Zenobe keeps Extreme E plugged in

Powering any kind of motorsports event is always energy-intensive, but with the help of partners Zenobe, Extreme E’s Ocean X Prix stayed powered up.

When it comes to the world of EVs and the batteries that power them, we often assume that once they’ve served their usefulness, there’s little to be done but discard them in as environmentally-friendly a way as possible. Zenobe has another idea, and it played an integral role in helping power Extreme E’s operations at Lac Rose, Senegal during the Ocean X Prix.

We spoke to Steven Meersman, one of Zenobe’s three Founding Directors, to understand its involvement with Extreme E as well as how EV batteries could have a second life of their own.

Zenobe & Extreme E – how it all began

Before partnering up with Extreme E, serving as its official energy storage supplier at the Ocean X Prix in Lac Rose, Senegal, Zenobe was producing an innovative way to power EVs. It all centred on using grid-scale batteries. In addition to providing these batteries, Zenobe has been helping electrify fleets of e-buses through e-mobility solutions.

At present, Zenobe holds over 200 e-buses in stock, 80 per cent of which are used in the UK, which it is responsible for recharging and maintaining. We are informed that Zenobe has 80MW of grid-scale storage up and running already, with a further 162MW being built up in operations in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands. Behind the scenes, Zenobe are also selling a form of EV battery technology which opens the door to them having a form of second life. It is clear from the offing that Zenobe is a business which means business when it comes to more sustainable solutions to electrification.

Zenobe’s involvement with Extreme E began in a somewhat unconventional circumstance: a flatshare. As Steven Meersman explains to us, “One of our team members actually shares a flat with one of the Extreme E team members, and they got introduced quite recently and were talking about what Extreme E’s trying to do, and about what we’re trying to do and realised there’s quite a bit overlap.”

This overlap boiled down to some core values: Extreme E was looking to make their racing events as sustainable as possible, recycling as much as they could, minimising their carbon footprint as they went. Zenobe chimed with this approach, already having a role in electrifying those fleets of vehicles including buses, while also possessing the means to add a ‘second life’ application to the batteries, allowing for reuse, once their use had seemingly come to an end.

What we are saying is, you’ve got all these technologies and we’re trying to put them together in new ways, push the boundaries and get more people to enjoy what we’ve got today.

– Steven Meersman, Founding Director of Zenobe

The two formed an easy partnership, with Zenobe’s role as official energy storage supplier announced in May this year, mere weeks before racers took to the coastal off-road racing environment of Lac Rose. Their responsibilities ranged from powering the racing paddocks for the drivers themselves to also keeping the broadcasting infrastructure in ample supplies of power, as it helped beam images thousands of miles across the world.

Zenobe’s operations were powered in Senegal using what Steven refers to as a power skid, a piece of kit adapted from existing battery technology as used in taxis and buses. The power skid has multiple possible uses: it can replace conventional generators for powering up operations, it can amplify local grid connections, or even smooth out solar power infrastructure, making it more fit for purpose during a working day. It can also be called upon to operate as a form of back-up power.

So far, prior to Ocean X Prix, Zenobe had only applied this power skid technology to construction sites and film sets. “It was actually quite exciting to get it travelling around the world”, Steven tells us. “The team at Extreme E has been doing their very best to make sure that they get to go to the very last mile.”

Giving generators a run for their money

Steven revealed that Zenobe was pleased overall with the performance of its power skid over in Senegal, but admitted that they had minor technical learnings to make from the experience. Lac Rose had an abundance of sun, dust and sand, as well as an atmosphere of salty sea air which all have an impact on hardware, even over the course of just a few days.

However, despite these technical learnings, Steven was assured that these issues were nothing the team on the ground couldn’t overcome. Steven adds: “Our initial estimates were that the amount of energy you would need would be equivalent to 1,500 litres of fuel, if you didn’t have this [power skid] system per four-day period.”

The power skid worked off existing reused battery technology, as Zenobe is able to produce two power skids from every electric bus they have at their disposal, and they are able to breathe new life into something seemingly past its usefulness. With a newly sourced electric battery, the environmental impact would have been larger, purely due to having to go through the effort of sourcing the materials to make this new battery, compared to simply reusing what they already had.

The nice thing is that it’s a repairable system… When one module fails you take it out, see if anything is recoverable and just slot in another one and keep going.

– Steven Meersman, Founding Director of Zenobe

To use a regular generator would have also proved costly, as it would have required the use of hydrocarbons to be shipped out alongside the generator. This creates obvious hazards – the fuel would have been flammable and would have needed to be kept in a cool environment, which wouldn’t have necessarily been easy. Using hydrocarbons such as petrol or diesel as fuel carried the possibility of potential fuel leakages, which could have allowed toxic chemicals to be released into the soil.

Avoiding the use of a conventional generator in favour of a power skid such as the one supplied by Zenobe had a major noticeable effect, according to Steven. “The exciting bit is, it’s not just the CO2, it’s also that, normally if you were running a generator, there are the fumes, the nitrous oxides…we’re seeing parts of the world such as the Netherlands where, in an urban environment, you’re not allowed to use generators anymore.”

