FreeWire Technologies went to market with a rolling battery that charges cars. After a recently closed $15 million Series A, the Bay Area startup plans to tackle a bigger challenge.
Electric vehicle range gets better with each new model, but charging time remains an impediment to mass adoption. At the same time, the power flows needed for faster charging create a stress on the local distribution grid, adding cost and time to the process of charger deployment.
FreeWire's next product will be an "infrastructure-light" charger that uses lithium-ion batteries to minimize stress on the grid, said CEO Arcady Sosinov. That vision won over BP Ventures, which led the round, joined by Volvo Cars Tech Fund, Stanley Ventures, Blue Bear Capital, Oski Clean Energy Partners and others. Macquarie Capital Venture Studio contributed a separate $1 million last week.
"We think that a bit of a tsunami is coming in the near future," said Volvo Cars Tech Fund CEO Zaki Fasihuddin, describing the accelerating pace of electric vehicle adoption. "Particularly in the U.S., there are opportunities for charging vehicles, but we don’t think the infrastructure is fully there yet. For us, it’s all about making that experience seamless and that transition seamless from an internal combustion engine to an electric vehicle."
Speed without the consequences
Now that electric cars can travel hundreds of miles on a single charge, reducing friction in the charging experience will be the next crucial step to achieve mass adoption, Sosinov said.
"Now what we have is a new type of problem: It's charge anxiety," he said. "It’s not, 'Can I go the distance?' It’s, 'Can I find charging the way I find a gas station today?'"
The industry will need to deploy many more chargers to achieve the ubiquity that gasoline stations have today. These chargers will also need to deliver power faster, to avoid making drivers wait around for hours at the station.
Super-fast charging usually translates into grid upgrades, like switching from low-voltage to medium-voltage power. That's not necessarily quick or easy, Sosinov said: It can require digging up roads and concrete to lay new wires and can set back charger deployment by six to 18 months.
This is a broader challenge for both grid planning and EV adoption.
"Utilities have an obligation to serve, and transportation electrification has the potential to significantly increase electricity demand, in turn requiring upgrades in utility transmission and distribution infrastructure," said Elta Kolo, who tracks grid edge developments at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. "The thing is, to build out infrastructure, you’re looking at a process that could take years as a result of public consultations."
FreeWire's solution is a fast charger equipped with a 160-kilowatt-hour battery, which outsizes any car battery on the market today. The batteries fill up on grid power over time, topping up between each vehicle-charging session. That way, the grid doesn't see spikes in demand when a driver plugs in.
Pairing batteries with chargers isn't new, but past efforts have focused on mitigating demand charges to improve the business case for charging stations. FreeWire's design puts the battery front and center in the charging process.
That does generate some efficiency losses by converting power from grid to battery to car, as opposed to the typical charger-to-car process. But Sosinov said those efficiency losses are overshadowed by how much the design saves on infrastructure costs.
FreeWire has piloted the new product and plans to launch beta trials in Q2 2019. With the integrated batteries, the system will charge at around 120 kilowatts on the low end, but will interact with the grid like a Level 2 charger. That would be notable, because Level 2 chargers typically draw fewer than 10 kilowatts and take several hours to fill up a battery.
"The technology is mostly proven out at this point," Sosinov said. "Now it's all about operations [and] getting manufacturing up to scale."
FreeWire engineers the battery pack and system controls in-house, but will outsource manufacturing.
While batteries and electric vehicle technology evolve quickly, they depend on built infrastructure in order to function, and infrastructure moves at a slower pace. Other charging companies are taking aim at the disjoint between those two timelines.
Earlier this year, EVgo launched FastStart, which situates a pair of 50-kilowatt fast chargers on top of a metal sled. This allows the company to drop chargers into place and plug them in without the permitting and construction necessary for a permanent structure.
The modular format gives EVgo more flexibility in scaling installations to match demand, or relocating chargers as demand patterns shift.
EVgo has also installed energy storage at several charging stations in the form of second-life BMW i3 batteries. These provide demand-charge management for the spikes when high-speed charging kicks in.
Israeli startup Chakratec is also tackling the problem of high-speed charging's impact on the local grid, but it buffers the chargers with flywheels instead of batteries.
Flywheels cost significantly more up front than lithium-ion, but supporters say they make up for it with a much longer lifetime of cycling with minimal degradation. That will be important given that charger batteries will have to cycle throughout the day, more than lithium-ion batteries are usually expected to do.
Chakratec has raised $12 million over three rounds and has operated a pilot unit with Vienna's Wien Energie since June, said CEO and founder Ilan Ben-David. It's also working with Enel and Skoda to demonstrate the technology.
Another Israeli startup, StoreDot, garnered $20 million from BP in May to develop batteries it says can charge in five minutes.
The company heads to market next year with batteries for mobile phones and peripherals, and wants to finalize its car batteries by the end of 2021, said business development manager Amir Tirosh. It has raised $130 million over three rounds.
The involvement of major automakers in funding these startups suggests a ready path to scale if the technology is proven out.