The Race For EV Battery Raw Materials
The Tesla Gigafactory under construction will need some serious battery raw materials

The Tesla Gigafactory under construction will need some serious battery raw materials

Occasionally I hear criticisms of the electric vehicle push that we are simply replacing one limited resource (oil) with another (lithium and other raw materials for EV batteries).

Yet knowledgeable people seem to indicate that the resource issue isn’t real and that plenty of materials exist to power the world over with batteries.

Now Bloomberg reports on Tesla’s efforts to lock up the raw materials it needs for its big battery push, with the potential for competition from international actors who also need batteries for their consumer products:

For its batteries, Tesla typically uses formulations including lithium, nickel, cobalt, and aluminum oxide. To find a steady and affordable supply of these materials—key to keeping the base price of the Model 3 at about $35,000—the company is recruiting staffers to scour the globe. It hired Rene LeBlanc, a former engineer at FMC Lithium, earlier this year. It’s also looking for a Tokyo-based supply-chain analyst willing to travel frequently to China and South Korea to work closely with suppliers.

Despite all the buzz about lithium, Musk reminded investors at Tesla’s May 31 shareholder meeting that the metal is “just the salt on the salad,” accounting for only about 2 percent of the material in Tesla cells. Yet it’s key to making batteries rechargeable, and even that small percentage doesn’t exempt Tesla from the laws of supply and demand. It’s competing for the metal with companies in Asia, where China, Japan, and Korea account for more than 85 percent of current lithium ion battery output, according to researcher CRU Group.

This race for resources will likely spur innovation, as Tesla is already trying to swap out more expensive cobalt for nickel, and battery innovation could change the chemical and metallic needs of future batteries.

But it’s an interesting dynamic to track, as it ultimately determines the price of the batteries, which determines the price of the vehicles, which determines their popularity to consumers, which determines how quickly we can transition away from oil and stabilize the planet’s climate in the process.

Nissan EVs Confirmed For 200-Mile Range…At Some Point
The 2016 Nissan LEAF

The 2016 Nissan LEAF

While Tesla and General Motors have already made public strides towards the seemingly magic 200-mile range electric vehicle for under $40,000, Nissan has been quiet.  The bug-like LEAF, the leading electric vehicle on the road, has been out for five years, yet has had no redesign and little improvement, other than the option to buy a slightly bigger battery pack to get 105-mile range.

Per Green Car Reports, now a Nissan engineer has finally come forward to confirm that the next generation LEAF will have a 60 kwh battery pack — enough to achieve a 200-mile plus range.  Of course there’s no timetable for when it will be released, but one would hope that it will happen by 2018.

While the delay is frustrating, in a few years there will be at least three EVs that can go 200 miles for less than $40,000: the Tesla Model 3, Chevy Bolt, and new Nissan.  By 2030, we could see a dramatically different market for these vehicles, with significant effects on gas consumption, as Forbes reports on a new Wood Mackenzie study:

The U.S. currently uses more than nine million barrels of gasoline a day. According to the report, if electric cars gain more than 35% market shares by 2035, the U.S. could see a cut from nine million to two million barrels used a day.

This outcome is hardly out of the question, and it underscores how critical electric vehicles are to our environmental future. If Nissan can get its 200-mile act together, it will be a major part of the solution.

Tesla & SolarCity: The Dream Of A 21st Century Monopoly
Let's play monopoly

Let’s play monopoly

As has been widely reported, Tesla is making moves to buy solar installer SolarCity.  The two companies have family relations, with Elon Musk’s cousins running SolarCity and with Musk serving as chairman of the board, in addition to his role running Tesla.

Does the deal make sense?  At a basic level, yes (although doubts persist about the short-term economics).  Tesla is already distributing its batteries through SolarCity, and many Tesla customers will be interested in solar, once their electricity bill goes up as they charge at home.  So there are obvious synergies: — Tesla can advertise for SolarCity in their showrooms for example, and SolarCity can promote Tesla vehicles and batteries.

But in the long term, Musk is aiming for a monopoly on a magnitude we’ve rarely if ever seen before, outside of the old company town.  Essentially, Tesla seeks to own your transportation and home energy, all in one corporate clean energy “ecosystem.”  It will become your utility, car company, and gas station, all in one — only without the emissions of our current system.

Musk is a friend and former business partner of Peter Thiel, the famed PayPal investor who preaches the virtues of such monopolies.  Thiel essentially argues that if you’re an entrepreneur starting a business that isn’t aimed at becoming a monopoly, you’re basically wasting your time.  Think Google and Amazon.

