Europe is trailing China and the US when it comes to the development of battery storage, but Brussels is keen to close the gap, writes Diarmaid Williams

Francesco Gattiglio is upbeat about Europe’s chances of developing a holistic battery energy storage industry.

Gattiglio is EU affairs manager of EUROBAT, the trade organisation representing European Automotive and Industrial Battery Manufacturers.

The proposal for the EU new energy market design, published by the European Commission in November 2016, is seen as a clear step forward for battery energy storage, however some work remained in terms of more coherent approach to facilitating sector success.

Last month, Maros Sefcovic agreed on the formation of a battery storage alliance to that end. The European Commission launched the bloc’s Battery Alliance as the bloc seeks to make up ground.

The Commission stated that “re-launching the production of battery cells in Europe is essential”. The Commission will deploy more than €2 billion from the Horizon 2020 work programme for 2018-2020 to support research and innovation projects in four priority areas, all relevant for batteries: the decarbonisation of the EU building stock, EU leadership on renewables, energy storage solutions and electro-mobility.

That Europe finds itself conceding a head start is not just a case of complacency, according to Gattiglio.

“Asia’s advantage regarding batteries is based on their countries being the first to develop lithium ion cells for other applications like portable phones. So they have an expertise in these topics.”

“In Europe we didn’t really develop lithium-ion production. What we have is generally small scale and more for niche applications. However, large scale production itself never took up because we didn’t really have the market, and even right now, if you look at the numbers, the deployment of electric vehicles is still relatively small.

“Energy storage, which is another very interesting field for batteries, was also not really well developed due to regulatory barriers. Now we are moving in the right direction both in terms of regulation and technology and of course lithium-ion cells and batteries in general are substantially falling in price, therefore it’s becoming interesting as well for the market.”

The wheels have started to roll, but it will take time for a European champion on storage to emerge, such as Samsung or Panasonic in the east, as the learning curve for battery cell production is steep.

In recent years, some companies have announced an intention to produce lithium-ion storage batteries. Northvolt is set to open a giant factory in Sweden; Samsung Europe is to open Polish and Hungarian facilities; and more European companies are looking at the possibility.

Another Asian actor, LG Chem, announced in October plans to open Europe’s largest lithium-ion battery factory in Poland next year, employing 2500 workers to produce up to 100,000 electric vehicle batteries per year. But, despite that positive evidence, there is a long way to go.

“To really develop a strong battery manufacturing industry in Europe we need the right regulatory framework – and right now we don’t have it in place,” says Gattiglio.

“We also need the market. That’s fundamental because if we produce the batteries but nobody buys them it’s a waste of money. We need political support at this point and I think Sefcovic has been quite clear a few days ago, so we are quite satisfied with that.”

“We have been asking for an overall battery strategy since at least the beginning of this year. So, we are actually quite happy with what is going on.”

Now the wheels are in motion, the EUROBAT chief is hopeful that regulation can be simplified so as not to hinder progress.

“The new CO2 targets for the post 2020 period will be an important indication of direction. In our view, the transport sector is very important for overall decarbonisation of the economy, but we also think that although EVs will be important in the future we still need to consider how to decarbonise conventional cars. So we look at the migration of traditional batteries to hybrid and full electric and we think all these batteries can contribute.

“In the end you have start-stop batteries already delivering 10 per cent CO2 reduction. We think that with a 48-volt hybrid there is the chance to further decarbonize conventional vehicles.”

News stories featuring the opening of electric vehicle charging stations were almost non-existent a year ago. Such stories are now commonplace.

But is enough overall investment going on to promote a market for EVs? What sort of changes should we expect to see the power generation industry experiencing?

“Charging infrastructure is key. People will not buy EVs if they don’t have the same comfort they have with conventional so charging time and charging points are fundamental to the conversation.

“It will have an impact [on the power sector] – that’s clear. If you imagine a scenario where all cars are electrified. If we charge them all at the same time the peaks and the loads to the grid will be unbearable so to have EVs in place, we must have a smarter electric power system.”

Gattiglio adds: “The good thing is that EVs also offer a reciprocal service to the grid. Think of smart charging and with the grid, you also need to be able to think of the impact of energy storage. Batteries can be used for storing renewables and can offer ancillary services that can stabilise the grid and it can ensure we always have renewables included in the energy mix.”

“When you consider both EVs and energy storage together, we can meet it, but this will mean the grid will have to change. Right now, it’s still very vertically conceived from generation to consumer. We will have to direct the role of prosumer.”

In theory, the new energy system looks elegant, with renewables being catered for, storage optimized, the fortunes of power firms revived, and a less wasteful and smarter grid. But is regulation keeping up, and are grid operators and even generators investing enough?

“To answer that we have to look more at is the energy storage side, because in the end EVs will still take some years to really be deployed.

“So looking at the regulation for energy storage, it has up until now been non-existent and we haven’t even had a definition of energy storage at European level.

“The good thing is we have now the new clean energy package under discussion with new electricity directives and regulations – and the commission has already presented the proposal – we are now awaiting the decision of parliament and the trial of that will be next year so we think the rules are about to change in a positive way. That’s also very positive for the stability of the grid.

“Regarding what our generators are doing well, you see some that are investing heavily in future charging infrastructure and interaction with EVs and energy storage. For example, Enel are doing a lot in integrating of EVs.”

The newly coherent and coordinated effort in the shape of the EU-backed Battery Alliance at least means there will be more heft involved in getting the sector moving. Its role in helping to share experience and identify problems and solutions will be vital, if Europe is to form a credible industry.

Gattiglio says: “I think we really will have to take into account all of the legislation impacting batteries – I mentioned the mobility package, clean energy package and you have to take into account sustainability in terms of recyclability of batteries too.

“Right now, we have three pieces of regulation on that- the Batteries directive, the End of Life directive and Reach regulation, which will have an impact on the collection and recycling of batteries.

“The problem is sometimes these regulations overlap and they create a burden for new battery makers compared to other countries in the world. So when we call for a holistic approach, that’s exactly what we mean.”

“It’s about taking into account recycling, storage, mobility and old batteries and research need.”

“We have to be clear about what we want to develop – because you always read about new battery technologies being discovered but from the laboratory to mass production there are usually ten years and we don’t have enough time.”

“We have to be really quite focused on which will be the battery technology, we cannot simply invest in a tech that will not be ready in 15 years.”

“The work starts immediately,” Sefcovic said, on announcing the launch of working groups aimed at forging a strategy for the industry earlier this month.

“That is something that struck me quite a lot in a positive sense,” Gattiglio concludes. “This really has urgency. We had the meeting on the 11th October and we will have work streams and a plan in place by February 2018. By European Commission standards that’s quite good.”