While Senegal is seemingly far from legislating to put such requirements in place, the likes of Zenobe are leading the way, showing that powering a major motorsports event need not require a single drop of petrol or diesel to keep the paddocks powered or the broadcast operations running smoothly. Steven is of the view that countries such as the Netherlands are leading the way by placing restrictions on the use of hydrocarbon-powered generators, “giving generators a run for their money”, he adds.

A second life for car batteries

Batteries aren’t inherently living things, and yet we talk about them in terms of their ‘lifespan’ – how long they are of use until their internal components are degraded, or their ability to absorb energy simply no longer cuts it, in this fast-paced world of charging stations, EV forecourts and swappable batteries. By replacing petrol and diesel with electric batteries, one issue has seemingly been replaced by another.

The batteries have to be sourced from materials mined beneath the surface of the Earth. If batteries are only designed to last for so long before having to be disposed of, this risks creating a sizable carbon footprint as well as lasting impacts on our natural environment, in our quest to find more of the raw materials we need.

Zenobe has a solution which could break this chain of manufacture, consumption and disposal. Suppose there was a life after death for used EV batteries. Imagine if they could somehow be stripped down and transformed into new batteries, keeping the supply chain in a closed loop system, with no need for additional resources to make them work – an effective second life for EV batteries.

Delving into the nature of these second-life batteries, Steven explains, saying: “It’s like asking, what’s the life of an aircraft? An aircraft gets continuously repaired; they swap parts and they keep going, almost indefinitely. That’s the case here – if you look at the [battery] container or small box, there are components that can last 15 years quite easily.

“The batteries, as they are second-life, are quite dependent upon what they did in their first life…we’re resourcing most of the batteries from quite high intensity applications, so they might have been doing the equivalent of 150-200 miles per day for four to five years, and they’ve got less left in them.”

As a result of this, Zenobe is already riding a steep learning curve – some reused battery components might last just a couple of years at most, while others could have the reusable capacity to last up to five years. It really depends on how they were put to use in the first life. “The nice thing is that it’s a repairable system”, Steven concludes. “When one module fails you take it out, see if anything is recoverable and just slot in another one and keep going.”

Going round in circles

The concept of circular economies is a subject we have written about before, whereby businesses and economies as a whole learn to make do with the resources they already have. Europe has been especially keen to be at the forefront to this new economic model, with the European Commission first unveiling its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) in March 2020.

Steven is of the view that a closed loop hasn’t been achieved just yet, but that we are on the cusp of achieving it, likening the progression towards this model to some kind of river or watercourse. He explains: “If we look at where we are now…we’re at the waterfall or cascade, rather than a full closed loop. In a way, you can close the loop, or keep adding cascades to it, or make it like a gently curving circle, which at some point will close.”

I realise there’s still a long way to go – everybody talks about net-zero but that doesn’t do anything about the CO2 and the Nitrogen dioxide we’ve been putting into the atmosphere for the last 150 years.

– Steven Meersman, Founding Director of Zenobe

One thing Steven has observed is a rising number of manufacturers beginning to produce goods with a built-in ability to be disassembled and reused at will. “Rather than using glues to put things together, they use screws, so items are easier to dismantle. There’s also a lot of stuff on the design side as well: we are obviously further downstream as an integrator, but what we’re doing in our products, like the one we sent to the Ocean X Prix, is making sure it’s easily maintainable.

“That means we can extend the life and contribute our little bit to going from a linear system to something that’s slightly more curved. That is achievable; it will take time, or it will take thousands of tiny improvements moving the bottleneck every time until you’re suddenly at that one point…when you close the loop.”

A closed loop gives an impression of the old coming back around again, but Zenobe does have an outlook on the future outside this closed loop too. Steven comes back to the idea that Zenobe considers itself more downstream than most, so it isn’t in a position to say what direction EVs will take. There are plenty of pathways down which they could go, and all sorts of end points into which they could evolve. Massless batteries built into the fabric of the car, swappable battery tech or perhaps just a continuation of swapping in your EV to match the latest advances in battery capabilities.

Zenobe isn’t involved in the research and development which will shape whether we go down one specific pathway, but its work as an integrator offers a pathway of its own, taking what we already have and finding a way of making it come up new and reusable.

Steven adds: “You’ve got statements from John Kerry, saying 50 per cent of the technology we need to go zero-carbon still needs to be invented. I find that quite depressing and also wrong – in other cases, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

“What we are saying is, you’ve got all these technologies and we’re trying to put them together in new ways, push the boundaries and get more people to enjoy what we’ve got today.”

Steven is insistent that Zenobe is “massively optimistic” about the future, especially considering the constant stream of innovations which redefine the parameters of what is truly possible. “We’re also not complacent”, Steven continues. “I realise there’s still a long way to go – everybody talks about net-zero but that doesn’t do anything about the CO2 and the Nitrogen dioxide we’ve been putting into the atmosphere for the last 150 years.

“We need to go net-negative…I think that can be done while improving comfort and the financial side, all while hitting on the four mission points of Extreme E [Environment, Equality, Electrification and Entertainment].”

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