Tesl TSLAa wants to sell 20 million electric vehicles per year by 2030. And it says for every car sold, CO2 levels will be dramatically reduced. So how does battery manufacturing impact that goal and what are Tesla’s plans to recycle?
The overriding question is whether electric vehicles (EVs) are cleaner than those that run on the internal combustion engine — from cradle to grave. Undeniably, Tesla asserts that a car with no tailpipe emissions is a cleaner pursuit and even more so because of the company’s battery recycling program. Consider that older cars on the road are less fuel-efficient than the newer ones while the electric grid is getting greener all the time — just in time for the EV revolution.
“Sustainability drives us at Tesla. And not just our products—it drives our values and mission as a company,” the car company said in its recent 2020 Impact Report. “It’s at the core of everything we do and is what motivates us in our work. It also matters greatly to our customers, employees, and shareholders … emissions generated through EV charging should continue to decline over time.”
Just as important, Tesla says that it can recover 92% of a battery’s materials — tons of nickel, copper, and cobalt. Fossil fuels are extracted and used once, it notes, adding that the materials in a lithium-ion battery are recyclable. Once the raw materials are in the lithium-ion cells, they will remain there until the end of the car’s life.
Critics, though, say that peeling out the raw materials from those cells is an ominous task and that it is easier and cheaper to source those elements from the countries that mine them. EV development is in its early phase, leading some to guesstimate that, globally, only about 5% of batteries are re-used.
However, Tesla says, “None of our scrapped lithium-ion batteries go to landfills and 100% are recycled. Every Tesla battery factory will recycle batteries on-site. As the manufacturer of our in-house cell program, we are best positioned to recycle our products efficiently to maximize key battery material recovery.” The carmaker goes on to say that it expects the cost of recycling to be much less than purchasing raw materials on the open market to build new batteries.
This news follows the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — one that makes a de facto declaration that national economies must be electrified. To that end, General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis vowed to make sure that EVs comprise 40%-50% of their car sales by 2035. And broadly, AlixPartners, which is a consulting firm, said that electric vehicles could rise from 2% of the global car market to 24% by 2030.
Disposal is one issue. The production of lithium-ion batteries is another. A report from IVL commissioned by the Swedish Energy Agency says that the manufacturing of those batteries results in “61-106 kilos of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilowatt-hour battery capacity produced.” The number depends on what production methods are employed and what fuel is used.
The trend line, however, looks positive. Lower emissions are occurring more often because “battery factories have been scaled up and (they) are running at full capacity, which makes them more efficient per unit produced,” says Erik Emilsson, a researcher at IVL. “We have also taken into account the possibility of using electricity that is virtually fossil-free in several of the production stages.”
Green electricity usage for battery production is now rare but it is expected to rise. Moreover, if emissions are to drop below 61 kilos, then pollution from mining operations — the search for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese — must be curtailed while the recycling process is ratcheted up. And therein is the challenge, the report concludes, which will require a huge leap in robotics and automation.
What about life-cycle emissions? Ryan Cornell of Harvard University says that a traditional car using the internal combustion engine will emit about 69 metric tons of CO2 over a lifetime, or 150,000 miles. But that an EV powered 100% by coal will emit 66 metric tons of CO2 over the same period. Given that nearly every grid in America hosts several fuel sources, that’s a conservative figure.
Lithium-ion batteries are getting better and cheaper: they are smaller and more energy-dense and can be traced back to the development of laptop computing. Even Tesla says that its batteries are built to outlast the expected lifetime of the car. But if tens-of-millions of new EVs hit the road, the industry must turn its collective attention to the eventual recycling of those batteries.
“Already for cars registered today, battery electric vehicles have better relative greenhouse gas emissions performance everywhere than conventional vehicles,” says Rachel Muncrief, deputy director of the International Council on Clean Transportation. And the differences are expected to get more pronounced, she adds, because of regulations to promote electrification and grid decarbonization.
The environmental and cost benefits of EVs will accelerate — an aim to which Tesla is committed. The keys to success, it says, are centered on recycling, bettering battery technologies, and expanding renewable energy’s reach. The good news is that all signs point in that direction.