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The challenge of sustainably producing millions of EV batteries

Two research institutes at the University of California, Berkeley, today released a research brief about the global supply of batteries for electric vehicles. Many millions of batteries will be needed for EVs in the coming decades. Here’s the overarching question: How can the supply of those batteries meet that demand in a sustainable way?

UC, Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, and the Natural Resource Governance Institute highlighted critical areas of concern for industry and policymakers. There’s nothing in the report that will especially surprise EV aficionados. But the total of all the concerns shows that there’s a lot of work to be done.

EVs are more efficient, but batteries are a source of emissions

There’s no getting around it. The structure of the EV battery supply chain affects the life-cycle emissions of an electric car. The researchers claim that emissions related to the manufacturing of an EV battery are roughly equivalent to the emissions from making the entire rest of the vehicle.

As the researchers indicate, EVs start out with a big advantage over internal combustion:

Estimates place EV life cycle emissions at approximately 50% fewer greenhouse gases per kilometer traveled than internal combustion engines, ranging from 25-28% lower in jurisdictions in which electricity supplies are fossil fuel-reliant, up to 72-85% lower in areas with high renewable energy penetration.

It’s harder to pinpoint the role of batteries in the total life cycle emissions of an EV, including on-road usage. The best estimates are about 5 to 15%.

A battery produced in regions using coal-fired electricity has significantly higher emissions than one produced using cleaner power

Differences in battery materials and production techniques make a difference. And so does the energy mix where the battery is produced. How far battery materials are shipped from mines to refineries to manufacturing facilities adds to batteries’ life cycle emissions.

But there are other ways to make batteries more sustainable, mostly through battery recycling, smarter charging, and secondary use. For example, deploying used EV batteries for stationary energy storage expands the ability to integrate renewable energy sources for the grid. Clean up the grid, and batteries get cleaner.

Some experts anticipate a 50% reduction in the life cycle emissions of an average EV by 2030. By one estimate of a fully renewable future grid, EVs could eventually produce at least 90% fewer life cycle greenhouse gases than ICE vehicles.

Changes in battery chemistry create uncertainty

The EV industry will have an exponential need for more lithium, cobalt, and graphite. Car companies are already making progress in reducing the use of cobalt. But how soon that happens, and the mix of materials over time, could mean supply-chain bottlenecks. These charts from the UC report provide a snapshot of the situation in 2018. The full brief has more numbers.

The researchers take a broad view of sustainability to include the effects of political conflicts and corruption. The Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than half of global cobalt production currently originates, is a trouble spot.

The researchers call for industry actors, governments, researchers, and civil society to address human-rights issues. More broadly, there is a need for greater coordination and data sharing across the entire supply chain.

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Avatar for Bradley Berman Bradley Berman

Bradley writes about electric cars, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and other tech that’s transforming society. He contributes to The New York Times, SAE International, Via magazine, Popular Mechanics, MIT Technology Review, and others.