The tough calculus of emissions and the future of EVs – TechCrunch

The hard calculus of emissions and the future EVs. From materials and batteries to manufacturing and even the carbon cost of EVs, this is only the beginning.
Politicians and investors who believe in an all-electric future for cars are optimistic that this path will reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It's not clear.

Research is showing that widespread replacement of traditional cars with electric vehicles would likely have very little impact on global carbon emissions. It is possible that this outcome could lead to an increase in emissions.

It is not about the emission from producing electricity. It is what we don't know about the process that occurs before an EV can be delivered to a customer. This includes the embodied emission from the complex supply chains used to obtain and process the materials required to make the EV.

Every product has embodied emissions. These emissions are hidden upstream during production, regardless of whether it's a hamburger, a home, or a phone battery. For a 2011 study by France's High Climate Council, you can see the implications at the macro-level. This analysis revealed that France's claim to have achieved a decline in carbon dioxide emissions is bogus. After counting the embodied carbon dioxide emissions from the country's imports, the actual emission levels had increased by 70%.

It can be difficult to quantify embodied emissions accurately, and EVs present more complexities and uncertainties. Although an EV is self-evidently emission free while driving, around 80% of its lifetime emissions are due to the combination of the embodied energies used in manufacturing the battery and the electricity required to power it. The rest comes from the manufacturing of non-fuel parts. This ratio is reversed for conventional cars, where approximately 80% of the lifecycle emissions are directly caused by fuel burning while driving and the remainder comes from the embodied energies to manufacture gasoline and make the car.

Practically every aspect of conventional car's fuel-cycle is well-understood, narrowly bounded and closely regulated. EVs are different.

One review of fifty academic studies showed that estimates of embodied CO2 emissions for the fabrication of a single EV batteries ranged from as low as eight tons up to as high at 20 tons. A technical analysis recently found that the range was between four and 14 tons. The range at the high end is almost as much carbon dioxide as produced by the fuel used by an efficient car. This is before the EV has been delivered to a customer, and driven for its first mile.

The uncertainties come from inherentand likely unresolvablevariabilities in both the quantity and type of energy used in the battery fuel cycle with factors that depend on geography and process choices, many often proprietary. An analysis of the embodied power shows that a range of two to six barrels (in energy-equivalent terms), is required to make a battery capable of storing the energy equivalent of one gallon gasoline. Any calculation of the embodied emissions of an EV battery is based on many assumptions. It is impossible to predict the future EV carbon dioxide mileage.

Climate-tech funds 2021 are expected to surpass record 2020 climate-tech investment levels. Three firms, BlackRock, General Atlantic, and TPG announced new cleantech funds of $4 to $5 billion. This is in response to the need to pay more attention to carbon dioxide emissions from EVs and other technological panaceas to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We will soon see that the results of this attention might not be as expected.

Data (on) mining

For any vehicle, the goal is to reduce fuel consumption by as much as possible. This will allow for cargo and passengers to travel comfortably. As revolutionary and Nobel-prize worthy, lithium batteries still rank second in the metric that measures merit for untethered machines' energy density.

The lithium-class chemical's inherent energy density (i.e. not a battery, but the raw chemical) can theoretically be as high as 700 watt-hours/kg (Wh/kg). Although it is five times greater than that of lead-acid battery chemical chemistry, it still represents a fraction of the 12,000 Wh/kg found in petroleum.

An EV battery is approximately 1,000 pounds in weight to achieve the same driving distance as 60 gallons of gasoline. The difference in weight between an electric motor and a gasoline motor is not enough to close the gap. Typically, the former weighs around 200 pounds more than the latter.

Manufacturers can offset some of the battery's weight penalty by making the rest of the EV lighter using more aluminum and carbon-fiber. These materials require a lot more energy to make than steel, at a cost of between 300% and 600% per pound. A half-ton of aluminum, which is common in many EVs adds six tons of carbon dioxide to the non-battery embodied CO2 emissions. This factor is often overlooked by most analysis. The emissions accounting becomes complicated when you add all the elements needed to make the battery.

Many combinations of elements are possible in lithium battery chemistries. There are many options available to you. These choices can be made in order to meet your battery's performance criteria: safety, density and charge rate. The embodied energy associated to the key battery chemicals can vary up to 600% depending on which formulation is chosen.

The key components of the popular nickel-cobalt formula are listed below. A 1,000-pound EV battery typically contains 30 pounds lithium, 60 pounds cobalt, 130lbs of nickel, 190lbs of graphite and 90lbs of copper. The balance of the weight is made up of steel, aluminum and plastic.

The ore grade is the percentage of the rock that contains each target minerals. This determines the uncertainty in the embodied energies. Depending on the mineral and the mine, ore grades can vary from a few percent up to as low as 0.1 percent. Today's averages show that the amount of ore required to mine an EV battery requires 10 tons of lithium brines; 30 tons to get 60 pounds worth of cobalt; 5 tonnes to get 130 pounds of nickel; 6 tones for the 90 pounds copper; and approximately one ton for the 190 pounds graphite.

