Advanced Batteries for Motor Vehicles: Ensuring Battery-powered Vehicles and Equipment Provide Expected Environmental Benefits
California’s Advanced Clean Cars II Regulation, Advanced Clean Fleets Regulation, Advanced Clean Trucks Regulation, and Innovative Clean Transit Regulation aim to achieve greenhouse gas and smog-forming emission reductions from motor vehicles by requiring zero-emission performance levels. Additionally, several off-road programs are encouraging zero-emission technology, including the Commercial Harbor Craft regulation, and the Zero-emission Forklift Regulation. This framework of electrification was central to Governor Newsom’s 2020 Executive Order N-79-20.
Battery-electric technology is one critical solution being used to meet California’s requirements. Most automakers and others in the industry are moving forward with lithium-ion battery chemistries for battery-electric vehicles and equipment, though it is expected that future battery advancements will emerge.
An increased need for batteries in motor vehicles and equipment has prompted concern and speculation about supply and manufacturing impacts. Read on to learn more about California’s—and the world’s—increasing commitment to zero-emissions technologies and the batteries that power them. Broader information about California’s drive to aggressively address climate change and air quality can be found in the 2022 Climate Change Scoping Plan and the 2020 Mobile Source Strategy.
Battery critical materials and rare earth metals
There is enough lithium, nickel, and cobalt metals globally to supply the needed batteries for electric vehicles, but an expansion of mining and processing facilities is needed. An International Council on Clean Transportation study shows that the cumulative demand for the battery minerals from 2020 to 2040 for light- and heavy-duty electric vehicles will use about half of the known reserves.The mineral and automotive industries are responding with large investments in mining, processing and recycling capacity and are expected to stay a step ahead of demand.
Rare earth metals are often confused with critical battery minerals. They are different: rare earth metals are used for magnets in some electric vehicle motors and other electronic devices, but they are not prominent materials in electric vehicle batteries.
Cobalt is a valuable material in batteries, as it adds energy density to increase battery capacity and driving range, but its use in lithium-ion batteries is being phased down by many automakers and battery manufacturers given supply concentration risks in one country of origin—Democratic Republic of the Congo—and the associated social and environmental impacts of mining practices. Alternative battery chemistries are making this possible.
Battery life cycle impacts
There is broad consensus across studies that battery-electric vehicles have much lower emissions over their useful life than comparable fossil-fuel powered internal combustion engine vehicles.
Upfront, batteries and their materials are more energy intensive to manufacture than conventional engines. Battery and vehicle manufacturing represents 15%-20% of total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for battery-electric vehicles.
However, this impact is small relative to the benefits of electric vehicle efficiency and reduced emission impacts from the electric grid compared to gasoline production over the lifespan of the vehicle. In a recent Argonne National Laboratory GREET study, battery-electric vehicles in the U.S. had about 50% lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to a conventional vehicle when accounting for the vehicle manufacturing, tailpipe and fuel production emissions.
These advantages will only become more apparent as renewable fuel sources make up a larger portion of the electricity supply in California, and batteries are made with increasing amounts of recycled minerals. As battery recycling grows, lifecycle emissions from battery production will become lower than the comparable internal combustion engines.
Energy security of mining battery minerals
Efforts by national, state, and local governments have focused on scaling up domestic critical mineral production capacity to insulate supply chains from foreign actions and conflicts and ensure the security of critical materials. These measures include federal incentives for domestic battery production. Specifically, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act provide stackable tax credits for each stage of the battery supply chain. These measures have helped leverage $48 billion of private investment in U.S. battery supply chains since late 2020.
Additionally, California is poised to become a global leader in lithium production from the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area, which could supply more than one-third of today’s global lithium demand and meet the entire battery demand for the U.S. This form of direct extraction has much lower environmental impact than traditional lithium mining.
Social impacts of battery production supply chains
As with many industrial processes and raw material supply chains, there have been documented reports of labor abuse and unethical practices. Especially egregious are those involving child labor.
In response to social concerns along the electric vehicle and battery supply chains, automakers and policymakers are minimizing risk through improved supply chain accountability, such as industry certification standards and corporate pledges for responsible sourcing. Some are avoiding risk altogether by developing new designs and battery chemistries that reduce the need for high-risk, foreign-sourced materials.
In the future, it is likely that no single battery technology will dominate the electric vehicle market. Rather, distinct battery chemistries will be used for different vehicle models, based on price point and performance requirements.
Battery recycling and e-waste
As the number of zero-emission vehicles increase, so will the number of end-of-life vehicle batteries and electric drive motors. The number of batteries and motors available depends on the lifespan of the original vehicles. Important investments and policy steps are being taken today to ensure future capacity for processing and recycling of these valuable materials. In addition, as greater numbers of those vehicles reach end of life, it becomes more economical and efficient to apply lessons learned today in battery recycling and reuse. This yields better results and lower costs.
Reuse prior to recycling is a priority with all vehicle end-of-life batteries. For example, reuse in stationary energy storage—systems that can store energy in the form of electricity for use when it is needed—has been identified as an effective use of batteries that are no longer suitable for vehicle operation. Reuse can extend the useful life of batteries by several years.
The demand for critical minerals used in battery manufacturing can then be met by recycling spent electric vehicle batteries, alleviating the aggressive growth in mining and processing new materials.
Importantly, investments and policy steps are being taken today to build future capacity for processing end-of-life batteries. Supplies of end-of-life electric vehicle batteries should be viewed as mobile mines. For example, current studies show that up to 25% of future lithium demand by 2040—and even greater proportions of higher value cobalt and nickel—can be met through recycling.
Actions to scale up battery reuse and recycling capacity are supported by federal incentives, such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. California and the European Union are developing regulatory and incentive-based approaches. Major automakers operating in the U.S. are already investing in reuse and recycling capacity, as well as overcoming the technological barriers to recycling.
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