It’s the time of year for annual retrospectives. On the energy front, the electric vehicle (EV) was at the top of obsessions for 2022. Claims of an “inevitable” and “accelerating” proliferation of “zero emissions” EVs emboldened policymakers around the world to enact legislation to outright ban cars with internal combustion engines. California, the state with the most cars in America, passed a law banning conventional car sales by 2035, bringing to 12 the number of states with such a ban. The year also saw the European Union make “legislative headway” for a similar EU-wide ban. All told, nearly 60 countries have announced similar bans. All this because of excitement over the emergence of useful EVs. Maybe 2022 should be called the Year of The Ban.
To calibrate, 2022 will end with some 15 million EVs in use. This total excludes the “plug-in” hybrid that still uses the to-be-banned engine. That puts EVs at about 1% of all light-duty vehicles on the roads of the world and America, which means of course that 99% still use internal combustion engines. However, with EVs at 5% of new U.S. car sales, advocates of an “accelerating energy transition” point to California where that share hit 18% in 2022. Enthusiasts claim that technological inevitability, consumer excitement, plus subsidies, will soon lead to a world with 300 to 500 million EVs. If that were to happen, EVs would account for 20% to 30% of all cars, which would reduce global oil use by less than 10% and would have an even smaller reduction in global CO2 emissions, the latter the animating purpose of car bans. Still the subsidies and planned bans cannot be ignored.
Thus, as a foil for exploring the state-of-the-EV, we’ve chosen a recent Wall Street Journal column, “Should You Buy An EV Now?” by Dan Neil, that paper’s resident, and deliciously talented automotive columnist. As it happens, he chose to test drive an EV for nearly half of all his weekly columns in 2022, telling his readers that he knows “electric cars are going to take over the world” not because he’s promoting them but because he’s “merely a vessel conveying what automotive chief executives are telling me.”
Below, we score Mr. Neil answers (shown in italics) to the baker’s dozen questions (also in italics) he selected as typifying feedback from readers and “EV doubters.” In his answers to those 13 questions Mr. Neil makes 30 specific claims, of which, spoiler alert, we score only 14 as correct or at least reasonably accurate.
- Why do I want an electric vehicle?
Remember flip phones, fax machines and dial-up modems? You want an electric vehicle because they are generationally improved products: quieter, quicker, more refined, more efficient, offering superior vehicle dynamics, less maintenance, and lower per-mile operating costs.
Promoters of a “new energy economy,” not just Mr. Neil, often analogize energy tech progress with what we’ve seen in computer/communications tech. But this favored analogy is nonsensical in the real-world of the energy-physics of moving people and cargo versus moving data. If battery chemistry, for example, followed the arc of computing’s progress, we would soon power a car for its lifetime on single charge of a peanut-sized battery, or power a jumbo jet across the Atlantic with just one battery the size of a cereal box. Only in comic books does energy tech advance at the pace of information tech (a.k.a. Moore’s Law). The analogy is worse than wrong, it’s backwards: building an EV instead of a conventional car entails a 400% to 7,000% greater use of mined minerals to produce the same vehicle-mile. The technology around EVs will get better of course, but incrementally and not at anything resembling a Moore’s Law rate.
We won’t see the performance—acceleration, range, charge rate—of today’s expensive EVs quickly become the norm for cheaper ones. While $80,000-plus EVs are blazingly quick off the line, so too are comparably priced conventional cars; less expensive cars of both varieties, the ones that most people buy, have more tepid acceleration. As for lower EV maintenance, while that’s a kind of received wisdom in the green press, the truth is debatable and being thrashed out in the automotive press where road tests often find only slightly lower overall costs, in part because of the remarkable reliability and efficiency of the “generationally improved” nature of conventional cars. Notably, this year’s annual survey from Consumer Reports finds that of the 11 EV models with enough on-road real-world data, seven rate below average on reliability. Similarly, earlier this year a UK survey of EV owners found that during the first several years of ownership there was a nearly 50% saw a higher rate of problems compared to conventional cars. Reliability improvements will come to future EVs, but they’re not here yet for most drivers. As the CR chief for auto testing said: “Consumers tell us reliability is one of the most important factors when buying a car.” The costs of low reliability invariably show up somewhere in the overall economics.