Next, you must add to the tonnage the overburden. This is the amount of earth first removed to reach the mineral-bearing ore. Typically, it takes between three and seven tons to excavate one ton. To make a half-ton EV batteries, you will need to move 250 tons of earth. Then, approximately 50 tons of ore are taken to be processed and transported to separate the desired minerals.

The location of a mine can also impact embodied energy. This is something that is theoretically possible today, but it is impossible to predict the future. Remote mining sites require more trucking and rely on more off-grid electricity. Diesel generators are common. Today, nearly 40% of industrial energy consumption is accounted for by the mineral sector. Asia's coal-dominated electric grids are responsible for nearly half of the world's batteries and key chemicals. While there are hopes for more factories in Europe or North America, all forecasts predict that Asia will continue to dominate this supply chain for a very long time.

The large variability in power grids and battery voltages

The embodied carbon debt in the batteries is often overlooked by most analyses of EV emissions. This factor is often, and simplistically, given a single value to account for the variations arising from EVs being used on different electric grids.

An ICCT analysis is usefully illustrative. The ICCT used a fixed carbon debt to calculate a battery's carbon footprint. It then looked at how that carbon footprint changes depending on where it is driven in Europe. The results showed that EVs can have a lower life cycle emissions than a conventional fuel-efficient car. They are also less likely to be driven in France or Norway, and 25% to 25% in the U.K. There is a small reduction in emissions if they are driven in Germany. The average carbon emissions in Germany's grid are roughly equal to those of America's.

The average grid emissions data used in their analysis did not necessarily reflect emissions that occur when the plug is plugged in. However, the exact time and not the average determine the source of electricity used to fuel. It is always the same anywhere and anytime on the planet. The EV time factor is very stable in France and Norway, where the majority of electricity comes from hydro and nuclear, but it can fluctuate greatly elsewhere depending on the time of the day, month, and location.

A second ICCT analysis used annualized grid averages. It found that lifecycle emissions reductions for EVs in India range from 25% to 70%, compared with an average car. As with the intra-European comparisons exercise, one fixed carbon debt was assumed for battery fabrication. It was a low value.

It is important to take into account the consequences of the range of embodied batteries emissions rather than a single, low average. The IEA reports that there are about 40% (instead 60%) of EVs being driven in Norway. There has been little to no reduction in emissions in the U.K. and Netherlands. However, the German EVs have seen a 20% increase in emissions.

This is not the end of real-world uncertainties. Another example of similar analyses was the ICCT which used batteries that were 30% to 60% smaller than what is required to reproduce the 300-mile range necessary for widespread replacements of conventional cars. Today, high-end EVs have larger batteries. A simple increase in the size of the battery results in a doubling of its carbon footprint, which in turn dramatically reduces or eliminates the lifecycle emissions savings in many places, if not all.

Similar problems arise when forecasts of future emissions savings assume that future supply chains for battery storage will be found in the country where EVs are operating. A widely-cited analysis stated that aluminum demand for U.S. electric vehicles would be met by domestic steel mills and powered by hydro dams. Although it may seem possible in theory, this is not the reality. For example, the United States produces only 6% of global aluminum. The lifecycle emissions calculated if the industrial processes are in Asia are 150% greater.

The problem with EV carbon accounting is the lack of reporting standards or mechanisms that are even close to those used for petroleum refinement, extraction, and consumption. Researchers are aware of the difficulties in obtaining accurate data, even though these concerns don't get reflected in executive summaries or media claims. One often sees cautionary statements in technical literature, such as the need to understand the energy required for manufacturing Li-ion cells. This is critical for accurately assessing the environmental consequences of rapidly increasing Li-ion use.

These data gaps can become a problem when it comes time to expand the global mineral supply chain in order to support the production and expansion of tens to millions more EVs.

Volume - Increase it

The most significant wildcard is the anticipated rise in energy prices associated with obtaining sufficient quantities of energy transformation minerals (ETMs), as the International Energy Agency(IEA) calls them.

The agency published a major report earlier this year on the difficulties of supplying ETMs for the construction of solar and wind machines. This report confirms the earlier observations. EVs are more dependent on critical minerals than conventional cars. According to the IEA, EVs will need to be produced with a 30% to 4,000% increase in global mining output.

The fact that an EV consumes 300-400% more copper than a traditional car does not have any impact on global supply chains. EVs make up less than 1% global automotive fleet. EV production at scale and plans for grid batteries, as well as wind and solar machine manufacturing, will allow the clean energy sector to consume more than half of global copper consumption (as opposed to today's 20%). Transition aspirations for nickel and cobalt (two other relevant minerals) will increase clean energy use by 60% and 70% respectively, from today's negligible portion.

Consider the impact that EV mandates will have on mining. A world with 500 million electric vehicles, which would still be less than half of all vehicles, would require that we mine enough energy minerals to make batteries for approximately 3 trillion smartphones. This is equivalent to more than 2,000 years of production and mining for the former. This would reduce the world's oil consumption by only 15%, according to official figures.

