Jayesh Vir: SAFT battery systems
Over the last couple of years French specialist company SAFT has supplied battery systems for a number of hybrids, including, notably, the 'Sir David Attenborough' research ship, CalMac’s ro-ro ferries and even megayachts “where you can’t ask for a couple of centimetres more space without ending the discussion” Jayesh Vir told 'MJ'.
But it’s taken a huge amount of work – some of it aimed at educating the industry.
“For example, people often ask ‘what’s so different about putting batteries in vessels? After all, the automotive sector has already done it’,” said Mr Vir.
This common misconception has a knock on effect: “Most of my final customers use hybrid vessels and they compare the battery price with the automotive industry. But when an automotive manufacturer sells a hybrid or electric system, he’s selling the whole car... and there are a lot of ways to make the money back.” By contrast, a marine installation may be larger but it’s often a series of just one, and it’s a lot more complex “but still there’s a tendency to want to pay the ‘Toyota’ rather than the ‘BMW’ price for it” he added.
When Mr Vir took up his role with the French battery giant in 2014, he was aware that the company, while a leader in most fields, was a relative newcomer into marine, and frankly, that was an eye opener. “We were trying to get our foot in the door, and found that we couldn’t just say, ‘we are the best’ and expect the customers to line up. We had to go and find solutions for, say, a ferry company on a fixed budget whose main problem is the strict emissions limit.” That’s quite a way from the hybrid car market, telecoms or the space race (Saft has installed nearly two megawatt-hours in total on satellites and spacecraft like the Philae Comet Lander).
One of the biggest issues was the company found itself up against “low cost battery suppliers who sometimes made big, impossible claims”. His response is “simply to be transparent and try to educate the customer about what is technically achievable – and what is not”.
He’s clear it’s about more than getting people to choose SAFT, but to make an appropriate decision “otherwise three years down the line they find the cut-price battery life is more than half gone and the guy they bought it from is no longer in business”. He added the future of the marine energy storage industry rests on getting this right.
He’s winning. “The most satisfying thing has been market feedback: people have started thinking ‘a bit more expensive up front... cheaper in the long run’ and more and more customers are willing to work with us.
Certainly, the company’s century-long history helps: “If you can say ‘you can count on us, we will be here in 10 years,’ now they start listening.”
By Stevie Knight
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