2018 will be a year to remember — a year of variety, of innovation, of sad farewells, in short a year of successes as well as mishaps.
Although there have been highlights when the lead battery business over-shone other chemistries, it will probably be remembered as the year that lithium batteries were finally acknowledged as a mainstream product.
The reasoning behind the shift could probably be defined as a lemming moment for the planners and financiers looking at large-scale energy storage projects. Utilities, financiers, project advisers and engineers with more or less one accord voted with its feet — lithium batteries had become the new standard for grid scale project work.
From 2017 to date lead batteries accounted for just over 1% of all new large-scale 1MW plus installations. The overwhelming majority of these were lithium but flow batteries were clearly on the upswing too.
Overall, the sale of lead batteries continued to grow by at least 6%, though the forecasted projections — depending on the research firm you spoke to — varied from around 4.5% compound annual growth rate to as much as 9.8%.
The core component of this growth is the increasing number of cars on the world’s roads — new cars accounted for some 81.5 million of sales this year — but the worldwide tally continued to climb to around 1.4 billion cars (all needing replacement batteries every few years). Forecasts suggest this number of cars could double in the next 20 years.
How the rise of EVs in the coming years will affect these numbers is uncertain (even though all electric vehicles require a small lead battery as standard), mostly given that forecasts of their adoption have been consistently overstated for the past decade. Political commitments to ban the sale of ICE powered cars by future — and clearly ridiculous — dates are not worth the hot air that created them.
Another component of growth has been the rise in the need for stationery and standby power. Mobile telephony continues to grow — there are some 4.5 billion handsets around the world — and the network of base stations to support them continues to grow.
Similarly the rise in all things digital continues to fuel the growth of UPS and back-up power systems.
It has also been a year where the pressure by the regulators in the European Union has tightened up a notch. Although the ILA and EUROBAT have managed to kick the implementation of the REACH regulations further down the road, there are still battles to be won in the years ahead.
The lead battery industry is concerned that four lead compounds indispensible in the manufacturing process of lead batteries, but which do not themselves appear in the final battery (which is in any case completely sealed) would be banned.
The four compounds are lead monoxide, lead tetraoxide, tetralead trioxide sulfate and pentalead tetraoxide sulfate. So far, the compounds have been included in the first step, the candidate list, and have been recommended to the European Commission for authorization by the European Chemicals Agency.
The scandal of the European Commission’s REACH 133 Committee meeting in secret continues. Industry representatives and the press are barred from these discussions, which are held behind closed doors.
The REACH proposals could effectively kill the lead battery business across Europe making every single motor vehicle driven on the continent dependent on foreign imports.
In the US, similar battles are being fought in California, where a knee-jerk reaction against lead partly caused by lead contamination at Exide’s recycling plant in Vernon has prompted a host of antagonistic legislation against lead batteries. So far, Battery Council International’s legal and lobbying advisers, Wiley Rein, have managed to stave off the more ridiculous proposals.
On a more human note, it’s been a year of sad farewells.
Ken Peters, the man who effectively turned the VRLA battery into a mainstream product, died in September. Ken was 90.
He was shortly followed by the much loved Paul Frost from Britannia Metals, John Stephens, who spent a lifetime behind the scenes at the ILA and, as the year started to draw to a close, Guy Clum, the founder of Power-Sonic, passed away.
2018 was also a year of goodbyes to well known faces and hellos to new blood for the industry.
Mark Thorsby, the charismatic head of Battery Council International, stepped down at the start of the year. He was replaced by Kevin Moran who, working with Lisa Dry the new communications campaign manager who joined in late 2017, will be spearheading the drive to advance the case for lead in the US. Both are based in Washington DC.
Meanwhile in London, Hywel Jarman joined the International Lead Association to push the lead communication campaign on the other side of the Atlantic.
Rene Schroeder took over from Alfons Westgeest as the head of EUROBAT and was joined by Gert Meylemans as its communications manager.
At the end of 2018 ALABC technical director, the much-liked Boris Monahov, said he intended to retire in the new year. Boris will not be leaving the industry completely taking up some technical work at Tydrolyte, a start-up, and remaining as an adviser to ALABC.
In the world of business the much-admired Dan Langdon stood down as the head of East Penn on January 1. Chris Pruitt, a veteran of the firm since 1994 and a former chief financial officer took Langdon’s post.
Across the other side of the US, Trojan Battery appointed Neil Thomas as president and CEO. Following the takeover by C&D Technologies towards the end of the year, Thomas’s future is uncertain.
MAC Engineering announced a series of management changes that took place on September 1. Mike Tole retired as chairman of the company and Julie McLure took his place. She was formerly the president. Doug Bornas, former executive vice president, became the president and Dan Duffield as EVP. Thomas Isbrecht became a senior director of sales.
Meanwhile in China, Digatron appointed Yuetchin Hoi in February as the new CEO to oversee the company in the country. He took over from Karl Sobotka.
In terms of big business, it was a year of big swings in the structures of the market — consolidation being a major theme in the corporate world.
Johnson Controls merger with Tyco in 2017 ended, as many had predicted, with the sale of its Power Controls Division in November.
EnerSys gobbled up Alpha Technologies, while the last parts of Trojan Batteries were swallowed by C&D Technologies.
Geographically, the scope of the industry saw a couple of areas of business — most notably expansion in sub-Saharan Africa. The arrival of solar-panels and wind farms fuelling the deployment of mini-grids in areas of the world where there is no power infrastructure looks set to be a potentially exciting new area of the business. This is particularly so in that lead batteries offer a clear price advantage over other chemistries and where the cost of these installations has to be met from the economically disadvantaged.
Perhaps one of the most unusual moves of the year — and in the developed world too — was the go-ahead given to Korean lead battery maker AtlasBX to open a manufacturing plant in Tennessee, US. It will be the first in the States for around a decade.
But it was also a year that innovation — the word that seems to scream self-praise from start-ups rather than real world creation — came to the fore.
In May the BCI annual Sally Breidegam Innovation Award proved that the lead battery industry was continuing to innovate in a meaningful way.
Eight contenders for the prize emerged and, for the most part, offered challenging examples of what was some of the best of the industry.
The winner this year was Gridtential with a unique bipolar battery using silicon wafers to replace part of the lead. This reduces the costs of the materials but offers greater power density.
Other candidates for the award were: Daramic with its carbon coated separator technology; Exide with its TENSOR range of tough industrial strength batteries; Abertax with a better gas valve for VRLA batteries; HighWater Innovations with its GO Battery, a fundamental rethink of battery design; a lithium ion detector from Terrapure, which is designed to separate lead and lithium batteries in an otherwise explosive recycling stream; a battery transport and storage container from UNISEG; and less an innovation but rather a better procedure for battery formation was proposed by UK Power Tech.
Other interesting products to emerge over the year included newer and better separators from Microporous, ENTEK and Daramic. Wirtz unveiled a new thin-gauge strip caster and a new firm Tydrolyte introduced a replacement to sulfuric acid in lead batteries with a product that, it claims, could even be safely drunk.