clouds on horizon for electric vehicle batteries Herald and News,
commentary by Llewellyn King April
The move to renewable energy sources
and electrified transportation constitutes a megatrend, a
global seismic shift in energy production, storage and
But there are dark clouds forming,
clouds reminiscent of another time.
The United States has handed over the
supply chain for this future to offshore suppliers of the
critical materials used in the workhorse of the megatrend,
the lithium-ion battery. These include lithium from South
America and Australia; cobalt, primarily from the Democratic
Republic of the Congo; nickel, copper, phosphate and
manganese from countries where relations could sour
overnight. Nickel from Russia, for example, is off the
market because of the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
An additional concern is the role of
China in processing these materials, many of which end up in
Chinese-made batteries. Australian mines produce just under
half of the global lithium supply, but most of that is
exported directly to China for processing.
Another concern is that many mines
producing critical materials have been bought by the
Chinese. The Chinese role in the global supply of essential
commodities is ubiquitous. Whether these come from Africa,
South America or elsewhere in Asia, China has a presence.
As attendees of a virtual press
briefing, which I organized and hosted last month for the
United States Energy Association, heard, the relentless
growth in demand for the lithium-ion battery has put the
supply chain under severe pressure. Lithium-ion batteries
owe their huge demand to their light weight. At present,
there is no alternative in transportation that offers the
portability of these batteries.
But when it comes to utility storage
of electricity, where weight is not an impediment, quite a
few technologies are in the wings. One, iron flow, is held
up only by domestic supply chain issues, according to Eric
Dresselhuys, president of ESS Inc., a leading supplier of
long-duration energy storage. This technology has additional
advantages, because the drawdown time is longer than the two
to four hours for a lithium-ion battery. The drawdown is
eight to 10 hours, and all the components are sourced
domestically, according to Dresselhuys.
Another storage technology is the old
standby for starting cars: the lead-acid battery. John Howes,
president of Redland Energy Group, points out that for
stationary uses, lead-acid has many advantages, high among
them is that there is a complete recycling regime in place —
something in its infancy with lithium-ion. Obviously, there
are weight issues with lead-acid batteries and iron
batteries, but these aren’t at issue in storage for utility
operations — vital for wind and solar generation.
During the height of the energy crisis
in the 1970s, I once asked the chairman of Gulf Oil over
dinner if the oil industry had ever consulted with the
automobile industry on expected future demand for gasoline.
His answer: “No.”
Out of curiosity, I pursued the
subject and asked automobile manufacturers if they had ever
questioned oil companies about whether there would be enough
fuel for their cars. Detroit’s answer: “No.”
Both parties went along expecting the
other would be there, playing their complementary roles: Oil
companies producing enough product to meet the demand of an
ever-growing population of internal combustion engines.
These parties, with everything at
stake, relied on the unseen hand of the market to provide
for the other in a synchronized symbiosis. With a few tough
spots, that had worked since the early days of the
It all came crashing down when a third
and unexpected force upset the market: the Arab oil embargo.
That not only produced immediate dislocation in supply and
demand, but it also pointed up underlying resource concerns.
The demand for lithium-ion batteries
is likely to keep up. In a recent study, McKinsey & Co.
predicts stress, but it is hopeful that new lithium mining
techniques may help alleviate the possible shortage.
McKinsey sees a huge increase in
demand during this decade, without allowing for
disagreements between nations, and disruptions stemming from
The assumption has been that there
would be enough production of lithium-ion batteries to
shoulder the responsibility. Now comes a reckoning, also
triggered by a political action like the Arab oil embargo.
There was no real substitute for oil,
but there are many better technologies and cutting-edge
companies working hard at finding alternative batteries.
That will take time.
In the short term, your EV may cost
more than it should, and it may be hard to get hold of one.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White
House Chronicle” on PBS.
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