WASHINGTON – After years of hype around a new generation of batteries to that would revolutionize the automotive sector and change the electrical grid, the great project of the 21st century energy sector appears close to a once unlikely milestone.
With a steady run of design improvements, analyst are now projecting the price of battery-powered engines to be on par with internal combustion engines within three years. Elon Musk, founder of the electric car maker Tesla, has suggested that point could come even sooner, telling analysts recently that a coming battery announcement by the company will “blow your mind.”
Even Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, hardly a foe of fossil fuels, is touting the lithium ion battery’s ability to soon be deployed across the U.S. power grid.
“I think we’re on the verge of solving grid-scale batteries,” he said in an interview earlier this month.
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If those optimistic takes turn out to be correct, it stands to revolutionize transportation and power sectors that have run on petroleum and other fossil fuels for more than a century.
As motorists shift to cleaner and easier to maintain electric vehicles, gasoline pumps lining roads and highways would be steadily replaced by electrical charging stations. Refineries lining the Gulf of Mexico would slow their production, leaving less need for the oil that Texas pumps in abundance.
Likewise, deploying large batteries across the electricity grid would accelerate the expansion of weather-dependent wind and solar farms, reducing the need for coal and natural gas plants.
This fast-approaching future follows a decade in which the costs of lithium ion batteres plummeted nearly 90 percent. Driving down the costs, scientists say, are a combination of the improved manufacturing processes that come with time and practice and a shift away from rare and costly minerals and metals used in lithium ion batteries.
Scientists have for years steadily reduced the amount of the most expensive metal in lithium ion batteies, cobalt. Most of the world’s cobalt supplies are found in the unstable Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the University of Texas, scientist say they have developed a battery that requires no cobalt, substituting common nickel. They are awaiting peer review of their study.
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“The improvements we are making, the new compositions, there is no other choice but the transportation sector is going to be electric,” said Arumugam Manthiram, an engineering professor at the University of Texas who helped develop the original lithium ion battery at Oxford University in the 1990s. “It’s a matter of time.”
Already, some financial analysts forecast a mass shift to electric vehicles Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research arm of the news and data provider Bloomber L.P, projects global sales will grow from around 1.7 million cars and trucks today – about 2 percent of total sales – to 26 million in 2030 and 54 million in 2040.
Such a massive shift would not come easily. It would mean expanding supply chains for metals and battery components as well as upgrading power grids to provide a much larger portion of the world’s energy supply, both requiring massive investment.
It would also reorder the geopolitics of energy. Already, Indonesia, the world’s largest supplier of nickel, has announced a ban on exports of nickel ore as it seeks to build up a domestic processing industry with an eye towards supplying the battery market.
“The dilemma is: Is the timing realistic,” said Michelle Foss, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “There are a lot of open questions, and there’s not any good overall objective view of how to do all this compared to what people claim can be done. Everything is so hyped right now.”
But battery evangelists, citing the technological advances made over the past decade, maintain shifting the world’s transportation sectors to electric vehicles, while logistically challenging, is more than possible.
A case in point is China, which, in just 15 years, has developed the world’s leading battery manufacturing sector from scratch, said George Crabtree, director of the Energy Department’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research.
“China is a poster child of how to do this,” he said. “You can’t reach half the new cars being EVs overnight. That’s going to take more than 10 years to happen, but people feel we can get there.”
In the meantime, most of attention is focused on Musk, who has recently promised a battery that could run for a “million miles” before being replaced.
Tesla’s next big announcement was scheduled to take place this week in Texas or New York, with reports the company is already able to produce a battery at a cost on par with internal combustion engines, which would allow Musk to reduce the price of his already best selling Model 3 electric vehicle to compete with gasoline models.
Tesla’s stock price has almost doubled since the beginning of the year to more than $800 a share. But with the conronavirus pandemic currently limiting large gatherings, the event has been pushed back until next month.