Senior executive at battery giant CATL on power storage, lithium, etc.

From the Tsinghua PBCSF Economic Forum on Carbon Neutrality

Continuing from a call for more nuclear power stations by the head of China National Nuclear Power Co., LTD., this is the second newsletter from Pekingnology of a series of speeches made by guest speakers at the 2021 Tsinghua PBCSF Economic Forum on Carbon Neutrality held on September 16. (China is also hosting the COP15 - Fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity - in southwest Kunming which highlights environmental issues. )

The forum was widely covered in Chinese media but not so much in English so your Pekingologist wishes to present a more domestic detailed, technical discussion from the forum on reaching China’s carbon goals - China aims to reach the carbon peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060 - has been updated to replace the original and inaccurate version reaching carbon peak in 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060.

This particular speech is made by Meng Xiangfeng, a senior executive of Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., Limited (CATL), a battery giant that’s been making a lot of headlines in recent years.

Batteries are already essential in electric cars and, according to Meng, will be important in storing energy as a vital link in the new power generation system. Meng’s speech touches quite some points in the battery industry’s technology and resources - including lithium, perhaps the latest darling resource after rare earths - but is readable and doesn’t require a Ph.D.

The translation is based on a transcript in Chinese of the speeches shared by the forum’s organizer with over several dozen Chinese media journalists in a WeChat group, and full video documentation of the forum is available at Tsinghua PBCSF’s Twitter account with simultaneous translation in English. Therefore, technically the speech was already in the public arena, but in case you want to quote something here, a link or mentioning of Pekingnology is appreciated.

Please note this is a partial translation, to save both your and our time. The full transcript in Chinese will be pasted at the end of this newsletter for reference.

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Meng Xiangfeng, Senior Executive at Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., Limited (CATL)

Today, everyone has repeatedly mentioned that energy storage is an important supporting technology and key infrastructure of a new power system. Energy storage is a kind of peak-shaving resource. The traditional way for peak-shaving is pumped storage. Now there’s a new technology called electrochemical energy storage, or electrochemical energy storage based on lithium-ion batteries. Compared with pumped storage, lithium battery energy storage has some advantages. For example, it has a faster response time and can achieve millisecond response. It is not limited by geography. Pumped storage has the geographical limitations of water, mountains, and altitude difference with small time difference. So, lithium battery energy storage has obvious advantages in these two aspects.

Electrochemical energy storage has also been widely used in recent years and has drawn public attention. Why couldn’t lithium-ion batteries be used to store energy before? Now there is such an opportunity, mainly because the technology, cost, and service life of lithium-ion batteries have made rapid progress in recent 10 years with the popularization of new energy vehicles.

Over the past 10 years, China has introduced the world's most perfect policy system to support the development of new energy vehicles, including car purchase subsidies, purchase tax exemption,differentiated traffic control measures such as unlimited travel and purchase for new energy cars, as well as subsidies and support for charging technology facilities. It is safe to say that with the support of these policies, China's new energy vehicles have achieved great success. Many people suspected what we used to call “overtaking at the curve” before, now, at least preliminary results have been achieved. In the field of new energy, China is a global leader in technology, scale, and key core parts.

I would like to add that many experts also talked about the electrification of cars or family cars today. It is difficult for large vehicles such as some ships and other vehicles with large power demand. This was the case a few years ago, and a breakthrough has been made at present. CATL cooperates with customers and implements pure electrification in boats on rivers and short-distance heavy trucks, including 49 -ton and 100-ton heavy trucks. Construction machinery, such as excavators, loaders, and port vehicles, have also been electrified. These have many applications.

For example, China Molybdenum Co., Ltd works on molybdenum mine. All vehicles in the mine have been electrified from transportation to loading to crushing, which is unmanned and intelligent. This is mainly about future lithium battery applications, not only in new energy vehicles or cars for families but also in applications in all power sources.

What are the aspects of technological progress? In the past 10 years, the performance of lithium batteries has increased three times. The performance mainly means that its service life has increased three times, its energy density has increased three times, and its cost has decreased by 90%. At present, the cost with lithium batteries is less than 1 yuan per watt-hour. The purchase cost of new energy vehicles is a little higher than that of petrol vehicles, but its usage is relatively cheap, so the new energy vehicles are more competitive than petrol vehicles in the whole life cycle.