It is important to consider the geopolitical, economic, and environmental implications of this massive expansion in global mining. The World Bank warns that there are new challenges to sustainable development of mineral resources and minerals. This is because the cost of acquiring raw materials accounts for almost half of all carbon dioxide emissions during the lifetime of EVs.

The IEA report also points out that ETMs have a high emission intensity and trends show that ETMs are increasing in energy use per pound mined due to long-standing decreases in ore grades. Miners will seek lower-grade ores and more remote locations if mineral demand increases. For each pound of nickel and lithium, the IEA estimates that there will be a 300%-600% increase in carbon emissions.

The challenges are illustrated by trends in copper. The improvements in post-mining chemical processing led to a 30% reduction in energy required to produce a ton copper. This was despite the slow decline in ore grades. These were temporary gains, however, as the physics limits of optimized processes reached their limit. Consequently, the energy consumption per ton copper decreased over the 40 years following 1970. This trend has continued since then and is expected to continue for the next four decades. As ore grades for other minerals continue to fall, this will continue in the future.

Nevertheless, the IEA uses the current average supply-chain emissions intensity to claim that EVs will reduce future emissions. The IEA's report shows that ETMs are generating higher embodied emissions. You can also add to that the implications of solar and wind construction which require 500% to 700% higher minerals than building a natural gas power station. This puts more pressure on the supply chain, which in turn, will lead to a sharp rise in commodity prices.

Wood Mackenzie's resource experts see unsustainable material demands if the EV share rises from less than 1% today to reach 10%. Until battery technology can be developed and commercialised faster than ever before, many EV targets will not be met and ICE (internal combustion engines) bans cannot be enforced. This could pose a problem for the current EV adoption rates projections.

There is no evidence that there are any capabilities to speed up industry-class chemical and manufacturing development or mining in the short time-periods commonly associated with policy aspirations. It was almost three decades since the discovery of lithium-battery chemistry, before the first Tesla sedan.

Carbon efficiency in battery supply chains

There are many ways to improve some of these factors that are dragging the globe towards a future of increasing EV supply chain emissions. These include better battery chemistry (reducing the amount of materials per kilowatt hour of stored energy), more efficient chemical process, electrifying mine equipment and recycling. These are all often viewed as necessary or inevitable solutions. None of these can make a significant difference in the short timeframes required for rapid EV expansion.

Even though popular news stories frequently claim some breakthrough, there are no commercially viable alternative battery chemistries that significantly change the order-of-magnitude of the physical materials needed per electric-vehicle-mile. Most cases, changing the chemistry formulations does not change burdens.

Increased nickel content can be used to reduce cobalt. As for chemistries that eliminate the use of energetic atoms of, say, carbon or nickel, using instead, for example, more prosaic and low-energy-intensity elements like iron (e.g., the lithium-iron-phosphate battery), such formulations have lower energy density. This means that a larger, heavier battery is required to maintain vehicle range. It is possible to envision the discovery of foundationally superior battery chemistries. It takes years to scale up industrial chemical systems once the technology is validated. Today's and future batteries will use technology that is available today and tomorrow.

There is also the possibility of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of various chemical processes involved in mineral refining, conversion and other processes. These improvements are inevitable because engineers do it every day and will be more successful in the digital age. There are not known steps function changes in the field of physical chemical, where processes operate at the limits of physics. In other words, lithium batteries have now entered the stage where incremental gains can be seen.

Caterpillar, Deere, and Case all have projects to electrify mining trucks and equipment. There are even a few production machines available for sale. Although promising designs are possible for some specific applications, batteries do not meet the 247 performance requirements to power heavy equipment in most cases. The turnover rate for industrial and mining equipment can be measured in decades. For a long time, mines will need a lot more oil-fired equipment.

Recycling is another option that can be used to reduce new demand. Even if all batteries could be recycled completely, it wouldn't be able to meet the huge increase in demand for EVs due to the proposed (or mandated!) growth path. There are still technical issues that need to be resolved regarding recycling complex minerals, particularly batteries, and how they can be economically managed. Although automated recycling might be possible in the future, it is not currently possible. Given the diversity of current and future battery designs, there is no clear path to automated recycling capabilities within the timeframes that policymakers and EV advocates envision.

Legal chaos and EV emissions credits

There are many assumptions, guesses and ambiguities, so any claims for EV emissions reductions could be subject to manipulation if fraud is not an option. Many of the data required may not be possible to collect in a normal regulatory manner due to technical uncertainties, the variety of geographical factors and the proprietary nature many of these processes. The Securities and Exchange Commission appears to be considering such disclosure requirements. Legal havoc could result from the uncertainties in the EV ecosystem if European or American regulators enshrine in legally binding ways green disclosures, or enforce responsible ESG metrics concerning carbon dioxide emissions.

Engineers have created a more efficient and secure way for policymakers to reduce their use of automotive oil. This is despite the ongoing revolutions in mining and battery chemistry. Existing commercially viable combustion engines that can reduce fuel consumption by up to 50% are already available. It would be much cheaper and more transparent to capture half of that potential, by offering incentives to consumers to buy more efficient engines than adding 300 million electric vehicles to the roads.


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