The Positive and Negative Sides of EV Batteries

April 18, 2022

Electrification relies on the same drivers as any other transformational energy shift: concurrent advancements across technology, accessibility, and public and government support. It’s easy to point to attitudes about climate change as the primary driver, but others also affect the move to electric construction equipment.

Gomm is VP business development for Delta-Q Technologies. Prior to his current role, he was the director of product management.

+1) Lithium batteries are better

Imagine a new oil source was discovered that offered petroleum fuel with doubled energy density. Describing the breakthrough of lithium battery developments for electrification in the same way would underscore the overall impact.

Lithium readily provides more power at higher output rates and for longer—with fewer operational considerations and maintenance demands (checking fluid levels, and shock or stress damage) than lead-acid battery technology.

Lithium batteries provide substantially greater energy density than their lead-acid predecessors: The former achieves 125-600+ Wh/L and the latter only 50-90 Wh/L. The higher levels of available energy improve range or usage duration by factors between two and 10 times. This results in compounding effects:

  • Lithium batteries’ effective energy capacity is further doubled with a safe depth of discharge up to 80 to 90 percent. Lead-acid batteries begin to suffer increased degradation and shortened lifespans when drained below their floor of 50 percent.
  • Increased density and storage benefits are multiplied by lithium’s greater charge and discharge rates. Lithium batteries achieve energy consumption performance improvements of 40 percent over conventional lead-acid batteries.
  • Lithium batteries are four times lighter and three times smaller. This reclaims space and reduces weight onboard nonroad mobile machinery, enabling the incorporation of larger batteries or additional equipment add-ons such as on-board chargers.
  • Lithium batteries are rated for a lifespan of 2,000-plus cycles. Various lithium battery studies have shown potential for roughly 5,000 charge cycles when consistently discharged to a depth of 50 percent. Lead-acid batteries only reach approximately 1,000 cycles until failure when discharged to their floor of 50 percent.

On top of these benefits, the costs associated with lithium batteries have plummeted 98 percent since 1990.

+2) Less maintenance on electric machines

Electrified construction equipment offers operational benefits over internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered counterparts regarding day-to-day and long-term costs.

Unlike ICE-powered vehicles and machinery, electrically powered alternatives do not require warming up upon a cold start. They also do not idle every time their usage is paused throughout the day. Removing these operational considerations recovers significant expenses caused by fuel consumption and engine wear.

Furthermore, the direct application of torque eliminates the importance of remaining within an engine’s powerband for optimal performance—a noteworthy consideration if construction machinery and vehicles operate at lower RPM and travel speeds.

ICE construction machinery and vehicles require the incorporation of substantial emissions control systems or risk significant financial penalties for violations.

It is also important to note that these emissions control systems increase the parasitic load on compression- or spark-ignition engines, reducing the net power produced during daily operation.

From a macro viewpoint, developing and testing these systems adds engineering complexities and possible failure points that increase OEMs’ time-to-market. Once purchased, regular maintenance similarly increases operating costs for construction firms.

Electric-powered machinery and vehicles eliminate these costly emissions systems and better incorporate telematics (i.e., onboard data collection) to provide fleet managers with operational insights. Telematic data enables operators to readily assess the health of systems and components without performing time-consuming, on-site maintenance checks that incur operational downtime.

Battery and system health metrics are reported thoroughly with advanced telematics. This data allows managers to preemptively account for and respond to potential complications and failures via better preventative maintenance.

-1) Access to charging infrastructure

One stark difference between battery-operated and petroleum-fuel-based power is replenishing the input. Whereas the flow rate into a fuel tank doesn’t affect operations or longevity, a battery’s charging system does.

Battery charging may represent the most significant hurdle to further electrification within construction, but there are solutions—both currently available and in development.

Optimal charge rates for lithium battery technology, for example, depend on factors such as sophisticated battery management systems and custom charging algorithms. Fortunately for construction firms, these developments exist, continually improve, and are carefully considered by OEMs.

Advancements in lithium battery technology also increase regular cycle length and reduce charge times. An off-board charger will top-off batteries rapidly or overnight, and on-board chargers can easily facilitate daytime “opportunity charging” during any downtime periods. Should additional power capacity be required, extra batteries with full capacity can be stored centrally or on-site.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge isn’t the charging systems or the batteries, which are already quite advanced. Instead, it’s convenient on-site access to electrical charging points to facilitate recharging.

Projects in populated urban areas with easy access to utility power will likely see fewer challenges than sites in remote areas with little infrastructure. Still, the challenge can be addressed in rural locations with existing portable storage technology.

Electric power on the move

As with other widespread energy shifts throughout history, concurrent technological breakthroughs, economic incentives, and network infrastructure modernization are the key factors that enable the energy transition. No energy source achieves widespread adoption without significant socio-political, economic, and operational transformation.

Despite the complexity of the challenges on these fronts, the acceptance of electrification and adoption in construction machinery and equipment—as a viable alternative to ICE technology—is well underway and growing within sectors worldwide.