And about energy storage, today I’ll mainly talk about energy storage. Since its founding, CATL has always regarded power battery and energy storage battery as the two wings of our development, and we have also carried out a lot of work on energy storage. In terms of energy storage, we have undertaken China’s key research and development plan – that is, the only project of electrochemical energy storage – during the 13th Five Year Plan period. With the support of this project, we mainly broke through the bottleneck in the service life of energy storage batteries.

When used in cars, a battery can be charged from 1000 to 2000 times in the past if the car is driven 300,000 kilometers in total. If a battery is used for energy storage, it needs to be in service for 10, 20, or even 30 years. Its service life used to be a weakness. During the 13th Five Year Plan period, we increased the service life from about 3,000 times to 12,000 times, which is a breakthrough and is leading in the world. This breakthrough provides conditions for the application of lithium battery energy storage in large energy storage power stations.

In the past years, we have also worried about the safety of energy storage batteries. From the perspective of batteries, the safety problems have also been solved. Now there may be problems concerning multiple aspects. Some have to do with system integration, and the integration between different industries in the whole engineering is not enough. In addition, some low-level products have entered the market, resulting in safety problems.

In terms of the promotion of energy storage batteries, 12,000-time high-performance batteries have been promoted for energy storage plants in China. A 100-megawatt hour independent energy storage power station in Jinjiang, Fujian has been officially put into operation, and the technology has begun to be exported in large quantities. We have undertaken the battery supporting business of about 150 energy storage power stations at home and abroad. Last year, we shipped about 3 GWh in the energy storage field. Three GWh was the total amount of the cumulative installed capacity of the whole country by the end of last year. This year, the shipment in the energy storage field will reach more than 10 GWh, which is an increase of between 3 to 4 times. This is some of the progress in the field of energy storage.

In the long run, if we really want to achieve carbon peak and carbon neutrality, we need a new power system with new energy as the main body, and photovoltaic, wind, and hydropower as the main installed and power generation body. The stability of the power grid requires a lot of flexibility resources. At present, even if all the qualified pumped storage energy in the country is developed, the gap is still very large.

By the end of last year, the total installed capacity of electrochemical energy storage was about 3 GWh, and when translated to power generation that was about 1.5 GW. From the perspective of carbon neutrality, it is estimated that the demand for battery energy storage in the future is about 1,400 GW, which is about 1,000 times that of last year's 1.5 GW, so the room for growth is quite huge.

Since the gap is so large, is it enough in terms of the whole reserves in technology and resources? The people here also care about these two issues.

First on technology. Batteries are different from petroleum. Batteries are technology-dependent. Technological breakthroughs and continuous innovation mean that there is a lot of room to improve the batteries’ performance and efficiency and reduce their costs. This year, we also brought up a slogan, "Electrochemistry should be the magic cube of energy." There is still a lot of room for innovation. Now the unknown in electrochemistry is far greater than that of the known. There has been a lot of technological progress, and there is still a lot of room for cost reduction. This is the technology aspect.

Second, from the aspect of resources. Are there enough resources? There is a lot of lithium, nickel, and cobalt used in lithium batteries. This year, people started to worry that these resources may not be enough or that they may be controlled by foreign countries. In addition, their prices have indeed risen a lot this year, and lithium-related stocks have also risen a lot. We still feel that there might be a shortage.

In fact, resources such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel are sufficient in terms of reserves to realize the electrification of all vehicles across the world and to meet the demand for energy storage and batteries. The problem is that the production capabilities, as in mining and extraction, cannot keep up with the rapid development. It is a short-term supply shortage, but the reserves of resources are sufficient. This is my opinion.

My second view is that lithium batteries are different from petroleum. Petroleum is gonna be exhausted. If it’s burned, it’s burned, and it is not renewable. Lithium battery or electrochemistry is an energy storage medium. It will only have performance degradation, but the resources are not exhausted.

So, this, once again, goes back to the second question asked by the moderator: What happens if the performance of the battery declines to the scrap level, no matter the battery is in the car or used for energy storage? Now, the recovery technology of lithium batteries is mature. At present, CATL has also made a relatively good layout in recycling and cascade utilization. In 2014, we acquired the largest lithium battery recycling company in China, which is called Brunp. Now, Brunp mainly recycles scrapped lithium batteries from the factory, also from the market, and then makes them into materials that can be used to manufacture new batteries in CATL.