It’s hard to argue with the pure business logic of that approach (leaving aside the traditional arguments against monopolies).  And now Musk seems to be following through on that approach with this takeover effort — a monopoly pattern that already started with Tesla’s decision to own its own charging network, rather than let third party companies take over, and to bypass auto dealers in favor of direct sales.  At least from an environmental perspective, it would certainly herald a big win.

But will it work?  Not in the short term.  SolarCity will not be replacing electric utilities anytime soon.  And batteries plus solar will not allow most people to leave the grid entirely.  You simply can’t generate enough power or store it to cover most people’s needs throughout the year.  And many people don’t own their own homes or have their own rooftops to make this possible.

But two trends could change that dynamic.  First, technologies can improve, leading to more powerful solar panels and cheaper, bigger batteries.  New technologies, such as cheap fuel cells, could also provide the additional generation needed to fill the solar gaps during the nighttime and winter.  These developments could allow Tesla/SolarCity to become the ultimate monopoly it dreams of, particularly if it can operate at a neighborhood scale for those without dedicated rooftops.

Second, Tesla/SolarCity could buy up other companies to fill the gaps, such as energy efficiency companies and different renewable generators, like urban wind turbine manufacturers.

All in all, it’s a big gamble but with a very logical long-term goal.  In the short term, the co-marketing and co-distribution opportunities could cover the costs of the merger.  And in the long term, it has the outside chance of turning this country into the United States of Tesla, whether we like it or not.

Los Angeles Times Editorial Board Admits It Erred On Transit In 1968

The Los Angeles Times editorial board came out with a piece today that essentially supports L.A. Metro’s proposed new county sales tax measure [PDF] for transportation.  While the writers discuss the controversy over having a “no sunset” tax (as opposed to the 2008 Measure R’s 30-year sunset), they acknowledge that “[w]hether Metro ultimately goes to the ballot with a 40-year, 50-year or permanent sales tax hike, the fact is Los Angeles County needs a great public transit system, and it’s going to take money to make it happen.”

But then in a striking admission, they issue a mea culpa of sorts for coming out against the region’s 1968 transit plan:

Nearly 50 years ago, Los Angeles County voters rejected a half-cent sales tax proposal that would have built an 89-mile rail and bus network between downtown, Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley and Westwood, the San Gabriel Valley, and even a route to LAX. The Times Editorial Board at that time urged a no vote, saying “we are an automotive people, unlikely to change our habits.” Imagine if voters had said yes? How many hours of congestion might have been avoided? How much pollution might have been prevented? Now, five decades later, our habits will have to change, one way or another.

I described that plan a bit in my book Railtown, as well as the subsequent sales tax failures in 1974 and 1976.  The tragedy is that if any of those measures had succeeded, Los Angeles could have built the rail lines it has today much more cheaply and quickly.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the federal government was offering to pay 80 percent of the cost of new rail projects, with only a 20 percent state or local match required.  It was a great deal that many cities took advantage of, but Los Angeles missed the window with all these electoral defeats.  By the time local voters approved new rail lines in 1980, that federal offer dropped to 50 percent.

Meanwhile, it was cheaper and easier to build transit back in the 1970s, mainly because permitting was so much faster.  Environmental reviews were minimal, and cities didn’t have the leverage back then to extract costly concessions from the county transit agency.

So given the rail lines that the region has today, how much it has spent on them, and how long it has taken to build them, voting down those measures in the 1960s and 1970s was definitely a fiscal and environmental mistake.

Kudos to the Times for recognizing that error.

My Ride On The New Expo Line

Last week I finally got a chance to ride the new Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, and here are some takeaways:

  • Abundant free parking at the Culver City station.

    Abundant free parking at the Culver City station.

    Many stations have lots of free parking, with the sheriff’s office patrolling the lot I used in Culver City (see photo).  This is a bit of a shock coming from the Bay Area, where BART parking costs money each day.  So evidently demand is not that great, if Metro can afford to give this resource away for free.  Ultimately this land would be better used as office and housing rather than expensive parking stalls for car drivers.

