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Roadmap for US’ clean transportation future unveiled

Charging outlet of Tesla Model X P90D. (Reference image by Tokumeigakarinoaoshima, Wikimedia Commons).

A new report by researchers at the University of California Berkeley lays out what the US needs to do to achieve a clean transportation future.

To understand what actions are crucial to conquer such a goal, the researchers developed the Drive Rapid Innovation in Vehicle Electrification (DRIVE Clean) scenario, in which EVs constitute 100% of new US light-duty vehicle (LDV) sales by 2030 as well as 100% of medium-duty vehicle (MDV) and heavy-duty truck (HDT) sales by 2035. In this hypothetical case, the grid reaches 90% clean electricity by 2035, and substantial EV charging infrastructure is deployed.

One of the main points in the report is that the production of lithium, cobalt, and graphite must expand dramatically to meet the demand enabled by high levels of electric vehicle manufacturing.

In this sense, there are hurdles that the US needs to overcome to guarantee its own supply of battery metals. A big problem is the fact that most battery metals production often takes place in potentially unstable nations or where labor conditions violate human rights. Another issue that may arise in the near future is related to the effect of changing lithium-ion battery design and chemistry on demand for rare earth metals.

“Most analysts, however, expect battery raw material supplies— with the possible exception of lithium—will not constrain battery production during the next 10 years, and efforts are underway to address lithium supplies and demand,” the report reads.

Graph by the Goldman School of Public Policy – University of California Berkeley.

The role of battery recycling

In addition to the mining side, the UC Berkeley study states that the role of battery recycling may increase under the DRIVE Clean scenario. The paper estimates that the US could meet about 30%–40% of anticipated demand for lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and graphite in passenger EVs with recycled battery materials by 2035. 

In addition, battery recycling could lead to job creation, as some calculations have determined that 15 jobs are created to recycle every 1,000 metric tons of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries.

The creation of policies around battery recycling is also deemed a key step in securing access to raw materials and the US has made some moves in this direction with the establishment, in 2020, of a consortium of agencies to promote a domestic battery industry and the suggestion of using the Defense Production Act to speed development of mines for rare earth elements. Congress also included provisions to secure domestic and allied sources of strategic minerals and metals, including lithium, in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021.

Although these actions are considered steps in the right direction, the UC Berkeley researchers highlight the fact that, today, China is the only country with a dedicated vehicle battery recycling policy, while the European Commission has proposed requiring the collection of used batteries and implementing standards for recycled content in new batteries.

They say, however, that something more precise may be in sight, following the 100-day review of US supply chain vulnerabilities for critical items, including EV batteries and specialized minerals, ordered by President Joe Biden in early 2021.

“One outcome of this review could be a decision (following the examples of the EU and China) to establish recycling incentives or regulations, require battery products to be standardized for easy disassembly, develop second-life battery uses, and establish tracing systems for battery components,” the report reads. “These are some of the reasons to expect that US battery production can supply a substantial portion of the batteries and raw materials needed to meet the DRIVE Clean goals.”

Battery manufacturing

When it comes to battery manufacturing, the first thing the DRIVE Clean scenario calls for is a strong set of policies to ramp up production, because even though increased demand does not have to be met domestically, the authors of the report believe the US has strong economic and security interests in growing its manufacturing capacity. 

According to the study, the United States currently produces about 60 GWh/year, or 13%, of global lithium-ion battery capacity. Under the DRIVE Clean scenario, however, the country is expected to require approximately 600 GWh of total battery manufacturing capacity in 2025 and 1,200 GWh of manufacturing capacity by 2035.

“With policy support, battery manufacturing can expand rapidly. China tripled its battery manufacturing output in just 1 year from 2014 to 2015,” the report reads. “Just as China built its global lead in battery production in 10 years, strong US policies can ensure increased battery production to support the DRIVE Clean goals.”

With lithium-ion battery costs already declining, the UC Berkeley experts write that growing investment in the domestic Li-ion supply chain can further reduce costs, particularly as the country expands its technical prowess in solid-state lithium-ion technology. 

From a practical point of view, they point out that economics favor manufacturing near sales markets, because batteries are heavy and expensive to transport. 

Carmaking

On the vehicle manufacturing front, the researchers also underscore the importance of strong policy support to allow growth for the EV snowball already gathering speed.

“The DRIVE Clean scenario would require annual US light-duty EV sales to grow from 326,000 to 14.6 million between 2019 and 2030. Assuming the United States continues to manufacture 70% of light-duty EVs sold domestically, in 2030 it would need to manufacture at least 10.2 million light-duty EVs, plus any EVs that are exported for sale,” the report reads.

As an example of the rapid expansion of EV manufacturing capacity, the study mentions Tesla’s purchase of a closed vehicle manufacturing plant in California in 2010, how the company was able to produce its first vehicle two years later and how just a decade later, it produced 500,000 EVs with 10,000 employees. 

Domestic car manufacturers’ aggressive plans to expand EV production need to be met with appropriate policies

Another example is the Lordstown Motor Corporation’s recent purchase of a closed auto factory in Ohio, which will produce its first electric commercial pickup truck this year, with production of 50,000 vehicles projected for 2022 and a site-scaling possibility of 600,000 trucks per year.

Aggressive plans to expand EV production by other domestic car manufacturers are also mentioned in the report, among them plans by General Motors to spend $27 billion to manufacture 25 electric models by 2025, and its expectations to phase out ICE vehicles entirely by 2035. 

On a similar note, the document highlights Ford’s recent announcement that all its new cars sold in Europe, some of which will be manufactured in the US, will be electric or plug-in hybrid by 2026 and fully electric four years later, and that two-thirds of its commercial vehicles will also be all-electric or plug-in hybrid by 2030.

For the experts, besides focusing on LDVs, policymakers are to pay attention to developments on the MDV and HDT manufacturing front, which is ramping up quickly as most major US MDV and HDT manufacturers have committed to 100% fossil-free product sales or are subsidiaries or parents of companies that have done so. Additionally, more than 125 zero- emission MDVs and HDTs are in production, development, or demonstration.

“As vehicle electrification expands globally, the United States needs increased ambition and leadership to remain competitive as a vehicle and battery manufacturer,” the report concludes. “With strong policies in the near term, the US auto industry can pivot quickly to become a global leader in vehicle electrification, gain market share, and sustain and create jobs. The United States can also improve public health, help address the climate crisis, and save consumers trillions of dollars. The benefits of such a shift speak for themselves, as do the costs of inaction.”