This recycling efficiency is very high. The recovery rate of lithium, cobalt, and nickel is more than 90%, and that of cobalt and nickel can reach 98% and 99%. Therefore, when reaching a certain stage, resources can support the subsequent new incremental demand through recycling, which is very similar to the concept of carbon neutrality.

The future is not only about lithium batteries. Many new electrochemical systems will appear. This year, sodium-ion batteries have been released. There are no scarce resources in sodium-ion batteries. The main resource is sodium, the element in salt, which is very rich in reserves. Now the main problem is to establish the supply system of raw materials. Once the technology problems have been tackled and breakthroughs have been made in the whole production and processing technology of raw materials, the remaining main problem is to increase the volume of production. We will have a production line for sodium-ion batteries next year, and it will also be an important technology route for energy storage in the future because it is safer and cheaper.

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Translated by Alexander Wang, a contributor, and copyedited & reviewed by Zichen Wang, founder of Pekingnology. Don’t hesitate to reply should you have any questions, suggestions, or criticism.

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The full speech in Chinese for your reference. Please note the English above is a partial translation based on content selected by your Pekingnologist. Full video documentation of the forum is available at Tsinghua PBCSF’s Twitter account with a simultaneous translation.

    孟祥峰:谢谢主持人!主持人好!各位专家、清华的各位老师、各位同学们,大家下午好!很荣幸在线上参加这次会议。

    今天大家也都反复提到了储能是新型电力系统的重要支撑技术和关键的基础设备或者基础设施。储能是一种调峰资源,调峰资源传统的是抽水蓄能,现在一种新的技术是电化学储能或者是以锂离子电池为主的电化学储能。锂电池储能和抽水蓄能相比有一些优势,比方说,它响应时间更快,可以做到毫秒级的响应。它不受地理限制,抽水蓄能要具备有水、有山、有低时差的海拔差的地理条件限制。所以它有这两方面的明显优势。

    电化学储能这两年也得到了一些广泛的应用,大家越来越关注。为什么锂电池以前没办法用来储能,现在有这种机会了,主要是最近这10年在新能源汽车带动下,锂离子电池的技术、成本、寿命取得了突飞猛进的进展。过去这10年中国出台了全球最完善的支持新能源汽车发展的政策体系,包括购车补贴、免购置税、不限行、不限购的差异化交通管制措施,还包括充电技术设施的补贴和支持。应该说,在这些政策的支持下,中国的新能源汽车取得了非常大的成功。我们之前一直说的弯道超车,当时还有很多人怀疑,现在看最起码取得了初步成果,在新能源领域,中国在技术和规模上,在关键的核心零部件上,都是全球领先了。

    想补充提一句,今天好多专家也在提汽车或者家庭轿车电动化,对于大型车辆,对于一些船舶等功率需求比较大的车是比较困难的,这个在前几年是这样,目前也取得了突破。宁德时代和客户合作,在内核的船舶、短途的重卡,重卡是49吨、100吨的重卡都实行了纯电动化。工程机械,像挖掘机、装载机,港口的车辆也都实现了电动化。这些已经有很多应用了,比方说,洛阳钼业是钼矿,矿上的所有车辆从运输到装载到破碎都实现了电动化,而且实现了无人化,和智能化进行了结合。这主要是讲未来锂电池应用领域不光是在新能源汽车或者是家用轿车上,在所有的动力上都有很好的前景。

    技术进步体现在哪些方面?过去这10年锂电池的性能提高了3倍,性能主要是说它的寿命提高了3倍,它的能量密度提高了3倍,它的成本下降了90%。现在锂电池的成本是每瓦时不到1块钱,在新能源汽车上以及和燃油车购置成本还偏高一点,但是用的过程是比较便宜的,所以新能源汽车它全生命周期已经比燃油车有竞争力了。

    再说储能,今天主要是讲储能这一块。宁德时代从创立一直把动力电池和储能电池当成我们发展的两翼,我们在储能上也开展了很多的工作。储能这一块,在“十三五”时期承担了国家的重点研发计划,就是电化学储能唯一的项目是宁德时代来牵头做的,在这个项目的支持下,主要突破了储能电池的寿命的瓶颈。因为电池用在车上,整个开30万公里、充换电次数也就是1000次到2000次,如果用在储能上,它需要用10年、20年,甚至30年,它的寿命是一个短板。我们在“十三五”期间把寿命从一般电池的3000次左右提高到了12000次,这是一个重大突破,在全球也是领先的,这个突破让锂电池储能在大型储能电站的应用上具备了条件。