  • Farmdale and the Westwood stops are basically pointless and should be closed down at least temporarily.  Farmdale was created by a legal settlement solely to slow the trains down.  Westwood is in a single-family residential neighborhood with what appears to be no hope for urban-style development.  Any buses down Westwood (a heavily traveled boulevard) could intersect with Expo at a neighboring stop instead, like at Sepulveda.
  • The Expo bike path didn’t seem to be heavily used.  I rode the line both mid-day and during the afternoon commute time, but the adjacent new bike path was only used by the occasional jogger, as far as I can tell.  I gather they’ll need to do a better job finishing the missing gaps in the bike lane, but in the meantime it seems like a huge opportunity for bike advocates to promote.  Notably I saw a lot of people with bikes on the train — more than I’ve noticed on Bay Area trains.
  • LA’s train culture and etiquette is still evolving.  It’s a different thing to get used to traveling on a train with others instead of driving solo.  At one point an elderly man with a walker tried to get on a jammed train, but nobody would scoot in towards the center of the car to let him on, despite another rider urging everyone to do so.  “Sorry,” the rider told the man loudly as the doors closed.  “Evidently this is a train full of A-holes.”
  • But on the positive side, I saw a number of friendly interactions, such as the elderly couple sparking a conversation with a pregnant mom and two friends who happened to bump into each other on the train platform.
  • The end-to-end travel time is worse than advertised.  It took me 53 minutes to get from Santa Monica to downtown LA, worse than the estimated 46 minutes.
  • New apartments by the downtown Santa Monica station.

    New apartments by the downtown Santa Monica station.

    Lots of good development happening in downtown Santa Monica.  I was pleased to see all the new apartment buildings going in right by the station (see photo).  Those will be some lucky residents, being able to stroll down to the train from their homes and get east quickly.

Overall, despite some of these negative observations, it was pretty thrilling to ride the line.  The views of neighborhoods I’d never seen before reminded me of how nice it can be to watch the world go by from an electric train, with a smooth ride and an opportunity to explore parts of the city you’d never see otherwise.  And it was great to parallel Interstate 10 in parts while the freeway was badly congested.

So there’s a lot to be excited about with the new lines, but definitely a lot of room for improvement, too.  It will be fun to watch the Expo Line, as a brand new, fully-built train route, settle in to the Westside.

EV Batteries So Far Not Degrading Too Quickly

When I mention buying an electric vehicle to people, one of their first questions is: “how long will the battery last?”  Followed by: “how much does it cost to replace it?”

It’s a tough series of questions because of the unknowns and the potential downside.  Generally we can say that most automakers will insure the battery for 8-10 years, while battery costs are coming down.

But when you tell people a new battery can cost tens of thousands dollars and that ‘we really don’t know’ how long they’ll last, it can be a quick turn-off for potential buyers (and may explain the popularity of EV leases).

01-2012-tesla-model-s-fd-1347336745EVs have now been on the road in sizeable numbers for about five years though, so we’re starting to get some good data.  And as Electrek reports, the news is pretty good, at least for Tesla batteries:

Data shows that the Model S’ battery pack generally only loses about 5% of its capacity within the first 50,000 miles and then the degradation significantly slows down with higher mileage. Plug-in America’s data shows several vehicles with over 100,000 miles driven and less than 8% degradation.

And anecdotally:

CEO Elon Musk once referred to a battery pack Tesla was testing in the lab. He said that the company had simulated over 500,000 miles on it and that it was still operating at over 80% of its original capacity.

This is all encouraging to hear, as that kind of degradation is relatively minor. And as noted, prices are coming down on batteries.  It’s unclear if Tesla’s success though will translate to other EVs, as each company is using different chemistries and technologies.  But the news on at least newer Nissans, for example, looks promising, too.

For some people it will take a lot more data like these to reassure them.  So it’s nice to get some early returns and to see that the initial reports are generally positive.  Otherwise, time will tell.

Why Electricity Markets Are Just Like Any Other Market

body-0-1376425473419Lots of people complain that the odd workings of electricity rates in the world of regulated monopolies would never happen in a real market.  But UC Berkeley colleague Severin Borenstein makes the case that you see features of electricity pricing in all sorts of competitive markets, from Amazon to cell phones to the local plumber.

But one electricity rate program stumped him for a real-world analogy, and it just so happens to be the most important distributed renewable policy in the state:

Net metering – (a customer delivering electricity to the grid is credited at the same rate they are charged when they take electricity from the grid):  

OK, on this one, I’m pretty stumped. Some colleagues and I spent part of a long car ride last week trying to think of a market in which a seller of a good buys units of that same good from small retail customers and pays them the retail price.  The closest we could come up with is a customer buying items from store A and then returning them to store B for full retail price by claiming they were bought at store B.   Hmmm…not a great model.

The best I could come up with is a quasi-barter system, like if (hypothetically) I grew some tomatoes at home and then went to my local farmers market to give them to a vendor. Then that vendor in turn let me pick out other fruits or vegetables she was selling that day for an equivalent amount of what I had given her.

In other words, I made or grew something at home and then exchanged it for in-store credit somewhere.  Just like I generate energy on my roof, use some on-site and then exchange the rest with the utility for free electricity at another time.

