How to make electric vehicle battery swapping work in the UK

Nio ES6 2022 leaving battery swap station

Chinese brand Nio offers different sizes of swappable batteries – 75kWh, 100kWh and soon 150kWh

Battery swapping is touted as the fix-all solution to charging anxieties, but could it ever come here?

Swapping a depleted car battery for a freshly charged one, in a process that takes minutes, is one avenue being explored to ramp up the amount of electric cars on Britain’s roads ahead of the government’s ban on the sale of ICE cars by 2030. 

The Battery-as-a-Service (BaaS) model is touted as a potential solution for range anxiety that could give those without a home charging point a means to quickly gain range (up to four minutes to change at a swapping station), and would put less pressure on the charging network – which it could complement rather than replace – with depleted batteries being charged back up at off-peak times, energy research group Cornwall Insight (CI) has told Autocar Business.

As part of a new paper created along with law firm ​​Shoosmiths, the group also claims the model would cut down the price of buying an electric car by up to 30%, with the battery paid for as part of a subscription service and changed at service stations across the country

This would make electric car ownership more accessible, CI’s Dr Matthew Chadwick said,  who added that the price of an electric car and the lack of charging infrastructure is hampering the transition from cheaper combustion-powered cars.

“This model brings down those upfront costs and provides a lot more flexibility,” said Dr Chadwick, CI’s lead research analyst. “It has the potential to encourage EV uptake as costs, rather than being all up front, are spread more evenly through a subscription service.”

This proposed subscription service would be similar to that already being used by Chinese EV maker Nioitself coming to the UK next year with Tesla Model 3-rivalling ET5 (pictured below). 

Although more expensive than what is being proposed, Nio’s subscription package – which also includes the price of leasing the car – allows customers to swap out the depleted battery for a fully charged one.

Its trump card is that all its battery packs are the same dimensions, no matter the model, so if more miles are needed a more energy-dense long-range alternative – it currently offers 75kWh and 100kWh – can be swapped in instead, via an upgraded subscription.

And this flexibility is what CI wants to see introduced within the automotive sector, with car owners able to pay for the battery they want, upgrade when needed, and not be hindered by the car they own.

However, a major stumbling block is a current lack of battery standardisation, which is key to Nio’s approach. The BaaS model would require all electric vehicles to be able to be fitted with one type of battery – something premium manufacturers competing to offer the longest battery ranges may not want to do.

This was a point backed by the Department of Transport, which confirmed to Autocar it was reviewing how the tech could be implemented, and used, in the UK. A spokeswoman said that battery standardisation was one of the issues needed to be addressed.

One suggestion from CI is that budget car makers such as MG, whose new £25,995 MG 4 (below) has a swappable battery as standard, could band together with other manufacturers – most likely as part of joint venture undertaken by its parent company SAIC – to bring the cost of EVs down, and in turn make them more accessible.

Dr Chadwick said: “The biggest challenge to the uptake of BaaS is that every manufacturer obviously wants to design their own battery to go in their own car, and so if that was the case, you’d need a different service station for each manufacturer, and potentially even every make, which is not a working model.”

He added that adapters could also be introduced to allow cars without standardised battery housings to use batteries supplied within the BaaS model.

Where these swapping stations would be placed is another point up for debate. Ian Johnston, CEO of Osprey – one of the UK’s major charging firms – said he could see joint-use charging sites sprouting up across the country: “If you’re going to be recharging and swapping batteries, what you need is a high density of power in a convenient location [where people want to spend their time]”.

“So we’ve always said that whatever the technology, whether it’s a 50kW or 500kW charger, a wireless charger, a hologram charger, battery swapping; our job is to develop a network of locations where people want to drive their vehicles to is convenient, and a nice place to spend time, where you then have sufficient electricity to recharge the car, or the battery, or otherwise. 

“So it is definitely going to be a balanced approach with the different technologies, but it’s got to be the right technology application for that specific dwell time and use case for the driver.”

However, another issue raised by the DfT was that the model would also require more batteries than vehicles being produced, as some of these batteries would need to be on standby, creating natural resource and greenhouse gas concerns. 

CI also noted that ownership of battery stations was another question that needed ironing out, as this could result in motorists’ inability to use certain battery providers due to the ownership rights of the batteries being swapped.

But Jonathan Smart, who heads up Smoosmiths’ mobility arm, said the point of this model is to increase the ease of owning an electric car, and therefore grow ownership. He added that for this to work, the government needs to champion it to allow it to grow.

Yet he conceded ownership may need to come first, as firms might not take the gamble on the model before the cars are there to use it, and so called on Westminster to bring back EV purchase incentives (which it scrapped in August) to get more people to give up their ICE cars.

“The thing that is the easiest for the government to do is attach financial incentives to the vehicles,” he said. “Then, if you start to grow the individual EV adoption rate across the UK, the infrastructure will, in time, grow alongside it, even if there is a slight lag, be it months or years.”

Source: Autocar

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