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Battle of the batteries: VRLA vs. Li-ion

Published: January 22nd, 2019 By: Glenn Weir

Schneider Electric

Lithium-ion (“li-ion”) batteries aren’t new, but they’ve now become a viable option for UPS applications.

In the past, decision-makers were reluctant to move away from VRLA (valve-regulated lead acid) batteries to power their data centres. A key factor was cost. Until recently, li-ion batteries were considerably more expensive than VRLA.

The falling price of li-ion batteries isn’t the only reason that organizations are looking to change their UPS power solutions. VRLA batteries require a lot of space and keeping them cool burns significant resources. In the current environment, that’s pushing organizations to find a more efficient alternative.

Coming to prominence

For years, nickel-cadmium was the only suitable battery type for portable equipment. In the 1990s, nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion emerged. Although li-ion batteries have been used commercially for over 20 years in various applications, these rechargeable batteries are recently gaining traction owing to their energy capacity, safety and design flexibility. 

According to Global Market Insights, the li-ion battery global market size will exceed $60 billion by 2024. What’s more, given the faster-than-expected decline in battery prices, Bloomberg New Energy Finance anticipates that the global energy storage market will attract $620 billion in investment over the next 22 years.

Why li-ion … why now?
To the question of why li-ion came into prominence, there are several reasons, including the increasing availability of these batteries as well as their high energy density and longer discharge cycles. According to Global Market Insights:

Stringent government norms toward the disposal of lead coupled with growing demand for electronic devices will augment the lithium ion battery market. Rising demand for smartphones, activity trackers, laptops and smart watches from developing countries will positively stimulate the product penetration over the forecast timeline. (Source)

Decision-makers for data centers around the world go li-ion typically for three key reasons:

  • They’re smaller and lighter – li-ion batteries weigh less (60-80 per cent less) and have roughly half the footprint of their VRLA counterparts
  • They have a longer life span – traditional VRLA batteries last 5-7 years, which means they’ll have to be changed two or three times over a UPS system’s lifespan; li-ion batteries, on the other hand, run for the life of the UPS system – 10 to 15 years
  • They don’t call for ventilation – li-ion batteries don’t need to be ventilated or located in a segregated room; needing extra space means needing to spend more money.

Complimentary Schneider publication
The Schneider Electric publication “Battery Technology for Single Phase UPS Systems: VRLA vs. Li-ion” notes that li-ion battery prices have decreased over the years, and the batteries are becoming a viable option for UPS applications. The paper, which provides a brief overview of li-ion batteries in comparison to VRLA (valve-regulated lead-acid) for single-phase UPS applications, analyzing capital cost, operational cost, and total cost of ownership between both types, covers a wide range of topics, including:

  • Benefits and drawbacks of li-ion over VRLA
  • Properties and characteristics of li-ion, including lifetime, temperature, footprint, weight, monitoring, safety, and recyclability
  • Financial analysis – chemistries and technologies presenting a favorable TCO for li-ion over 10 years compared to VRLA batteries

It appears lithium-ion battery prices are going to continue to decrease as new chemistries and technologies are brought to market and improvements made to existing ones. With this backdrop and the analysis presented in this important publication, li-ion battery systems for single-phase UPS apps offer some interesting benefits — certainly some that warrant closer study.

Download “Battery Technology for Single Phase UPS Systems” now