Either way, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise and potentially an indication of why that particular policy is so controversial.

An EV Solution For Long-Haul Trucking?

Battery electric transportation hasn’t seemed like a good fit for long-haul trucking.  After all, the batteries are expensive and usually of limited range, while goods can be heavy and require sometimes multi-state routes.  That’s why I’ve advocated for other clean fuel technologies like low-carbon biofuels and even hydrogen, if done right, for long-haul goods movement.

But maybe there is a solution for all-electric trucking: the tractor swap.  As Green Car Reports covers:

The proposed tractor-swapping model calls for a truck with a nearly-depleted battery to pull into a station, where a fully-charged tractor would be waiting to pick up its trailer.

In a way, it’s similar to the current procedure of the Formula E electric-car racing series, where drivers swap cars mid-race.

Of course, companies have already tried battery swap for passenger electric vehicles, but gotten resistance from automakers who don’t like the most expensive asset in the vehicle tossed around by a third party. But the tractor part of a trucking operation is separable from the container, so this model could gain traction (no pun intended), particularly for relatively shorter shipping routes, such as out of the highly polluted ports in California like in Long Beach.

All in all, another example of the kind of innovation that this technology may unleash.

Governor Brown’s “By-Right” Housing Proposal Down To The Wire

haste2.Kahn-Design-Associates.COURTESYGovernor Brown angered a lot of people in the local government and environmental communities when he proposed “by-right” state approval of multifamily housing consistent with existing local zoning in his last budget.  Negotiations are set to conclude tomorrow, based on the budget deal.

Carol Galante, a colleague at UC Berkeley, penned a recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee in support:

The state’s entitlement process has become unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome. The permitting process for new development in California coastal communities takes over 30 percent longer than in the average American city.Not surprisingly, this greatly increases the costs of development: in the Bay Area, each additional layer of independent review is associated with a 4 percent increase in a jurisdiction’s home prices.

Other states, like Massachusetts, have tackled the problem in a similar fashion to Brown’s, showing that it doesn’t need to be this way. California’s “by right” proposal would allow new attached housing – consistent with existing general plans and zoning rules, in urban infill locations with at least a portion dedicated for families at the lower end of the income scale – to be deemed good to go. This proposal would put an end to lengthy process hearings and stall tactics often employed by special interests or “NIMBY” opponents.

I’ve previously argued that this kind of approach is needed, but I remain concerned that the proposal could open the door to sprawl approvals.  As the Planning and Conservation League noted in their letter on the proposal:

The proposal’s site requirements allow benefits to be accessed by developments outside urbanized areas. Section 65913.3 (b) (3) requires the site to be adjacent to developed parcels, but says nothing about the characteristics of the surrounding area. Two lone houses in an otherwise-undeveloped area could meet the language’s standard. This would promote sprawl, which requires long-term maintenance of roads, highways and other infrastructure that neither the state nor local governments can afford.

The easiest solution would be to limit the by-right eligibility to projects in “transit priority areas” or areas within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop.  In addition, the projects could have a “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT) performance standard to ensure they actually encourage transit use.

Because while we need more housing in many parts of California, we don’t need more sprawl.  And that one possibility is an unfortunate aspect of an otherwise necessary approach to addressing the housing crisis in the state.

The Awkwardness Of EV Public Charging

Most of the time I charge my electric vehicle, I do so at home, like most EV drivers.  But every so often I venture far enough out where I need to charge publicly, and my experiences to date have not been great.

Recently I drove to San Jose and found a convenient charger on the street across from City Hall, looking like a newfangled parking meter.  It was a ChargePoint charger, from one of the most successful charging companies in the state.

My Nissan LEAF charging in front of San Jose City Hall

My Nissan LEAF charging in front of San Jose City Hall

Yet ChargePoint, like other private charging companies, requires a membership to use their chargers.  With a membership, I’d get a fob that I could swipe to unlock the charger and start charging.

Without a membership though, customers are forced to call a 1-800 number and place a special credit card order for one-time payments.

So that’s what I did.  Standing on the sidewalk on my phone on hold for five minutes, before going through a laborious five-minute process confirming details (station ID number, my email address, visa card, etc.).

In this age of credit car readers everywhere, for some reason EV charging has not caught up.  While I eventually did get a charge and in a convenient spot, there’s no reason to have that kind of transactional friction on something that should be so straightforward.

ChargePoint and other chargers should have credit card readers to make the process easy, and California should make that a requirement as part of all the public money they dole out to subsidize these machines.

One more idea to toss in the policy box to improve public charging in California.

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