“There are a few technological or operational barriers to swapping,” says Akhil Aryan, co-founder of ION Energy. ION delivers battery management systems (BMS) to battery makers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). “The biggest issue with the growth of battery-swapping is the powerplay behind establishing a common battery standard,” he adds.
If the IC engine is the beating heart of a fuel-powered vehicle, the BMS is an EV’s brain. Accounting for at least 50% of the cost of an EV, the battery is what causes some EVs to cover the greater range, go faster and be more efficient. Owning the battery standard, according to Aryan, is a strategic advantage that OEMs are loath to forego.
But SUN has a referendum, if not a mandate. Maini’s reputation, as the creator of the Reva, India’s first electric car, precedes him. SUN has also planned to raise investments from large institutional investors worth Rs 1,670 crore ($241.4 million) over 3-5 years to build out its swapping infrastructure across India. Though in its nascency, SUN is in talks with 9 OEMs to create a common battery standard.
SUN may have Android-like aspirations for the EV charging space—to bring all OEMs and battery manufacturers onto a common, interoperable battery standard. But, as Aryan notes, so will large OEMs and other battery-swapping players. Especially as the price of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries drops further. Who will remain standing at the end of this industry tug-of-war?
If charging an electric two-wheeler takes eight hours, swapping takes less than eight minutes. In fact, as Maini claims, the downtime for a vehicle is closer to 3 minutes. The quick turnaround time is a boon, especially for EVs used in delivery fleets and public transport.
How much does it cost?
While the government has delicensed setting up charging stations for private players, thus making them easier to set up, the high land and power costs remain a deterrent. According to a representative at ABB, a Swiss-Swedish energy company operating one of India’s few fast-charging stations in Delhi (on the premises of government think tank NITI Aayog), it costs anywhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 3,00,000 ($433-4,340) to set up 3-pin charging ports for 200-300 small vehicles, exclusive of the cost of land and power. These stations would also need to be large enough to park hundreds of scooters or rickshaws.
In contrast, swapping stations are thrifty in terms of both space and power.
A shiny, compartmentalized box, the SUN Quick Interchange Station (QIS) looks a bit like two mid-sized washing machines welded together. One QIS station houses about 20 swappable batteries and can serve 150-200 two and three-wheelers a day. Fifty such stations can cater to around 5,000-7,000 vehicles, accounting for battery downtime. “Imagine finding parking for that many scooters and rickshaws. All the QIS needs are power and the internet. It’s like installing an appliance,” goes Maini’s pitch.
A considerable time spent
SUN’s ramp-up strategy is compelling. Especially when Maini talks about the smart Li-ion batteries, kitted out with three different computing systems. SUN imports lithium cells from China but assembles everything else domestically. “We’ve spent a lot of time on the electronics,” he explains, adding, “One computer is the BMS, one controls the power and safety mechanism, and one is a GSM SIM card, which communicates with the vehicle and the network.” At the back-end, an IOT tech platform knows exactly where the batteries are deployed and how much charge they have.
“With removable batteries, even the upfront cost of buying an EV comes down by about 50%. For the price of one electric three-wheeler, you could now buy two,” claims Maini. The running costs of an EV are almost a quarter that of an IC engine vehicle. Over time, this could rationalize the slightly higher upfront cost.