For the millions of American commuters able to charge at home, overnight, EVs will be cheaper and more convenient. For them, recharging could take seconds a week, the time it takes to plug in before you go in the house at night. For them per-mile costs will be measured in pennies, not quarters.
It’s true, provided we’re not talking about the “take over the world” (TOTW) thesis. For consumers with a garage and that can afford two or three cars—90% of EV owners in the U.S. are in multi-car households—an EV can be a winner for convenience and fuel costs. Caveats are in order. The latter is true when using the low-cost overnight refill rate, especially given the subsidies for home charging combined with the implicit subsidies for EV drivers avoiding road taxes added to gasoline prices. Lawmakers will eventually get around to road taxes for EV owners
In one survey, four out of five new-car buyers can charge at home.
That data show that only one-third of Americans have a personal garage. Thus, for the TOTW thesis in America, and similarly Europe, most refueling will be at filling stations, or where possible at work or at parking garages. (The garage ratios are far lower elsewhere.)
You want one because EVs are better for the environment. According to the U.S. EPA, the average EV produces about two-thirds fewer emissions than an IC car in a well-to-wheel analysis, which counts emissions from producing/delivering either fuel or electricity. On a life-cycle basis—including end of use—an EV’s total emissions are less than half that of a comparable gas-powered vehicle.
EVs impact the environment differently and, in overall terms, most will have a greater impact. Even if “the environment” means solely counting CO2 emissions, claims of dramatic reductions are disputable, a subject we address shortly. But environmental impacts in general include land, water, and chemical usage, as well as ecosystem disruptions, all of which are greater for EVs than for conventional vehicles because of the mining required to build batteries and electrical subsystems. One typical EV battery weighs in at 1,000 pounds and entails the mining and processing, on average, of 500,000 pounds of the earth. As the IEA and others have documented, fabricating (not operating, but building) an EV entails a 300% to 400% increase in the quantities of minerals that must be mined and refined: e.g., copper, aluminum, nickel, and of course lithium, manganese, neodymium, etc. And, as a recent study showed, over half of all the locations where new mining will be needed are located in indigenous lands that are often ecologically fragile.
You want one because the preponderance of the auto industry’s genius is laser-focused on making EVs progressively more awesome . . .
Yes, there’s fierce competition, which redounds to the consumer’s benefit. About three dozen models of EVs are now available for U.S. buyers compared to just the one when Tesla’s Model S was introduced a decade ago. The jury is out on when or if automakers can, without subsidies, ever make a profit on everyday EVs, including Tesla that, by virtue of first to market, sells (so far) to other automakers some $2 billion of regulatory emissions credits each year. (These are of course phantom, not operating profits.) GM’s CEO recently admitted they lose money manufacturing EVs and are counting on both subsidies and future lower batteries costs to stem losses.
. . . while combustion technology is about as good as it will ever get. If you say it’s good enough, I have a question for you: What are you smoking?
The technical literature is packed with examples of radically superior combustion engine technology. Engines with efficiency twice that of today’s average have been demonstrated and in some cases deployed in non-automotive applications. Some new designs even have as few moving parts as an electric motor. There is greater improvement possible in underlying combustion technology than for electric motors or batteries. And deploying superior combustion technology can occur more rapidly because there’s no collateral requirement for new supply chain infrastructures.
- What’s wrong with internal combustion?
Besides tailpipe poisons, costlier service and maintenance and our geopolitical adversaries’ manipulation of the price of oil?
