ithium ion rules energy storage platforms for electric vehicles, while auto manufacturers play kingmaker to the companies that produce battery packs. Without major EV contracts, however, many battery companies struggle to commercialize outside of government-funded research and demonstration programs. More than 60 percent of energy storage patents are related to lithium ion, leading to a glut of startups that will result in twice as many lithium ion batteries than electric vehicles manufactured by 2015, according to OTC Equity.
"With several competing technologies and chemistries, it's sort of like the Wild West," says James Campbell, president of Adventec Manufacturing, which tests battery packs in Ancaster, Ontario.
Under pressure to generate revenue, battery companies are branching into the energy storage market for utility grids. Lithium ion battery systems are gaining favor for ramp-rate management and ancillary services that help balance intermittent power from solar and wind farms.
"Grid storage could eventually become 100 percent of our business," says Gitanjali DasGupta, spokeswoman for Electrovaya, a Missisagua, Ontario-based lithium ion battery manufacturer founded in 1996.
Ontario is particularly interested in these trends since the province has invested in commercializing Electrovaya. The province also offers car buyers incentives to help meet a goal of making one out of every 20 vehicles in Ontario an EV by 2020. The push is an effort to meet clean air targets while making Ontario's auto industry, the largest in North America, a leader in batteries, parts and manufacturing for electric vehicles.
Electrovaya, Ontario's largest home-grown lithium ion battery maker, supplies batteries to Chrysler for pilot projects partially funded through the U.S. Department of Energy. Electrovaya batteries are used in 140 plug-in electric hybrid (PHEV) RAM 1500 pickups and 25 PHEV Town and Country minivans. The company is also negotiating deals with EV companies in India and Europe. Like many in the industry, however, Electrovaya is reporting losses since a big contract has thus far been elusive. The company sees grid storage as a salve while the EV market sorts itself out.
Electrovaya recently inked a deal to provide a 1.5-megawatt-hour storage device to an Arizona utility. The company says it can scale the systems up to 100-mWh. Electrovaya has also developed a 150-kWh pilot project with Manitoba Hydro to repurpose end-of-life EV batteries for use in grid storage.
"This will help diesel generators that provide power to our First Nations communities and, hopefully, it will reduce fuel costs for the government," says Manitoba Hydro Spokesman Glen Schneider.
Electrovaya hopes to distinguish itself with a green manufacturing process free of the toxic solvents used by competitors and a unique chemistry with high energy density.
Meanwhile, Ontario's battery supply chain is shaping up around established foreign companies. Dana Holding Corp. manufactures liquid- and air-cooled systems crucial for safety of battery packs in the Tesla Roadster, Chevrolet Volt and others. The Volt's actual battery was developed by LG Chem of South Korea.
"Cell manufacturing requires large capital and many years of manufacturing experience that nobody outside Asia has," insists Menahem Anderman, founder and chief executive of California-based Total Battery Consulting.
Beginning in 2012, Toyota will manufacture the RAV 4 EV at its factory in Woodstock, Ontario. The vehicle uses a battery pack and power train developed by United States-based Tesla. The deal was worth an estimate US$100 million to Tesla.
A123 Systems, considered another U.S. leader in lithium ion storage, has also reported losses and struggled to land a major EV contract in spite of momentum in the grid storage market. Recent trouble with U.S.-based battery maker Ener1 shows challenges in a saturated market. Ener1, considered A123's biggest competitor in the states, struggled to land an EV contract until it inked a deal with Norwegian EV startup Think. The deal was promising before Think, while low on cash, tapped Ener1 as an investor. Ener1 has since lost US$73.3 million from its investment in Think, which happened to be its only EV customer. Ener1 is also looking to grid storage to boost revenues.
Bathium, Canada's other major lithium ion company, demonstrates that there is indeed potential to reinvent battery companies. Its Quebec factory was previously owned by Avestor, which intended to make lithium ion batteries for telecommunications systems before filing for bankruptcy. In 2007, French Group Bolloré purchased the assets and renamed the site Bathium Canada. Group Bolloré recently ordered up to 15,000 batteries per year by 2014 from Bathium Canada to supply a contract with European-made Blue Car's electric vehicle.
"The future looks quite bright, but there will still be winners and losers," says Adventec's Campbell, whose relationship with Avestor opened the door to test Bathium's next generation of batteries.
Robert Crowe is a free lance business writer based in San Antonio, Texas.