Blog - About GWL

Dependence on China is dangerous, say the founders of the Czech manufacturer of European battery storage AMVOLT

Dependence on China is dangerous, say the founders of the Czech manufacturer of European battery storage AMVOLT

27.Jul 2023
| Blog - About GWL

With his company i4wifi, Michal Klečka was one of the first distributors of hardware for microwave wireless connections in the early days of the Internet, which were unwaveringly dominated by the iconic grunt of modems from the then giant Český Telecom. He successfully sold i4wifi in 2017, but since 2009 the second business chapter, GWL, has been growing under his hands. It is currently the largest European distributor of LiFePO4 battery cells with a turnover of around half a billion CZK and a stable supply of around 15 MWh of batteries in its own warehouse in Prague. 

After university studies in the United States, Pavel Podruh worked on innovations at Plzeňský Prazdroj a.s. After five years, he left the corporate environment and founded his own successful boutique communication agency. The Czech self-sufficient house project was started from the saved capital. Through a large student architectural and technological competition, he made it to the realization of a unique island (off-grid) building open to the public, sharing his know-how for free. The Czech self-sufficient house has collected numerous awards here and abroad, and it was precisely there that the two gentlemen met. 

 

Now together in the Czech Republic they are building a European manufacturer of complete battery storage AMVOLT.energy .

 

Gentlemen what is AMVOLT?

MK: In 2009, we started distributing lithium iron phosphate (LFP or LiFePO4) battery cells in Europe, and it turned out to be the right strategic choice. Our company, GWL, has helped thousands of customers around the world build secure battery storage over the past 14 years. With each such installation, we ourselves in the team gradually acquired relatively unique European technical know-how and, above all, experience-proven technical know-how. We always have quite a large number of individual battery cells in stock, and it simply made sense to use this unique competitive advantage in another way - to start assembling our own complete battery storages from them, which we call AMVOLT.

PP:AMVOLT is a Czech technology company, developer and manufacturer of European modular battery storage. At the moment, we most often supply customers with multiples of our AMVOLT 50 kWh LV Modules, we usually implement battery storage from 50 kWh to approx. 300 kWh, which we install indoors or in a container version. Typically, these are manufacturing companies, apartment buildings, agricultural buildings, company headquarters. Of course, our customers are also the installation companies of photovoltaic power plants themselves, who need batteries and are looking for a reliable European alternative to Asian products. We are also finalizing the development of smaller AMVOLT storages for households and, conversely, huge industrial BESS containers from 300 kWh to 1 MWh capacity. For now, we operate exclusively on the Czech market, but we are intensively preparing to enter abroad with a quite interesting.

 

Together you are the founders of AMVOLT, how did your cooperation actually come about?

MK: My former partner in the company once sent me a link to the website of the Czech self-sufficient house project as an inspiration. I was interested, I wrote to the above email, and the next week Pavel was already sitting in our meeting and enthusiastically telling me about the whole project. In addition, Pavel understood from the beginning why not to go the route of commercial non-European components and why to bet on stacked storage, the technical know-how of which was created and will remain "at home". The year was 2016.

PP: That's right, without Michal and GWL, the Czech Self-sufficient House probably wouldn't exist. Seven years ago, at the beginning of the preparations for our house, I had this secret wish: that the uncompromising concept of this project could bring together interesting people and maybe even create some unspecified innovation. I just tried to create the right environment for it and let it bubble up. It actually happened in the end, the Czech Self-sufficient House became a laboratory and one of the results is precisely AMVOLT. For me personally, it is simply a logical continuation of what Michal and his team developed at GWL, and I, in turn, with our team at the Czech Self-sufficient House. Joining the forces of like-minded people was just natural.

 

How are AMVOLT storages different from those normally offered?

MK:It might be better to start from the other side - which AMVOLT is not. The vast majority of complete battery storages available on the European market today do not come from Europe. Let's be honest, they are mostly from China. These products are designed as a so-called black-box, they are unrepairable, closed. Neither the importer nor the end customer of such a device has production documentation, a description of the internal logic or documentation for certification available. In principle, the Chinese manufacturer does not count on the fact that the storage could ever return to him - it is not composed of standardized components and is practically non-recyclable. In black-boxes, individual battery cells cannot be replaced, as they are laser-welded together, neither the electronics that monitor and manage these cells (the so-called BMS), nor the power disconnecting and securing elements can be replaced. The importer and customer of the device does not even have documentation for the software that controls this battery internally. Therefore, no one knows for one hundred percent how such a battery storage will behave at what moment, where it may send data, if it is connected to the Internet via a similarly designed black-box inverter, and when it is possible to remotely change its function or even turn it off without that's what the user wanted. Everyone can guess the consequences of such a shutdown themselves, so I won't scare you here.