EVs have tailpipes elsewhere. The above-noted massive increase in minerals needed to build EVs (compared to conventional cars) requires huge hydrocarbon-burning machines and chemical refineries with big “tailpipes,” along with the tailpipe from producing electricity to charge batteries. For decades yet, over half of global electricity will come from burning hydrocarbons (regardless of subsidies or mandates) and, for now, global coal use is soaring. On geopolitics: Far fewer countries control “energy minerals” than oil supplies, with China utterly dominant in the former. Does one think that energy minerals markets will be free of adversarial manipulations, or that Europe and the U.S. will quickly expand domestic mining and refining?
Three words: continuously variable transmission. The dreaded CVT is emblematic of the throttling necessary to get the next generation of ICs past global markets’ emission standards. Compared to EVs’ few moving parts, the complexity of modern gas-powered vehicles terrifies me: ten-speed transmissions; variable geometry turbochargers; high-pressure injectors; …
EVs aren’t simpler, they have differently located complexities. The IC car’s thermo-mechanical system has an engine and automatic transmission made from hundreds of components (the continuously variable transmission is a smaller, simpler, more efficient option), and a very simple fuel system, a tank holding a liquid with a one-moving-part pump. The EV’s electro-chemical systems uses a very simple motor made from just a few parts, but the battery is made from hundreds of parts, sometimes thousands, including a cooling system, sensors, and control electronics.
…high-voltage hybrid systems relying on dozens of sensors and fistfuls of CPUs. Ten years from now, what condition will these smoke-making spaceships be in? Who will fix them, code them?
EVs use more microcontrollers and far more power electronics than either hybrids or IC vehicles, in the latter case about 200% more. Notably, problems with software/coding tops the list of quality control issues for EVs.
- I do want an EV, but shouldn’t I wait?
I estimate two out of three reader inquiries reflect this eager-but-skeptical mind-set, from people postponing purchase of an EV for reasons of cost, practicality or a lack of desirable models. The biggest barrier to widespread adoption is not charging but affordability: Legacy auto makers have so far priced EVs like premium upgrades to existing products. Example: The Volvo XC40 Recharge ($53,550 MSRP) is about $6,000 more than a fully loaded XC40 B5. The rationale is that the bump in price reflects the high cost of batteries and premium content.
So far, EVs are all about luxury cars costing over $50,000. Consider Mr. Neil’s elastic use of “reasonable” in framing the new $62,990 battery-electric Cadillac Lyric as “conspicuously reasonable for such an automobile.” For the TOTW thesis, far lower costs will be essential for widespread adoption. Over 90% of all new cars sold globally are not in the luxury category where we find nearly all EVs. You won’t find an EV in America in the lowest new-car price category, $16,000 to $20,000, where there are ten models of conventional cars
That dynamic stands to swing the other way as the average cost of building EVs falls below that of comparable ICs due to the plummeting cost of batteries. Some analysts have pegged this industry inflection point (around $100 per kilowatt-hour) as soon as 2024. I actually expect a bit of a price war in mid-decade, as EVs from China and South Korea recalibrate the U.S. market’s affordability.
In recent years the cost of the half-ton batteries has been decreasing only slowly, not “plummeting,” and is now rising. The problem is that about 70% of the cost to fabricate an EV battery comes from buying the basic minerals, and those prices are rising. Again, for the TOTW thesis, claims that batteries will become inevitably cheaper are now determined by what happens in the global mining industry which will soon face unprecedented demand increases. There is no evidence of plans to increase mining sufficiently anywhere close to demands imagined. There is a price war coming, one that will drive up those mineral costs as the ballooning coterie of new battery factories come online and compete for limited mineral supplies.
- Are the batteries ready?
Barely. The best commercial batteries today store less than 300 Wh per kg, a pitiful fraction of gasoline’s energy density. These little guys cost a fortune, weigh a ton and they use a lot of unsustainable materials, such as cobalt. Energy density—the kWh per kg, not how fast you can go on a charge but how far—remains the biggest challenge. You can toot around in an unburdened Ford F-150 Lightning for 200 miles between charges, easy. But hook a boat and trailer to it, and the pickup’s range falls off the proverbial cliff. In frigid temperatures an EV’s estimated range might fall on the order of 30-40%. When plugged in overnight, EVs’ batteries are kept warm, but they do not like a cold soak.
