I want an electric car but … what about the batteries? - Albuquerque Journal

I want an electric car but … what about the batteries?

Judith Polich/For the Journal

Most people understand we have to electrify transportation to get to net-zero emissions. Annually about 8 gigatons of emissions come from tailpipes. A gigaton is 2.2 trillion pounds. These numbers are hard to comprehend. About 29% of U.S. greenhouse emissions are from cars. While electric cars (EVs) are entirely emissions-free, according to the EPA Green Vehicle Guide, the average U.S. passenger gas vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. That is based on 11,500 annual miles at 22 miles per gallon.

But every time I write about EVs, someone mentions the downsides of EV battery technology, often questioning the need to electrify. It’s true there are issues with the current batteries. But we are making astronomical progress. And I regularly hear, “Won’t they catch fire?” There have been rare fires caused by batteries in Chevy Bolts and Teslas. Recently all Bolt batteries were recalled for repairs. But the numbers are very small. According to a study by AutoinsuranceEZ.com, about 1,529 gas vehicles per 100,000 catch fire but only 25 electric vehicles per 100,000 catch fire.

Then there are the environmental costs associated with batteries. The abusive labor practices in the Congo, where cobalt is extracted and processed, are widely documented. About 50% of the cost of most batteries is due to minerals — cobalt, nickel and lithium. The International Energy Agency estimates there will be about 200 million EVs globally by the end of the decade. Recycling will be both necessary and cost-effective. But we are not there yet, and governmental incentives may be necessary.

Most EVs now have 100,000-mile warranties on their batteries. Elon Musk has claimed the Model 3 battery could last for a million miles. Tesla ownership data suggests a 20% loss of capacity after 500,000 miles. You should not have to replace your battery often, but at some point, hundreds of thousands of EV batteries will accumulate in warehouses awaiting recycling or repurposing.

A writer for The Guardian, Oliver Balch, recently reported on some exciting innovations in greener EVs. For example, nanofiltration filtering in lithium mining is doubling yield and is safer for the environment. A new U.K. startup, Aceleron, is developing modular battery packs for key components, making it easier to disassemble for repairs, servicing and repurposing. Founder Carlton Cummins says, “If you can make a battery serviceable, it’s possible to extend its life by 10 years.” Connected Energy uses old EV batteries to make stationary power storage units. And new technology is being developed to melt down the core components of batteries for reuse. More efficient batteries are being developed including batteries that use far less cobalt. QuantumScape in conjunction with VW is developing a new lithium metal battery technology that will double the energy density with a safe, far less costly battery. When these new batteries get up to scale, the cost of EVs will drop substantially.

Experts suggest that in the future, batteries will be part of the “circular economy.” They will be reused and recycled. Wired magazine writers Gregory Barber and Aarian Marshall reported recyclers are racing to come up with efficient and planet-friendly ways to reduce a used battery to its most valuable parts and then remake them into something new. Among them are Redwood Materials, a Nevada company started by former Tesla executives, Europe’s Northvolt and Toronto-based LI-CYCLE. UC Davis researcher Alissa Kendall says “recycled materials could supply more than half of the cobalt, lithium and nickel in new batteries by 2040.”

Because EV battery packs cannot be disposed of in landfills, they will have to be recycled. Hans Eric Melin, founder of Circular Energy Storage, says “time will solve multiple problems. As more batteries die, the economics of scale will drive down costs.”

Dirk Spiers, who has a huge warehouse of used EV batteries in Oklahoma, is waiting it out. He says they will be viewed not as waste but as an opportunity. “If you build an economic model that works like a carrot, then it makes sense for the whole industry to work toward this goal,” he says.

EVs are the future, if we will have a viable future, that is. EVs and battery technologies are new. And, yes, there are still some wrinkles, but the time to consider converting to an EV, or least a hybrid, is now, and there are many exciting options.

Judith Polich is a New Mexico resident and climate change columnist. She can be reached at judith.polich@gmail.com

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