Whoever thinks electric car lithium-ion batteries aren’t sexy probably hasn’t seen recent headlines popping up from Paris to Singapore to Sydney to Washington.
Sounding more like a Hollywood big-screen spy thriller than real-life drama, French automaker Renault SA last week suspended three managers suspected to be involved in industrial espionage and leaking electric vehicle secrets.
In a widely published statement picked up by global press outlets, Renault senior vice president, legal department, public affairs, said an ongoing investigation revealed that the managers “knowingly and deliberately placed at risk the company's assets.” As of Jan. 6, details about the exact nature of what may have been leaked were scarce, but the suspensions were reportedly aimed at protecting the strategic and technological assets of the company.
The threat of much-desired technology development falling into the wrong hands even drew the attention of France's industry minister, Eric Besson, who warned the country was facing an “economic war.” According to the BBC, Besson said: “The expression 'economic war', while sometimes outrageous, for once is appropriate.”
With the fledging electric car market positioned to speed ahead these next few years, the high-stakes race to develop better-performing batteries could prove to be a lucrative segment for whichever company innovates the best product.
Pike Research, a Boulder, Colo., research and consulting firm that tracks global clean technology markets, predicts revenue for the nascent worldwide electric vehicle lithium-ion battery market will grow to nearly $8 billion by 2015 from $3 billion in 2011.
Many companies have already elbowed their way onto the stage, which could prime the industry for a wave of mergers or acquisitions this year. “The universe for battery companies has become saturated, and the market is not likely to sustain the current number of independently operating companies,” according to Pike’s report, released in December. The analysts added further:
- Automotive and grid energy storage customers are looking for solutions providers that can serve all their needs. However, to provide such a one-stop shop often requires access to multiple technologies, and this creates a major incentive for companies to join forces.
Or, as I would add in light of the Renault case, the situation creates a major incentive for more shady alliances.
One of the key issues facing carmakers and the buying public is how long a battery can hold its charge before it needs to be charged up again and how much charging time will be required. Auto and battery manufacturers aren’t the only ones worried about that. It’s been forefront for the US government for a couple of years and has won funding: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 provided more than $1.5 billion for energy storage research. And some of these technologies will soon be ready to move from the lab to the plant, according to Pike Research.
We’ll see how this all shakes out, but what a way to start the year, huh?