Whether technology can save us from the climate crisis is an open question.

It seems relatively certain that improvements in technology will inevitably at least help reduce carbon emissions, or maybe even capture some of them from the atmosphere, but hoping for or anticipating a game-changer seems to require an enormous leap of faith. Still, one never knows.

A couple technology improvements have been in the news lately, starting with the Grist report that several automakers are claiming to be on the verge of a “million-mile” battery. This includes not just Tesla, but also General Motors and a battery manufacturer in China.

One of the lagging concerns people have about electric vehicles (EV’s) is that current warranties for batteries are in the range of 8 to 10 years or 100,00 miles as the time or distance a car can be driven before its battery degrades to 70 percent efficiency, thereby reducing the range for a car on a single charge, and bringing back “range anxiety” as a disincentive to buying an EV.

Interestingly, according to the Grist article citing actual experience, Tesla’s batteries already lose only 20 percent of their capacity after 200,000 miles, and the Nissan Leaf can go for 22 years without significant battery degradation.

In short, many of the batteries in EV’s currently on the road may outlast the cars they are put in.

So who needs a million-mile battery that will outlast their car? Some, such as taxi drivers and persons with long daily commutes might find comfort in a longer lasting battery. The Grist article posits several incarnations for such a long-lived battery, suggesting that it might spend the first 100,000 miles of its life in someone’s personal vehicle, be transplanted to a fleet vehicle for an additional 400,000 miles, and finally go to work as grid storage or backup power for its last 500,00 miles of capacity.

The article points to research showing that there is already a growing industry (even a pilot project right here at UC Davis) focused on collecting and repurposing EV batteries. In Europe this industry is storing 300 megawatts from repurposed EV batteries, up from only 18 megawatts just 4 years ago, and adding stability and reliability to the electrical grid.

Another advantage of a million-mile battery is that it means fewer replacement batteries will need to be manufactured. It’s not a trivial undertaking to make a battery; making fewer will save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

EVs require both lithium and cobalt, and there is not currently a very big supply of the latter. Cobalt is important because it has high energy density and is thermally stable, meaning it won’t overheat easily or catch fire. Some expect the world will run out of cobalt by 2030 while others are busy looking for more sources. Still others, including the EV community, are struggling to reduce cobalt use in vehicles and apparently having some success.

The EV industry is looking to change from a lithium-ion technology to a lithium-iron technology; with the difference being lithium-iron batteries don’t need cobalt. And cobalt is expensive, both in terms of dollars, but also for the environment, and the conditions miners face in digging it out of the earth.

Much as happened with the solar industry, with costs for panels plunging downwards to the point where solar now beats or meets the cost of electricity produced by existing coal plants, the costs for batteries is also on a steep decline. A portion of this is due to reducing the use of cobalt, a huge part of the cost of batteries, or, as appears imminent, switching over to lithium-iron which uses no cobalt at all.

The new cobalt free technology is said to lower cost, make it possible to get 400 miles or more on a single charge, and increase the life expectancy of EV batteries so that EV companies can up the current 8 to 10 year warranty to the magic number 100,000 miles guarantee that encouraged consumers to purchase gas powered cars.

Sometimes, the pace of change is breathtaking. We, or at least I, easily forget that it wasn’t long ago, 2007, when the iPhone was introduced, or 1990 when the World Wide Web (the Internet) was opened to the public. I started this column by evincing my own skepticism that technology, though it might help mitigate the climate crisis, was not likely to produce a game-changer that would really alter the arc we are on towards a potentially disastrous future.

Then I remember the changes that those two devices have brought to us, essentially reshaping our day-to-day lives, and the avalanche of other technology advances over an incredibly brief period, and a spark of hope lights a small flame of optimism.

After all, if we humans can build a battery that could power a vehicle for a distance equivalent to going to the moon and back, twice, perhaps anything is possible and I shouldn’t be such an Eeyore about the future.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis and driver of a Chevy Bolt. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month in the print version of the Enterprise. Please send comments to johnmottsmith@comcast.net.


Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on July 14, 2020 | PRINTED in the July 15, 2020 edition on page A2