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How to break the 'homogenization' in energy storage?

published: 2024-06-17 17:42

Looking back at the century-old history of the world's automotive industry, many people may not know that the birth of electric vehicles predates that of fuel-powered vehicles by nearly half a century. In fact, in the second half of the 19th century, due to their excellent comfort and ease of operation, electric power became the preferred propulsion for early vehicles. However, over the years, the early batteries have become known for their insufficient energy density, lack of endurance, and long charging times, which gradually exposed their problems, leading to the ruthless elimination of electric motors in history.

With the continuou increase in battery capacity and energy density, lithium-ion batteries, as the absolute favorite of the electric vehicle era, have now returned to the center stage of the global automotive industry. At the same time, as the mainstream technological route for the new energy storage industry, lithium batteries also play an important role as the core support and ballast stone of the new energy industry, and have undoubtedly ushered in an almost "over-prosperous" track frenzy. Correspondingly, various new and old players are constantly racking their brains to "roll" the energy storage track to new heights. In the energy storage industry, where 300Ah+ cells have just replaced 280Ah to become the mainstream, a large number of leading manufacturers advocating for 500Ah+ large-capacity cells have already emerged, and some companies have even launched new products with ultra-high capacities of 690Ah, 730Ah, and even 1130Ah. What's more exaggerated is the claim of having successfully developed a 3000Ah large-capacity, high-safety energy storage special battery, leading the industry in terms of single cell capacity, cycle life, safety, and cost per kilowatt-hour. The industry's "numerical worship" style arms race is already evident.

Both quality and scale determine the height, and low-price competition decides life and death, which has become the new rule of the energy storage market. The homogeneous competition with scale, capacity, and price as the core is becoming more and more intense. However, with the rise of commercial and industrial energy storage, it not only adds a spark to the slightly dull industry competition but also provides more ways of thinking to break the energy storage "homogenization" trap with the first ray of dawn. The sound of homogenized competition in the energy storage industry has been around for a long time.

At the Beijing Energy Storage Exhibition in April this year, the public speech by Zhang Jianhui, Chairman and General Manager of Haibosichuang, resonated with many people: "You can go to see the energy storage exhibition tomorrow. Both cells and systems are highly homogenized. Basically, after visiting one exhibition hall, there is no need to visit other halls." Zhu Gongshan, Chairman of GCL Group, said in an earlier speech: "The price of the capacity chain continues to fall, and the energy storage bid price has dropped by a third in half a year. The product is seriously homogenized, and the price war is becoming more and more fierce, rushing for performance, grabbing shares, and the bid price has broken through the cost. Half spring, half cold current, this is the current situation of our energy storage industry."

The fact that China's energy storage market has stepped into such a cruel life-and-death battle so quickly is not hard to imagine. Since the dual-carbon goal was proposed in September 2020, coupled with the introduction of new energy storage policies in various provinces, the prosperity of the energy storage industry has sounded the first trumpet, and the "young" energy storage industry has maintained a leaping and explosive growth in the following years. According to statistics from CNESA, by the end of 2023, China's new energy storage cumulative installed capacity exceeded 30GW for the first time, reaching 34.5GW/74.5GWh; the newly added new energy storage was 21.5GW/46.6GWh, exceeding the total of the past decade. In the energy storage track where tens of thousands of enterprises are set up in a year, more than one hundred thousand related enterprises have entered the field.

However, the real differentiation competition and technological innovation that get rid of ineffective innovation, such as sodium batteries, solid-state batteries, and other technologies, still have uncertainty and are too far from large-scale industrialization. The sodium-ion battery, which was once popular due to the high price of lithium, has not been as popular since last year. The industry's first truly 100MWh-level sodium-ion battery energy storage station has only recently completed bidding; liquid flow energy storage, compressed air, flywheel energy storage, molten salt energy storage, and gravity energy storage, and other technical routes are still quite "niche."

Even though thousands of troops are rushing to the single-plank bridge, the real problems of the industry do not seem to have been properly solved. According to the latest statistical data released by the China Electricity Council, in 2023, there were a total of 1030 unplanned outages in 958 electrochemical energy storage power stations across the country, with an average unplanned outage duration of 29.12 hours per time and a unit energy unplanned outage rate of 26.73 times/100MWh. With the increase of usage time and cycle life, the inconsistency between cells is gradually increasing. In addition, in the past, some manufacturers used the power battery standard, and the quality of some products was uneven. It is not uncommon for some batteries to swell and leak after 4 or 5 years of operation; some power station battery management systems do not have online balancing functions, and lack of battery consistency control means may also lead to accelerated aging or even thermal runaway of individual batteries. Based on relevant standards and industry needs, current energy storage products have generally been upgraded from cabin-level fire protection plans to "Pack" level fire protection plans. However, in the absence of technological innovation in the fire protection industry itself, energy storage safety issues remain "Schrödinger's cat." What level of fire protection system can be built and how much precision and intelligence can be matched for temperature control are all tests of how much energy storage companies value the pursuit of "ultimate safety."

A healthy and stable energy storage industry has never needed a simple numerical competition. Under the shadow of homogenized competition, major manufacturers are gradually realizing that to grasp the key to solving the energy storage homogenization trap, they must pay attention to the details.

Nowadays, the energy storage industry is more competitive than it was in the past. On the one hand, the large energy storage market, dominated by the Matthew effect, has made countless small and medium-sized energy storage companies step back with its price and scale thresholds. However, it has also guided higher economic benefits and quality standards. Companies that can break through this path have the opportunity to become the top companies in the industry; the overseas market is far from saturated and excessive, and the high gross profit margin still attracts a large number of energy storage players to go overseas to mine gold and open up new battlefields. On the other hand, the rapid rise of the commercial and industrial energy storage market has also made the situation of large energy storage dominating in China somewhat loose. It not only provides real money for a large number of enterprises to develop space, making the industry leaders who once dominated the large energy storage market no longer have absolute discourse; it also attracts various companies with "unique skills" to join in, forming a unique competitive force in the market with their strengths, contributing to a more diverse and competitive new approach for the industry.

Under this background, some companies that focus on overseas markets have turned their attention back to the domestic market, hoping to achieve overtaking by leveraging mature after-sales service capabilities honed in the global market; there are also cross-border companies with years of accumulated industrial customer resources, playing the channel card in the commercial and industrial energy storage track; there are also veteran energy storage companies that leverage their full-stack self-research advantages, seizing the current industry's urgent demand for refined, customized, and integrated services. With a proven customer benefit guarantee, they achieve lifecycle management and provide turnkey projects. As one of the companies that entered the energy storage system integration field earlier in China, Kelu Electronics, which began to fully layout energy storage business in 2009, is a typical representative. Since Midea Group officially took over Kelu Electronics last June, the company has completed the delivery of about 1.3GWh of energy storage systems throughout the year, and the energy storage business achieved a revenue of 1.43.5 billion yuan, a year-on-year increase of 106.73%, and started the "second spring" of energy storage business at a fast pace.

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