PP:AMVOLT was actually created as a positive technical reaction to everything that Michal says. We are trying to create a local counterbalance to the flood of closed boxes from the other side of the planet. The selection of individual components of our storage facilities is strategically and exclusively oriented towards European suppliers. AMVOLT storages are designed open, so the individual battery cells are replaceable, they are not laser welded together, our own BMS can also be replaced or repaired, we only use standardized components with a high probability of availability of spare parts at any time in the future. Our storage facilities are fully repairable, so we really want to extend the life cycle of all our devices as much as possible. In addition to each storage, each customer also receives complete technical documentation from us so that they can keep the device in operation even without our participation. therefore, we intentionally delete the classic vendor lock-in. We keep the data where the customer wants: a priori always in Europe or, for example, only and only with the customer himself, if he wants. By making AMVOLT storages easily disassembled down to the level of individual battery cells, we prepare them for efficient and inexpensive recycling.

The only remaining non-European element is the LFP cells themselves, which we are still unable to find in Europe in sufficient quality and quantity. We're working on that too, but we'll probably save that for another time. AMVOLT's goal is truly all-European products for modern energy and renewable resources.

 

It seems that you have quite hit on the current geopolitical and business situation.

PP:It seems so. Russia has shown us again that dependence on one strategic supplier simply does not work in the long term and it is necessary to always diversify risks. At the same time, in Europe we currently still produce almost 40 percent of electricity by burning non-renewable sources, and that simply does not make sense to that extent. This is also why Europe committed to a plan to transition to producing 90% of electricity from renewable sources by 2035. Although I personally think that such a plan is essentially unrealistic, renewable sources will increase very intensively even without it. And such a system cannot do without a really huge, decentralized amount of electricity accumulation points. However, flooding Europe with closed Chinese battery products in pursuit of the Green Deal and thus creating further strategic dependence on one uncertain partner does not sound wise to me. Fortunately, Europe is beginning to realize these connections and is setting ever stronger systemic restrictions on strategic imports from China, while at the same time introducing huge support for the return of local production to the EU. The goal of AMVOLT is the effort to increase the energy security and self-sufficiency of Europe, our home. Every single more sustainably designed European product increasing the share of electricity production from renewable sources.

 

Are there actually other manufacturers of complete battery storage in Europe?

MK:Seemingly yes, but not really. For example, we recently went to see one large container battery storage, which is plastered with the logos of famous European electronics manufacturers with a century-old history. So it looks like a European product from the outside. But when you go inside, you will still see hundreds of battery black boxes and electronics from an unnamed Asian supplier. In case of any banal malfunction of the battery box, it is necessary to remove it and buy a new one. It cannot be repaired, so it is discarded. Every year, service technicians from Asia have to physically arrive and replace dozens, in the best case, units of these boxes. How will this repository work if one day they can't come or their production stops? The famous Battery Box from ČEZ is designed in exactly the same way, i.e. a packaging from Europe with a nice design and logo,

Europe has a 15-year technological debt in the field of battery storage. It is not capable of producing good, cheap and functional battery cells, and therefore not even complete battery storages composed of them. We are now completely dependent on Asia, they can do it there. Coincidentally, at the GWL company, we have been building the competence of real production of complete battery storage since 2009, and now we can apply it in the form of AMVOLT. We are still looking for other similar companies around Europe, but they are more like needles in a haystack.

 

What are the most common uses of AMVOLT storage?

PP:Our first product launched on the market is the AMVOLT 50kWh LV Module, which we install in the Czech Republic with our own assembly team most often as a subcontract to PV installation companies for implementations with a range of 50–300 kWh. We are also gradually forming a network of these partner installation companies, with which we are able to provide a complete service to end customers, i.e. not only the storage itself, but also everything around it. At the same time, we often supplement existing PV installations with AMVOLT 50kWh LV Modules. The most common use of AMVOLT 50kWh LV Modules is combination with PV, back-up, community energy, optimization of operations, e.g. peak-shaving, load-shifting, but also flexibility aggregation. We are happy that our selected installation uses the first official Czech flexibility aggregator, Nano Green, to tune its advanced algorithm for spot trading. This is an example of cooperation.

 

Can you tell the readers more about the LiFePO4 (LFP) battery cells you use?

MK: LiFePO4 lithium cell manufacturing technology was discovered by John Goodenough from a research group at the University of Texas in 1996. At GWL, we were lucky, and since 2007, when this technology appeared in commercial series production, we have been importing and testing these batteries . Sixteen years of experience with a gradually dominating technology is something few people in Europe have.

