December 14th, 2020 by The Beam
Originally published in The Beam.
Cassetex produces a solar-powered battery swapping service for electric 3-wheelers in Bangladesh. Out of 68 teams and 3,000 entrepreneurs pitching in total, the startup won the first prize in the ClimateLaunchpad annually organized by EIT Climate-KIC. As part of the competition, they went through a training and they then had the chance to receive help to develop their idea. The Beam spoke with Gopal Kumar Mohoto, co-founder and CTO of Cassetex, about the changes they hope to bring into the world of vehicles.
When and how did you realize that there is a need to revolutionize transportation?
Cassetex is a project born within our primary company, Advanced Dynamics. The founding team has been working together since 2018, mainly focused on sustainable mobility. At Advanced Dynamics we are building retrofitted solar electric vehicles and electric bicycles targeting countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, and other fast growing middle-income countries. We see that many of these places are being ignored in the global transport electrification strategy, while unfortunately their urban centers are struggling to cope with rising pollution levels and wasted energy. Our electric vehicle products aim to solve this problem.
One of our key concepts is to introduce regenerative vehicles, which consume less from the Earth in terms of energy and material, have their own energy harvesting system and are reusable over many generations. Transportation is the single-largest contributor to climate change and environmental pollution, but it is also the industry with the most readily available technology. This is the reason why we have chosen the transportation sector to be the focus of our work.
Our founders are all from Bangladesh, a country that has deployed more than 1 million electric 3-wheelers across small towns and cities across the country which can carry 6 to 8 passengers or up to 0.5 ton of cargo. Largely driven by low cost energy and irregular availability of common fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG) and petrol, these vehicles have flooded the public and commercial last-mile transport sector. It has played a critical role in the economic growth of many communities. This transition from fossil fuel to electric last-mile transport in a developing country such as Bangladesh is a shining example to the rest of the world.
However, this growth has also another side of the story. The huge amount of vehicles now running on electrical energy has placed a substantial burden on the national electrical grid infrastructure. There has been much research indicating the negative burden that this is having and it often leads to unjust and unplanned regulations on the vehicles themselves.
Our team, on the other hand, saw this as nothing but an infrastructure planning problem, rather than a societal or technology problem. And that was when we decided to build Cassetex, a solar powered battery swapping station. We offer pre-charged batteries, which vehicle operators can swap multiple times a day. By shifting the charging from 100% grid to 100% solar energy, we will significantly reduce the burden on the grid, whilst additionally providing several benefits to the vehicle owners.
How does the technology work?
At each Cassetex station – which we call ‘battery ATMs’ – there are a certain number of light-weight battery packs, about the size of a desktop projector. These battery packs, which we call ‘cassettes,’ are charged through solar panels only. Using our own algorithms and electronic hardware, we have identified an efficient way of charging them during daytime, while at the same time being readily available for use by the vehicle owners. When the cassettes in the vehicle are empty, the vehicle driver comes to the nearest station and exchanges it for a new set of cassettes.
These stations are optimally designed to use very minimal land. A single charging station requires only 27 square meters of solar panels (which can be placed on a building rooftop or an unused shop roof), and it can support 4 to 6 vehicles for the whole day, covering around 200 kilometers of range per vehicle. Solar energy technology is rapidly improving, together with the efficiency and optimization of our stations.
How does Cassetex make locals’ lives better?
The electric 3-wheelers are an essential component of small communities in Bangladesh. Cassetex is offering a cheap and sustainable way to recharge their vehicles, so that they can continue to rely on this mode of income generation without facing difficulties such as battery degradation, rising costs of energy and government regulations.
Another way in which we support the local community is the creation of small & medium energy entrepreneurs. Cassetex will require at least 60,000 stations across Bangladesh to support the transport network. We believe that these stations will eventually be owned and operated by local entrepreneurs as franchisees, which will create an additional income generating opportunity for them. It’s a win-win situation for all stakeholders involved, including the government, because growth and promotion of small and medium enterprises is a critical strategic target for Bangladesh.
How can Cassetex make the transport industry future-proof?