True on all counts. There are no batteries available, or likely to be available for quite some time, that can deliver even 10% of oil’s energy density of 14,000 Wh/kg, never mind the temperature challenge. EV advocates point to the efficiency advantage of the electric drive train, but it doesn’t come close to closing the 5,000% gap in energy density of petroleum vs lithium chemicals.
- What if I want a Tesla?
Pull the trigger. The cars are awesome. Thanks to the company’s ever-growing network of fast-charging stations you can go where you like and live where you like. It certainly helps that long-range Teslas can go more than 300 miles between charges and recuperate 162 miles in 15 minutes. In a word, practical.
The EV transition so far has been mainly a Tesla story. Only recently have other automakers started to catch up. In 2022 Tesla captured two-thirds of all U.S. EV sales. In Europe, Tesla’s Model Y was the #1 model sold in 2022 and it’s still the overall #3 EV brand, barely edged out by BMW and Mercedes. Even in China’s unique market, Tesla is one of the three top luxury EV brands, though its 7% overall EV market share is a distant third to dominant BYD’s 30%.
- What if I don’t want a Tesla?
I get that. After all, Tesla makes only four body styles. But you are giving up the Supercharger safety net.
True. Tesla remains the market leader with some 7,000 superchargers at about 1,500 locations, relevant for any EV user looking to take a road-trip. That’s the realities and costs of “fast” charging are critical (discussed later) wherein EV fast is 30+ minutes for a full charge vs 3 to 5 minutes for a gasoline fill-up.
- Do the batteries pose a fire hazard?
It’s not zero, but the possibility of your EV’s battery catching fire as the result of a collision is remote, comparable to the risk in an IC-powered car. The other spooky possibility is a “cascading thermal event,” as battery engineers call it, in use or while recharging. The Chevy Bolt case is a recent example. Comparisons are not perfect: Battery fires have been typically traced to a manufacturing defect, for which a recall or even do-not-drive order is sent out en masse. Fires involving IC-powered vehicles are stochastic and situational.
True as well, but with a couple of caveats. Lithium fires are devilishly hard to extinguish; firefighters are understandably nervous. And battery fires are also “stochastic and situational,” but manufacturing flaws are more difficult for a consumer or technician to notice or identify than with an IC-powered vehicle. Also, emergency workers require special training and care when effecting rescues or using the “jaws of life” that might cut through lethal 800V power lines.
- Will I ever have to replace the battery?
Highly unlikely. In California, EV and hybrid batteries must be warrantied for 10 years or 150,000 miles (the federal standard is eight years and 100,000 miles). In the field, the first generation of EV batteries has lived longer and worked harder than most were expecting. Tesla and others are aiming for the million-mile battery.
Also true. A well-built automotive battery will last the life of the vehicle. However, since the battery is the most expensive single part of the vehicle, at least double the cost of an IC engine, insurance costs are higher.
- Are EVs better for the environment?
In terms of one’s personal carbon footprint, don’t kid yourself: The best kind of car is no car. That said, EV lifetime emissions pencil out to be about half of their average IC counterparts, according to a U.S. EPA analysis. While EVs are more carbon-intensive to make, due to mining and battery manufacture, they quickly recoup the difference in use, where they are two-thirds cleaner, well to wheel.