LFP cells have several unique advantages and only one disadvantage. This is a lower energy density compared to other Li-ion chemistries. Although even this disadvantage is gradually disappearing as further development and improvement of materials and production technology takes place. Even five years ago, the use of LFP cells in personal electromobility was out of the question. Today, all car manufacturers, led by Tesla and Ford, are switching to this chemistry en masse. That means something.

The advantage is clearly safety. LFP cells cannot extensively burn and explode as many of us have seen on YouTube with batteries from scooters, e-bikes, first generation electric cars or consumer electronics. Even when protections fail, they behave very "morally" and do not cause any damage to health or property around them.

They also have the lowest – about half – precious lithium content of NMC, NCA and other Li-ion chemistries. They do not contain any or only negligible amounts of rare and toxic metals such as cobalt, manganese, nickel and magnesium.

Apart from a small amount of lithium (about 4%), the main component of LFP cells is only iron and phosphate, which are easily and easily available recyclable elements and compounds worldwide.

As with complete battery storage, it is also true for LiFePO4 battery cells themselves that more than 93% of the world's production comes from China. This is also something we want to help change, as Pavel already indicated.

 

Closing the product life cycle is a big topic now. How does AMVOLT deal with recycling?

PP: Let's be realistic, of course we know that batteries and even solar panels are not some kind of ecological ideal, but certainly a lot better than the excavators in the mines and the burning of coal in the furnaces. We now have a partner in the Czech Republic who has just completed a recycling line for LFP cells that we distribute and use in all AMVOLT storage facilities. We have another partner in Switzerland. However, the real life of LFP battery cells in a well-designed storage is many tens of years and many thousands of cycles. In 15 years, we have returned units of cells out of ten-thousands sold to us for recycling, so we really don't put too much of a burden on recycling partners.

The idea that someone will need to recycle battery storage in 20 years and not know how to deal with is wrong in my opinion. Development is moving forward quickly. Even a 30-year-old, worn-out AMVOLT storage with a capacity of, for example, 50% of its original state will still be very useful. It can be further and cheaply kept functional by replacing individual cells, BMS or inverters and can be used elsewhere for something else. Even if the owner decides to disassemble and recycle the storage, thanks to the structural openness, he will be able to do so very easily. Of course, this does not apply to the described black-boxes, where recycling is really almost impossible due to the nature of their construction.

How big is your team at AMVOLT and GWL now and what are your plans for the future?

MK: You will laugh, but until recently we had 3.5 full-time employees at the AMVOLT head office - namely Petr, Vašek, Pepa and a "piece" of Petra. In this micro team, of course, with myself and Pavle, AMVOLT managed in the past, in its first year of existence, to manufacture and install a complete storage unit worth CZK 14 million. Last year, AMVOLT's financial result was negative zero, even after taking into account development costs. Hats off to the team, I admire their passion, motivation, team spirit and humility. It seems that we all share a certain sense of usefulness and that is a powerful engine.

This year it will be a significantly different song, both in terms of personnel and the volume of installations. We are intensively looking for new, passionate people. We are looking for PLC specialists, electrical designers, project managers, actually anyone who is interested in higher energy security and self-sufficiency in Europe. Managers and technicians.

Otherwise, AMVOLT is lucky and grows from the safe and stable environment of the whole GWL, where there are now almost 60 great people who take care of new product scouting, import, testing, projection, building a sales network, providing customer support and many other activities. Only ten of them are needed to physically store the megawatt-hours of cells and ship them to customers. We have four warehouses, together normally 10-15 MWh of energy "in the house".

PP:AMVOLT will have more hands and heads, we want to continue to install our storage in the Czech Republic ourselves and we are really intensively strengthening the team on all fronts, as Michal said. The demand and volume of realizations of the mentioned AMVOLT 50kWh LV Modules is increasing a lot. In the meantime, we are completing the development of small domestic storage and, on the opposite side of the scale, large high-voltage BESS storage in the order of MWh. However, we are also preparing for expansion abroad, where, on the other hand, we do not want to have hands and production. We don't want to build another factory, we don't want to centrally manufacture storage and send them around Europe. We are preparing a way to effectively hand over and monetize design and production instructions for individual types of AMVOLT storage to manufacturers across Europe and the world and thus localize their production from available components. In Spain they are made by Spaniards, in Belgium by Belgians and so on. It is such a franchise approach, which is very unusual for the battery storage segment. We'll see, we're entering unknown territory and we're sure to have a lot of lessons to learn. Perhaps it would be appropriate to add at the end that we finance all the development and operation of AMVOLT from our own resources, programmatically without any subsidies and support from the public budgets of the EU or the Czech Republic. We will certainly continue to do so.

 

This article was originally published on https://oenergetice.cz

 

 

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