see at times is just how far EV battery technology has come in just a few years. Taking a vehicle from a few years ago and adding today’s battery technology can make a huge difference!

One thing I saw at the Ford Mustang Mach-E unveiling really drives this home.

On the bottom is Ford’s first generation hybrid battery pack from a 2005 Escape (made in 2004). The pack is huge, heavy, and hard to fit into a vehicle without either giving up a lot of room or designing it from scratch to fit around it.

Compare this to the 4th generation Ford hybrid battery pack that went in various newer vehicles (the smaller pack on top in the photo). It’s smaller, liquid cooled, and fairly easy to fit in a variety of different places. Little (if any) cargo or passenger room is lost to such a battery.

Most important of all, the small pack holds more energy and does more work than the one on the bottom.

Yes, this image shows us Ford’s advances, but it’s reflected in the industry as a whole. The EVs of 2005 (like the EV1) could only go a few dozen miles. With better batteries today, EVs are able to go hundreds of miles and charge far faster than ever before.

The great thing about taking an older Nissan LEAF (not that far off of 10 years old now) and giving it new batteries is not only about restoring lost range. Newer batteries are more compact, weigh less, and cost far less per kWh of storage than they’ve ever been. By upgrading your degraded pack, you can get all of these advantages and bring your car much further into the 21st century.