This question is of course the nub of the matter. But it’s not about overall environmental impacts per se, nor the astonishing quantities of minerals needed to build EVs. It’s all about claims that EVs lead to radical CO2 emissions reductions, the truth about which is in fact hard to know or predict. The emissions from electricity actually used requires assumptions about when and geographically where an EV is charged since the sources can range from all wind/solar to all coal. Using a regional or national average (a common approach for calculations) is meaningless. Analyses based on local grids and actual behaviors show EVs in some places and some times can cut CO2 emissions in half, but in other places/times there can be an emissions increase. Mr. Neil gets credit for noting that “EVs are more carbon-intensive to make,” but it’s not true they “quickly recoup the difference.” It takes a long time and could even be never. A study from Volkswagen found the EV doesn’t recoup its CO2 emissions debt until 70,000 miles of driving, and then by 100,000 miles the net reduction is about 15%. VW’s estimates are based on using a small EV battery and low-end assumptions about the known range of upstream mining emissions. Bigger batteries and different mines have bigger CO2 emissions. And, as the IEA and others have noted, the nature of mining means that future emissions will be higher.
While Mr. Neil’s comment that “no car” is the “best car” may appear flippant, it’s notable that the IEA and others propose that “behavioral changes” will be needed, even legislated to explicitly reduce access to, the use of, and the ownership of personal automobiles.
- Do EVs help fight climate change?
They are only as clean as the power sources that charge them. That’s to our collective advantage. At the national level, the U.S. has been steadily decarbonizing its electrical generation over some decades. Currently about 25% of U.S. production comes from renewable, carbon-neutral sources—solar, wind, water—according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. At the current pace, renewables will provide 38% of the nation’s energy by 2030.
Mr. Neil’s data are correct, even if the answer doesn’t address the question posed. Some caveats. About two-thirds of that “decarbonization” came from the shale gas boom displacing coal. Those two fuels together supply 60% of U.S. electricity. The politically favored solar/wind supply just 12% of electricity. (Hydro and burning wood dominate the rest of the renewable count.) Subsidies and mandates will likely double the solar/wind share by 2030 but that still leaves about half of electricity coming from hydrocarbons. (There’s no prospect for the 20% share from nuclear energy increasing by 2030, in fact it may decrease).
On a nationwide basis, the U.S. doesn’t have a generation problem but a distribution problem, due to aging grid infrastructure. The Energy Department estimates the U.S. squandered 14 terawatts of clean power in 2021, left unused in interconnection “queues.”
The popularized “aging grid” claim is far from true. Overall utility grid spending has risen over 70% in the past decade alone, much of that to accommodate remote wind installations as well as for modernization. But the U.S. will have a generation problem if a significant share of cars shifts from oil to the grid. Roughly speaking, electrifying all of America’s would require about 50% more generation than exists or is planned. As for the “squandered 14 terawatts [sic] of clean power,” that represented less than 0.4% of U.S. electricity consumption. (We assume the figure is 14 terawatt-hours, i.e., a typo, since 14 terawatts of capacity is 70x greater than all existing wind and solar combined.)
In California, where renewables are a big part of generating capacity, the average EV produces about 2,261 pounds of emissions every year; in West Virginia, where utilities rely heavily on coal, the same EV produces 9,146 pounds. Not great, but still less than the average gas-powered car (11,400 pounds).
Again, the nub of the matter is in accurately guessing real-world CO 2 emissions. Ignored in this answer are the mining and refining processes needed to fabricate the EV battery which adds 25,000 to 50,000 pounds of CO2 emissions (somewhere else in the world). Pro rate those emissions over an EV’s 10-year life and that adds a hidden 2,500 to 5,000 pounds per year. Thus, the CA EV emissions are more like 5,000 to 7,000 pounds per year, and the coal-state EV about 12,000 to 14,000 pounds per year. This compares to 10,500 pounds per year for an average conventional according to 2022 EPA emissions data.
For many, the most tantalizing EV talking point is home solar recharging, typically using a bank of batteries to store the sun’s energy. This is as close to zero per-mile emissions you can get. Tesla has a home energy ecosystem built around photovoltaic roof tiles and its Powerwall storage unit. Other auto makers are following.
It’s not zero emissions; still elsewhere emissions. The home battery is the same technology as the car battery and thus add the earlier noted emissions from battery fabrication. Add to that, upstream carbon emissions from fabricating solar panels: Over 80% of all solar modules are produced in China on its grid that’s two-thirds fueled by coal. To use the trite phrase, there’s no free lunch when it comes to CO2, never mind that the home-solar-EV option will only be “tantalizing” for the wealthy.
