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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Mega-Batteries Key in the Electrification of Heavy Industry

Battery

Despite declining interest in electric passenger vehicles, some companies are pushing forward with the electrification of a much more challenging segment of the transport industry: heavy machinery. 

Electrifying trucks, bulldozers, tractors, and excavators is tricky because of the amount of fuel they currently use to do their job. And yet, some companies say they are doing it—with lots and lots of batteries.

The Financial Times recently profiled one such company, based in Ireland, which makes battery packs for heavy-duty vehicles such as mine trucks. The company, dubbed Xerotech, basically assembles stacks of battery cells for use in various vehicles in accordance with their specific needs. These, per the company’s CEO, vary widely because “there are hundreds of different vehicle platforms, architectures, shapes, sizes — going from a system that needs a 5 kWh battery to a 5,000 kWh battery and everything in between.”

It appears there is significant demand for these battery stacks because the mining industry is under substantial pressure to electrify and reduce its emissions. And it is electrifying. In fact, it has been electrifying for more than ten years now, with the first battery-powered mining trucks launching back in 2013, a 2023 report by some of the industry’s leaders noted.

Yet even that report, which was quite optimistic about the prospects of mining transport electrification, noted that it will not happen fast, and it will not be suitable for every mining project—because the cost will not make sense. Also, not all heavy machinery can be electrified with equal success: some vehicles are so heavy that adding the weight of a massive battery would render them pointless as they would expend energy too fast to be useful.

Interestingly, despite the significant interest in those battery packs that the Irish company makes and despite soaring revenues, as reported by its CEO, the company has yet to break even—which it expects to do in two years. This highlights the challenges of making industrial machinery batteries commonplace.

These challenges are not only reserved for the heavy-duty trucks used in mining. Electrifying buses has also proved more challenging than perhaps expected. Electric buses enjoy even stronger government support than EVs because electrifying public transport is a major priority for transition-focused governments. 

Yet reports of electric buses catching fire have not helped their case. Earlier this year, Transport for London had to withdraw e-buses from one of its routes because three of them caught fire in a month. It is not only fires, either. A lot of electric buses sit unused because they broke down or had defects and it was too expensive to repair them. There have also been cases when local authorities bought some and paid for them in full but never used them.

The evidence suggests that there is still more enthusiasm about the electrification of transport than actual progress because of the many challenging aspects of a large-scale electrification push like the one governments and industry players seem to envision.

One problem that needs solving is the same as what we see in passenger vehicles: the availability of charging infrastructure. This is more easily solved in cities than in remote mines or farms, and yet even in cities, there are nowhere near enough charging points for the EV fleet of the future that transition advocates fight for.

There is also the question of range and the consequent need for replacement batteries for heavy vehicles since charging times are still quite long, and it would be easier to swap an empty battery with a full one and get the bus or truck back on the road.

Then, of course, there is the question of raw material costs. These tend to vary depending on supply trends—and on demand trends as well. As demand for EVs weakens, so do raw materials prices such as lithium and copper. That may be welcome news for companies such as that Irish battery stack maker that the FT profiled in its article, but it is not good news for the miners that get the raw materials out of the ground—increasingly using electric machinery to do it.

In theory, the electrification of all sorts of transportation and machinery sounds very much doable, even sometimes easy. All you need is a lot of battery packs you can replace in the piece of machinery when one drains, but you still need to use the piece of machinery.

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The practice, however, is rather different. By its very definition, heavy machinery weighs quite a lot, and weight is a drain on any battery, which is why passenger EV manufacturing is a study in lightweight materials. Greater weight means faster discharge times, which in turn means more frequent battery swaps, which in turn means higher overall costs. And the transition was supposed to be cheaper than the alternative. 

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com 

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