[box type=”info” align=”” class=”” width=””]Patrick Hillberg, Adjunct professor, Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering, Oakland University
- As it transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, electricity generation will place a burden on the global supply of critical battery minerals.
- The world’s battery capacity must grow 40 times larger than it is today, and electric vehicles will require 80% of that future capacity. There will also be increased need for integrated circuits.
- Competition for both will develop between vehicles and other uses. Trains, trolley buses and other continuously powered vehicles should play a central role in transportation planning, easing the demand for these critical minerals.
The world’s automakers have announced their intention to switch from petroleum to battery-electric vehicles by the mid-2030s, but EVs require six times the mineral inputs of conventional cars, as well as increased quantities of integrated circuits. Already, a worldwide shortage of integrated circuits is forcing automakers to reduce production of petroleum vehicles; is there a sustainable supply of needed materials for billions of EVs? We must look at the environmental and societal costs of the EV supply chain, and how to minimize the need for critical minerals per passenger-kilometre.
Increased reliance on wind and solar will highlight the intermittency of these sources, as they generate too much power on sunny days, and too little at night, in the rain, and in the winter. Fossil fuels provide stored energy to be burned on demand, but a renewable energy future will require battery storage, and will strain a scarce supply. The capacity to store electrical power will likely be insufficient to meet demands, meaning that consumers could have to choose between charging their electric vehicles or watching their televisions.
We promote electrified mass transit options, such as trains and trolleys, to better align the supply of stored power to transportation needs.
An EV can use as much as 10,000 times as much lithium as a single smart phone, leading to a supply competition between the world’s auto and device manufacturers. In the IEA’s 2021 sustainable development scenario of critical minerals, 80% of battery storage in 2040 would be used in light-duty electric vehicles, and this will require a 40-fold increase in the production of lithium and nickel and more than 20 times as much as copper, graphite and cobalt compared with 2020 levels.
The average vehicle is parked 96% of the time, meaning the scarce materials for batteries and chips will sit largely unused. Batteries naturally degrade over time and experience a slow loss of power known as a phantom drain, which may require the battery to be jumped with another battery. In a neighborhood full of EVs, the grid may experience overloading as people connect their cars in the evening, and the electrical grid itself may need battery storage to charge EV batteries.
Environmental and societal impacts
The motor, the charging system and even battery thermal management of an EV will require an increase in integrated circuits, but the manufacture of these circuits has a giant carbon footprint and requires huge amounts of water. Taiwan manufactures two-thirds of the world’s semiconductors and is facing a drought: “Officials and scholars have warned that water scarcity could become a more persistent problem in the years to come because of climate change,” the Wall Street Journal wrote in April, “and farmers are concerned that a prolonged shortage could leave their lands barren.”
Semiconductor manufacturers are building new facilities in the North American Southwest, but global warming has turned a moderate drought into a megadrought in the region. Similarly, 65% of the entire water supply of Chile’s Salar de Atacama is dedicated to lithium extraction, creating extreme water shortages and affecting local farmers’ abilities to grow crops and maintain livestock.
An increase in mineral demand could lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, contamination and human rights violations. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces 60% of the world’s cobalt (a key component in battery formulations), which will be in such high demand that reserves will be depleted by 2030, leading to more intensive mining over time. In the DRC, Amnesty International has linked cobalt mining to human rights abuses, specifically with regards to child labor violations.
Batteries account for 30% to 40% of the cost of an EV, and a price surge or supply disruption could make EVs less attractive to consumers, driving them back to the “safe choice” of petroleum vehicles. The price of lithium-ion batteries declined by half from 2014 to 2018, but by only 10% since then. Savings through innovation and economies of scale quickly give way to supply and demand; mining does not benefit from a “network effect.” Mines located in challenging social and political environments may lead to waves of resource nationalism disrupting supplies, as happened, for example, with the DRC’s 2018 tax hike on cobalt and copper. Problems associated with charging EVs have already resulted in 1 in 5 EV owners in California reverting to petroleum.
More trains, less mining
The pursuit of critical materials for vehicles will become a “threat to the long-term sustainability of the transport sector” unless improved public transportation is prioritized. The bulk of public transportation should use continuous rather than stored power. Electric trains, trolleybuses and eHighways using rails or overhead lines should be the backbone of a new transportation infrastructure.
Fortunately, this does not require technological breakthroughs—it “is not a vehicle problem, but an urban design problem.” A sustainable future is primarily about reimagining, rather than reinventing, transportation. While rail is among the most energy efficient modes of transport for freight and passengers, it is often neglected in public debate.
Now is the time to have that debate.
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