- What about plug-in hybrids?
I’m not a fan, except in Ferraris. Designed to operate for short distances in EV mode and then, as necessary, engage the gas engine, PHEVs were intended to be transitional products, literally bridging the distance between gas and electric range.
PHEVs were designed as a model option for consumers seeking fuel-efficiency wherein the trend-creating Toyota Prius was introduced in 1997, well before the era of climate pursuits. Toyota may be alone in the automotive world pointing out the truth that about the fact that ten PHEVs can be built using the materials needed to make one EV. For the TOTW thesis, the PHEV is a better path for energy efficiency.
In practice, PHEVs often serve power and performance, not efficiency. Some PHEVs can’t go 10 miles on electrons alone.
True, PHEVs have limited battery ranges, typically 10 to 50 miles. And automakers do tout performance for luxury PHEVs—for EVs too. Count Mr. Neil amongst the coterie of auto enthusiasts who love the thrill of “falling-elevator” electric acceleration, highlight blistering 0-to-60 mph performance from luxury EVs including the “seamless, soft-singing surge of scarcely endurable thrust” from the Tesla’s Ludicrous Mode.
The other issue is psychological. Studies show that PHEV users don’t plug them in very often, or at all. This negates the public good for which PHEV tax credits were awarded. Meanwhile, PHEVs have the same maintenance needs as conventional IC cars.
True, but again caveats are relevant. Other surveys find most EV owners drive about half the average mileage, thus also radically undermining the putative “public good” from subsidies. Similarly, yet other surveys find subsidies benefit mainly the wealthy who are the primary buyers of EVs, but are paid for by the middle class. Since two-thirds of EVs on America’s roads are Teslas, we note surveys that show the average Tesla owner “is a 54 year old white man making over $140,000 with no children.”
12. So is now a good time to buy an EV?
Not really, no. Consumer demand—nationally and globally—has run well ahead of auto makers’ plans, leaving them scrambling to add capacity. Example: Ford more than doubled production targets for F-150 Lightning pickups at Dearborn’s Rouge Electric Vehicle Center since the facility came online earlier this year. The company closed out reservations last year after the list hit 200,000. The shortage of inventory is multicausal—chips, Covid, shipping and logistics. These have coincided with the macroeconomics of EV disruption, what marketers call the “gooseneck of demand.” The consequence has been rising prices, including tacked-on “market adjustments” from sharp-elbowed dealers. My advice: Don’t pay them.
We’re on the same page, but again with caveats. Chip shortages and supply chains kinks are already resolving, but just wait for the “gooseneck of demand” for battery minerals. An International Monetary Fund economic analysis predicts energy transition policies will cause metal prices to reach historical peaks and remain there “for an unprecedented, sustained period of roughly a decade.” That will raise the costs to build batteries, solar and wind machines and also raise the cost to build everything else from appliances, to houses, vehicles, and electronics.
13. Bonus question: Is the current network of charging stations adequate?
Anyone considering buying an EV will first want to know where to charge it. For most—about 80% of buyers in the U.S. in 2021—the answer is at home, typically overnight, or at a workplace garage. Anyone charging at home should use EV-rated equipment, professionally installed.
Same page, but again only one-third of Americans have a personal garage. For the TOTW thesis, that means the Biden Administration is correct in that far more on-road fast-chargers will be needed for EVs.
For those without such access—renters, city dwellers, students—going electric is not simply a question of where to charge, but for how long and at what cost? Anyone running those numbers is likely to come up with Tesla, which has 35,000 Superchargers worldwide. But outside of Tesla’s orbit, the state of fast charging is woefully inadequate—a mixed bag of 6,000 stations, with varying standards and charging speeds. The big reset comes with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021, which provides $7.5 billion for EV charging infrastructure, most of it channeled through state DOTs. These initiatives include funding for Alternative Fuel Corridors, including most interstate highways, with DC direct charging stations spaced every 50 miles or so and within a mile of the highway, terrain allowing. The goal is 500,000 charging stations nationwide by 2030, about a fivefold increase.