    这几年大家还担心储能电池的安全问题,从电池角度安全问题也解决了,现在可能出现一些问题是多方面的,有的是系统集成,整个的工程化这一块不同行业之间结合度还不够。另外,有一些比较低水平的产品进入了市场,造成了安全问题的出现。

    在储能电池的推广方面,12000次的高性能电池在国内已经推广了储能电站,在福建的晋江有100兆瓦时的独立储能电站已经正式运营,技术开始大批量出口。我们已经承接了国内外的大概150个储能电站的电池配套的业务,去年在储能领域出货大概3个GW时,这三个GW时是整个全国到去年年底累计装机量的综合,今年在储能领域出货量会达到超过10个GW时,大概翻3到4倍。这是目前在储能领域的一些进展。

    从长远来看,如果是我们真要实现碳达峰和碳中和,以新能源为主体的新型电力系统,以光伏、风力和水电成为电网的装机主体和发电主体,电网的稳定性是需要大量的灵活性资源。现在即使把全国具备条件的抽水蓄能全部开发,这个缺口仍然很大。

储能到去年年底,电化学储能整个的装机量大概是3个GW时,换算成功率大概是1.5个GW左右。从碳中和的角度来看,大家预计到未来电池储能的需求大概是1400GW,1400GW和去年的1.5GW大概是1千倍的关系,所以空间是非常大的。

    既然空间这么大,从整个的技术储备和资源储备上是不是够用?大家也很关心这两个问题。

    一是技术上。电池和石油不一样,它是技术依赖型,技术的不断创新突破让电池的性能、效率、成本还是有很大的提升空间。今年我们也喊出来一个口号,“电化学应该是能量魔方”,创新的空间还很大,现在对电化学的未知远远大于乙知,技术进步还是很大的,成本下降空间还有很大的空间。这是从技术上。

    二是资源上。资源上是不是够用?锂电池里边用的大量的锂、镍、钴这些金属,从今年开始大家普遍担心这些资源不够用,资源可能会被国外控制。还有今年价格确实涨了很多,和锂有关的股票涨的也很多,大家还是觉得这些东西不够用。

    实际情况,锂、钴、镍这些资源,从储量来看够全球的车辆全部实现电动化,而且储能、对电池的需求也是足够的。现在的问题是快速发展材料的开采、提取这种产能跟不上,是短期的供给紧张,资源的储量是足够的。这是一个观点。第二个观点,锂电池和石油不一样,石油是消耗品,烧掉就没了,不可再生。锂电池或者是电化学是一种能量存储介质,自己只会有性能的衰退,资源不是消耗掉的。

    所以这又到了主持人问的第二个大问题,电池不管是在车上还是在储能上,如果性能衰退到了报废周期怎么办,现在对于锂电池的回收技术是成熟的。目前宁德时代也在回收、梯次利用这一块做了比较完善的布局,在2014年的时候收购了国内最大的锂电池回收公司叫邦普,邦普现在也是我们主要的从工厂内,包括市场端,报废的锂电池回收再做成材料,再到宁德时代再去做成新的电池。这种回收利用效率是很高的,像锂、钴、镍这三个金属回收率在90%以上,像钴和镍可以达到98%、99%。所以资源到了一定的阶段,通过回收利用都可以支撑后续新增量的需求,这就和碳中和的概念就很像了。

    未来不一定完全是锂电池,还有很多新的电化学的体系会出现,今年也发布了钠离子电池,钠离子电池里面用的资源没有稀缺资源了,最主要的资源是钠,食盐里面的元素,储量非常丰富。现在主要的问题是建立原材料的供应体系,技术原理是打通了,整个原材料生产加工工艺也打通了,主要是上量的问题。钠离子电池明年会有一条线生产,未来也会作为储能的重要的技术路线,因为它更安全、成本更低。

A guest post by
Journalism student at Tsinghua University. Ex intern at Bloomberg, China Central Television, and the UN. I write about China’s society, culture, and ordinary people in between.
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