Battery Series: What policy makers need to know about batteries?

October 29, 2020 By 0 Comments

The most significant source of anthropogenic emissions accounting towards climate change includes transport and power sector. However, we do have a technological solution for both the sectors that include the deployment of renewable energy technologies (with storage) and electric vehicles. As with any other technologies, the mass proliferation of these solutions revolves around the economics of both technologies. Subsequently, the central pain point/barrier for a mass mobilization of these technologies is batteries. That is why it is also termed as Holy Grail for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For RE, batteries can provide storage to counterbalance the intermittent nature of wind and solar technologies while EVs essentially depend upon battery’s capacity/weight/volume to overcome the technological/financial barriers leading to make them more cost-effective option when compared to conventionally fueled vehicles. Improved battery technology can help reshape the transport and energy industries that contributes most to emissions.

The battery technology has many complexities as the best solution is dependent on the application and use case. A battery having a higher capacity that could provide 1000 miles range may not be a suitable if it offers subpar power, let’s say to top speed of 20 km/h. Similarly, a battery with higher power that could power a truck to top speed of 100 km/h may not be suitable due to limited range it may provide, like 10 miles. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of battery technology to find optimum solution depending upon the use case. Additionally, specific power and capacity per unit volume and weight is also an essential factor in deciding the optimum battery for usage.

On upstream side of manufacturing, battery technology is continuously evolving, starting off from one-time use (nickel-cadmium batteries) to rechargeable high capcity lithium ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries currently have the highest energy and power densities among commercially available alternative battery chemistries, which is why they’re in all of our cell phones and other portable devices. They can store a large amount of energy and deliver it quickly.  However, the primary barrier to vast adoption of batteries is the cost barrier, that is majorly defined by the type of materials used in batteries. For usual lithium ion batteries, the anode (positive electrode of battery) is comprised of graphite which is a relatively cheaper material. On the other hand, cathode (negative electrode of material) differs from battery to battery but mainly consist of LiCoO2 or LiMn2O4 in commercially available. Other elements are also present in traces amount. Cobalt is the expensive material that drives the economics of the batteries. This seemingly basic technical information is necessary for the decision makers to understand that if they would want to kick start the manufacturing of batteries, cobalt would be the significant pain staking point. So, addressing that issue can drive the economics of manufacturing batteries locally. According to World Economic Forum the increase demand of batteries by 2030 will result in four folds increment in cobalt demand. It should also be kept in mind that battery technologies are continuously evolving, and significant breakthroughs are achieved every decade or even on yearly basis. For instance, TESLA on battery day announced that they have developed a cobalt-free battery which may change the dynamics of battery manufacturing altogether. Lithium Nickle battery technology is also offering increased capacity for batteries but is accompanied by safety issues and therefore not yet widely available on commercial scale. Additionally, Lithium Sulfur and Lithium Air batteries also offer more than twice the capacity compared to current Lithium Cobalt batteries. However, the major challenge is the insufficient life cycle, high self-discharge, and low efficiency.

The decision makers need to have sound understanding of battery technologies to come up with a customized framework that could build nexus among different kind of battery technologies based on use cases. Following matrix could help decision makers to get relevant input that could essentially help them in coming up with most optimized solution on policy level with least programmable/technological risk.