The $7.5 billion isn’t close to a “big reset.” It may be sufficient to pay for about 200,000 fast-chargers. But, for the TOTW goal, something like five million fast chargers will be needed to match the functional utility of the roughly one million gasoline pumps in America today (at over 145,000 stations). On average 5 chargers will be needed to match the same convenience as one gasoline pump because a fast-charger takes at least 5 times longer for a fill-up (30 to 40 minutes vs 3 to 5 minutes). Not counted in these challenging economics are costs to upgrade electric grids when thousands of filling station each have the power demand of a steel mill instead of a convenience store.
The other speed check on the road to electrification is the rate at which a vehicle can be safely recharged. Most EV systems use a 400V architecture, including Tesla. Others, including Hyundai and BMW, are transitioning to 800V battery systems—nominally two times quicker to recharge. Plugged up to the right charger, some EVs on the market today can gain 150 miles of range in 10 minutes.
Correct, again with caveats: Extraordinarily expensive ultra-high-voltage systems will be essential for high-speed charging, and will also entail dramatic increases in total copper usage (necessary for those power levels). Also, as electrical power levels rise, the diameter and weight of the charger’s copper cable increases and can approach impractical limits and quickly violate OSHA’s 50-pound one-person limit. (A gasoline hose and fitting weighs under 10 pounds.)
As for the oft-quoted fear of used batteries gathering in landfills, that isn’t happening. Out of necessity, auto makers are building closed-loop, whole-vehicle recycling systems to recover valuable materials such as nickel, cobalt, copper and aluminum.
The waste isn’t a challenge yet because very few EVs are 10 years old. The unique character, extreme variety and volume of EV batteries presents recycling challenges with only speculative costs so far. A Volkswagen-led consortium was launched in 2022 to study the challenges for a so-called closed-loop system, not to build them yet. The jury is out on what gets built at scale and how much it will cost. At least one expert, the CEO of nonprofit Call2Recycle said, “Recycling [EV batteries] is not going to be profitable for everybody. That’s fantasy economics.”
Some are trying to make them from more common, less expensive materials. The biggest battery-maker in the world, China’s CATL, now makes lithium manganese iron phosphate batteries with energy density up 255 Wh/kg, comparable to nickel-cobalt chemistries while being on the order of 20% cheaper.
Chemists have developed many variations in lithium formulations to circumvent higher costs of specific minerals, or to achieve different safety or charge-rate characteristics. None result in radical gains in performance nor any dramatic reductions in overall cost. The iron-phosphate class of lithium chemistry has inherently lower energy density (i.e., less range) and uses more lithium. Regardless of chemical formulation, there is no solution for the fact that EVs, overall, use at least 300% more copper than conventional cars, and a similar increase in aluminum, the latter for light-weighting to offset the 10x fuel-weight penalty a battery imposes compared to gasoline. Data on global mining shows that industries are not producing today, nor even close to planning to invest enough to meet the demand for copper and aluminum that will come from EVs. In the commodities world that translates into higher prices.
Before wrapping up, we should acknowledge Mr. Neil’s lucid, concise observation in his December 10 review, of yet another EV, wherein he observes that because of “the current limitations of battery technology—high cost, high mass and low energy density, relative to gasoline—some vehicle types are easier to electrify than others.” That “some” will, for quite a while yet, constitute a minor share of the global vehicle market.
Nonetheless, regardless of whether the car bans ultimately survive, there are going to be many more EVs in the future not least because the electric drive option is appealing and because there are still a lot of wealthy buyers who will yet convert. But, in no small irony, it will likely be compliance with ESG (environmental, social, governance) metrics that will prevent sufficient growth in energy minerals long before EVs come close to taking over of the world.