Cassetex contributes in multiple ways to making the transport sector more sustainable. These contributing factors include:
1) Reducing loss of energy: The current charging technology is inefficient and cannot be managed or monitored. We replace this with better charging systems which can also be monitored through IoT hardware from anywhere and by anyone. We provide this data to governmental agencies so that they can monitor consumption of energy and subsequently use it for transport planning.
2) Reduced recycling needs: Our system also ensures longer battery life by controlling the charging behavior. This reduces the impact of recycling harmful components in the battery more frequently. Current batteries require recycling every 10 to 12 months. We are pushing the requirement to at least every 6 to 8 years.
3) Transition from fossil-fuel to renewable: The biggest impact that our solution offers is that we are enabling a big part of the transport sector to stop using fossil fuels and move towards 100% renewable. While our target market already has no tailpipe emissions, we are also stopping emissions at the power plant level. By just covering 25% of the market, we can reduce 0.47 megatons of CO2 every year, which would have otherwise been emitted through use of coal, gas, and oil to produce the electricity. We will completely eliminate the long tailpipe debate through Cassetex.
How did you overcome the difficulties of working on such a brand new and unexplored concept within Bangladesh?
Our project has two critical components: the lightweight batteries and solar panels. Unfortunately, Bangladesh doesn’t produce these specific items locally yet, so we have to rely on foreign imports. The COVID-19 situation reduced our access to such materials and has slowed us down significantly. We hope for a future where local manufacturing improves and as a result setbacks such as these will be reduced.
The biggest challenge, however, is transitioning the end-user from a tried and tested technology to a completely new behavior. Our customers have been buying and using current battery technology for more than a decade now, so it requires provision of incentives and add-on benefits to entice them to shift their behavior. Since the Bangladesh government strongly supports off-grid solutions for all sectors, we are hopeful that such challenges will not be as prevalent in the future, as we grow and expand.
How did winning EIT Climate-KIC’s climate business ideas competition help you?
Building a country-wide network of 60,000 off-grid charging stations is a task practically unheard of, especially in Bangladesh. While we are confident of the technology, we still need public approval, especially when it comes to convincing local and international investors. Our main motivation to participate in EIT Climate-KIC competition was to validate our assumptions and to have these assumptions then evaluated by international experts. We wanted to learn from the people outside our network and outside our comfort zone. The run up to the global finals was nothing but a huge learning experience for our team. Every step, from national to regional to semi-finals was eye opening and each and every question from the jury members have helped shape this idea for us.
Winning the overall event took us by surprise. No team from Bangladesh has ever participated in this competition before, let alone reached the global grand finale and nailed it. It has given us the right amount of confidence to push this idea further, as well a huge credibility in the sector. Individuals have approached us from different walks of life inquiring about our solution. What it said to us was: ‘this is it, we have to carry this forward and make it a long-lasting reality’. We also had to congratulate our local ClimateLaunchpad mentors GenLab for successfully curating the national chapter and we hope that similar success stories will come out in the future as a result of their efforts.
Do you expect that your initiative will push any similar initiatives or political action?
We are also happy because now other climate business entrepreneurs from Bangladesh will have the courage to come forward with their bold ideas. There is a big pool of thriving problem-solvers waiting to be unleashed.
The Bangladesh government is very keen on promoting off-grid solutions and has already opened up scope for innovative charging solutions for transportation. We are also a country that has more than 4 million solar home systems installed, the largest in the world. The political motivation already exists to transition from fossil-fuel energy to renewable energy.
What we believe is that our initiative’s success will accelerate the private sector to become more involved in transitioning from fossil fuel to renewable energy. We need industries to re-think how they source power, we need domestic users to reorganize their residences to utilize renewable energy and we need the transport sector to start developing a strategy for using clean, regenerative and sustainable electric vehicles.
What are you going to do now and how do you want to expand your idea?
Cassetex has already started field trials of our solution within a controlled geography. We hope to go from 0 to 10 stations using our own funds and angel contributors. While our field trials are happening, we also plan to conduct a nation-wide market research to validate our data. Our participation in the EIT Climate-KIC accelerator program will also provide us with the necessary resources to build and shape this service. We are looking forward to meeting experts and investors to further strengthen our business case. By 2022, we hope to have at least 500 stations installed across Bangladesh.
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