National Vehicle Electrification: Battery Swap vs. Fast Charging

by: Jack Lifton

The cart is dragging the horse as the economically and electrical engineering clueless are now debating where to put the infrastructure for recharging (fueling) electrified motor vehicles.

All we have to do, they say, is change the transportation fueling, the shopping habits, and the daily routines we have built up over the last 100 years as soon as possible.

They skirt around the fact that we will also have to reconstruct our electric power distribution grid, and do so in the light of changing our electricity demand cycles, and avoid fast charging except in emergency situations while we're at it. But wait. What was that last thing we need to do?

There is today NO widely distributed system to provide fast-charging stations for large numbers of electrified motor vehicle batteries to be recharged at random times.

The reason is simple; it is FAR EASIER, safer, more economical, and less time consuming, to swap a charged battery for an exhausted one than to give a "low" battery a "fast charge." Why is this, you ask? It is because "fast charging" a battery shortens its cycle life. It is an emergency procedure only for today's universally used lead-acid storage batteries. GOT THAT? Fast charging is deleterious to the mechanical structure of all known existing widely used storage batteries. Plus, since we don't have a fast charging network isn't it easier to build vehicles that will not need one?

No lithium-ion, nickel metal hydride, or lead-acid storage battery system existing or under development has been shown to be able to survive multiple fast charges without degrading its performance, structure, and its cycle life. Some lithium-ion battery types, including the most power efficient, the lithium-cobalt-oxide type-today widely used for lap top computers-are likely to overheat during a fast charge and rapidly degrade without much advance notice.

Fast charging of a storage battery of any type used today is an emergency system only; it is not practical, economical, or safe for routine daily use.

So why do we keep hearing that THEY will solve the problem of the amount of time it takes to fully recharge a battery by making it so that the battery can be fast charged?

In general the answer is that stock promoters, poorly educated journalists, and college professors with ideas for building "advanced" batteries cannot raise money by highlighting technological problems, so they resort to glossing them over, or, in the case of neighborhood recharging stations and "fast charging" they simply make lemonade from lemons. They tell you that the problem is an opportunity to make even more money by building charging stations in Big Box Store parking lots where people can spend more time than they could economically (for the fueling station) at a fueling station, at which fueling station the wait even to fast charge a car battery would be many times the wait for a gasoline or diesel fill-up. They also tell you that every business, public parking lot, and state park can make money putting in fast charging stations; it's as easy as that. Just open your wallet.

Think of a battery as a 5 gallon container with a narrow filling neck. If you pour electricity into it one cupful at a time then it will take whatever time it takes you to fill, carry, and dump 80 cups into the container. Obviously if you bring the electricity in gallon jars it will only take 5 trips, and if you deliver the 5 separate gallons in the same time as the 80 cups you will be fast filling the container.

Some of my readers will say that you can also widen the filling neck. The way you do this with electricity is to raise the voltage. But if you raise the voltage and the current carrying capacity of a home or "gas station" it will be just to fuel electrified motor vehicles. It is economic nonsense to equip every home with the equipment to "fast charge" a car, because the equipment would sit idle almost all of the time. At a gas station even a fast charge for a Chevrolet Volt would take 15-45 minutes (by contrast with overnight at standard "normal" household voltage and current capacity.) Compare this with the 5-6 minutes it takes to deliver 20 gallons of liquid hydrocarbon fuel, and you will see immediately the birth of a bottleneck for fueling stations.

All other issues being ignored it is impossible to see how a fueling station operating only as a fueling station could service cars coming in (only) for a fast charge unless the station had a huge parking area and a huge supply of electricity from the grid around the clock. Do Los Angeles brown-outs from air conditioning overuse come to mind?

If our society were being logical in prioritizing the electrification of the personal motor vehicle for private passenger carrying use then the government would create a "National committee to engineer an electrified motor vehicle and develop a fueling system for it."

The Committee would inquire: WITHOUT ANY INITIAL REGARD for the personal enrichment of the shareholders OR MANAGERS of any particular existing company:

1. Which is the best way to electrify the personal private passenger carrying motor car? Should it be:

A. A hybrid of some type,
B. A battery powered only vehicle
C. A vehicle connected to a grid by wire or induction?

2. Having chosen a system, such as one above, the committee would then ask:
Does the USA have the natural, intellectual, and industrial resources to do
the job?

3. Then the committee would ask: Can the political objections to producing the natural resources, finished goods, and rights of way (e.g., for a national smart grid) be overcome?

4. If and only if a system has been chosen and the resource and political impediments are agreed to be surmountable, then the committee must ask:

  • What steps, in what order, must be taken to accomplish the goal of electrifying the personal motor car for private use with the chosen power train,
  • What timetable will be optimal for solving the basic problems (How do we prioritize the R&D?), and
  • How do we as a nation underwrite the very long term investments, i.e., those with very far out returns on investment that will be necessary to privately
  • A. produce the natural resources and design, engineer, and build facilities for manufacturing the necessary equipment (such as batteries or fuel cells), and
  • B. Build the necessary infrastructures in terms of power plants, a national smart grid, and local fueling stations.

Politicians do not like to think in terms of cures for diseases, they prefer to offer free band-aids.

The political and Wall Street solution to the problem of fast-charging is to gloss over it and try to be sure that every lab experiment on fast charging is promoted as the "solution" to the problem.

We are going at the electrification of the personal privately owned motor car ass backwards. We need to identify the roadblocks and see if there is a solution possible in a reasonable time for ALL of them. If we do not we are just pouring our nation's resources of money and time down a black hole.

The solution is to determine if we can electrify the nations' motor car fleet economically and in a reasonable time. This requires that the US Congress and public be educated and an agenda to answer the question be set and followed by those without a conflict of interest or hidden agenda of personal gain from a specific technology or political solution.

There is no way at all to FAST CHARGE this scenario. If we continue on the path we are on we will accomplish nothing and waste our precious resources.