Newest Batteries Better for Hybrids than Electrics

Doing the math on the newest generation of lithium ion batteries suggests the latest advances in battery technology will benefit hybrid cars more than all-electric ones, one expert predicts.

BMW's ActiveHybrid 7 Luxury Car

Hybridcars has an excellent interview with John German, an expert on hybrid cars who worked for eleven years at Honda before becoming Senior Fellow at the International Council for Clean Transportation.

German says the next generation of lithium batteries won’t help much with electric vehicles’ number one problem: range. That’s because their primary benefit is that they can provide a greater flow of electricity — not necessarily store any more than they already do.

From the interview:

The battery packs in all existing hybrids, up until the new BMW ActiveHybrid 7, are oversized. The reason they’re oversized is that with nickel metal hydride [the technology used in today’s hybrids], you’re limited in how fast you can take energy in and out of a battery without causing significant deterioration. So these batteries are not sized for the energy [storage] requirements. They are sized for the power requirements, so they can deliver enough power without significant deterioration. As a consequence, they hold a lot more energy than they really need to. With the new high-power lithium ion batteries, they can cut them down to their actual energy requirements and still get all the power they need.

Price Per Kilowatt Hour to Fall

German predicted with the mass production of lithium batteries, the price should fall from about $700-1000 per kilowatt hour to $250 or below (the Chevy Volt has a 16 kilowatt lithium ion battery).

But lower prices don’t make German bullish on EVs. Instead, expect to see conventional hybrids come to dominate the car market. German sees hybrids making up around 70% of the car market by 2025-2030 — in other words, hybrid sales will double every three to five years.

And electrics? “At $250 per kilowatt-hour, the pay back is roughly similar to the hybrid vehicles of about five years ago. So there’s your market, about 3 percent.”

One caveat however: while price is the number one most important factor in the mass adoption of EVs, there may be one incentive missing from German’s calculations: not having to go the gas station. Beyond having to pay for gasoline (which is already figured into German’s predictions), the psychological benefit of being freed from the tyranny of the gas station may give EVs an added bump in sales.

Still, those counting on EVs to dominate the car market better not hold their breath.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.