Leading Electric Vehicle Battery Experts Gather In Detroit

Over the past two days, I attended the Battery Show conference outside of Detroit, Michigan, to hear what the leading entrepreneurs, researchers and automakers have to say about the state of electric vehicle batteries.  While I was there to speak on a panel about a new report on repurposing electric vehicle batteries, I picked up some interesting themes about the most important clean technology out there, the battery.  Here they are:

Carbon regulations & clean energy policies have been critical for pushing the battery market.  Speaker after speaker spoke about the growing global policies on carbon, from California to the US EPA rule on power plants to Japan and China’s new emphasis on reducing pollution.  Industry leaders estimate that the carbon regulations will result in a 4% per year rate of change in carbon emissions going forward. But the policies also include non-climate focused efforts, such as the new U.S. fuel economy standards.  From 1975 to 2011, CAFE standards required only a 1.3% improvement per year on average, but from 2012 to 2025 they will require a 4.5% per year improvement, greatly benefiting clean vehicle technologies like EVs.  And of course California’s leading policies on zero-emission vehicles and energy storage in general is providing a critical market foundation.  One speaker said “we wouldn’t be here today talking about these issues without California’s leadership.”

battery-show-1Lithium ion is still the most promising battery technology, with continued price reductions but no overnight breakthroughs.  Speaker after speaker praised lithium ion as still the best battery technology out there, given its high energy density and low weight.  Nobody foresees any other technology out there to rival it.  In terms of cost and advances, it’s clear that costs will continue to decline, although not precipitously.  By the end of this decade, most speakers believed Tesla will either achieve or come close to achieving the magic price/range of 200 miles per charge in a $35,000 EV.  Improving manufacturing supply chains and automation will help tremendously, as the Tesla Gigafactory will be able to do.

EV drivers want performance, not necessarily environmental benefits.  Marketing and survey data clearly show that buyers concerned about fuel economy and environmental performance do not make up a huge percentage of the market.  Instead, they want performance, style, and access to technology.  Tesla has hit this magic formula well, as they downplay the environmental benefits of going electric.  Perhaps Nissan should follow suit and rename the LEAF something less “green” sounding.  After all, when I tell people what I like about my electric car, I always start with the superior performance of the electric drive, and then I finish by touting the fuel savings (which are huge) and the environmental benefits.  I don’t do this strategically: it’s just the truth about what I’m most excited about with the car.

Repurposing batteries is a big open question, with lots of opportunities but lots of unknowns.  Since it was the subject of my report, I was keen to hear people’s take on this topic.  Many speakers who addressed the issue felt the potential is huge, noting the amount of energy storage available in electric vehicle batteries on the road today and in the near future.  But many felt that these batteries would have to compete with the cost of recycling the batteries, which could become much cheaper through automation.  And there are unknowns about how easy and cheap it will be to collect, verify, and stack the batteries for high-performance energy storage.  But given the size of the opportunity and the environmental need, I encourage policy makers and industry to start analyzing the opportunities as thoroughly as possible, as outlined in the report.

Overall, it was a well-run conference that attracted an impressive group of speakers and leaders in the field.  Cheap batteries will not only revolutionize transportation through electric vehicles, they will clean our grid when coupled with renewable resources.  The solar+storage combo may also change the utility world forever: after all, who needs a utility if you and your neighbors can generate and store your own clean power?  The disruption continues, while Michigan feels like a dream to me now.


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