Reuters has a short piece today about something I mentioned at the end of an earlier post – while we’re seeing more and more hybrid and electric cars, they’re not going to get significantly more affordable, in fact, they’re likely to get more expensive. This all comes down to the rare earth metals necessary to make batteries: We’re sucking up these and other uncommon elements to build our batteries, and the costs are ever increasing as a result. Energy storage technology isn’t getting better fast – and the better technologies are more expensive, not less, intended to fit niche markets for rapid charge and discharge, not raw energy per unit of mass.

36 Replies to “A Quick Comment on Batteries and Cars”

  1. Not to mention that, while there are great environmental benefits to reducing car emissions and the consumption of fossil fuels, making cars more efficient will also induce much more sprawl, with all the environmental and cultural destruction that go along with it.

    1. Limited range is often cited as a drawback to electric cars. As far as sprawl this is a feature as it would be an incentive to live closer to work. Another thing that would drive the adoption of electric cars besides high gas prices are cities creating a green zone. Only zero emission vehicles allowed within the city center.

      1. The incentives tend not to work that way – people won’t buy a home based on their vehicle. They’ll buy a home based on their *mode* – bicycling, walking, transit – but not specific vehicle limitations.

        The issue here is that today, people think that tomorrow they’ll be able to buy an electric car. They won’t be able to.

    2. The economic lesson of rare earth supply is similar to that of single tech transportation systems – both run the risk of being unsustainable biz models if competition is not built into the system.

      To what extent this is at play in the metals market I cannot say – let’s hope nobody corners that one like so many transit supporters are happy to grant for Seattle and neighboring.

      BTW, completion of LINK will mean Tacoma is a much stronger regional competitor for the support business of the Seattle global center. Can’t wait!

  2. Hmmm… I’m always suspicious about stories like this. A quick Bing of the metals in this article yield this information from Wikipedia:

    neodymium: 8 Million tonnes of reserves, presumably at current prices. It’s actually not “rare” at all. Current annual production is about 7,000 tonnes which translates to an 1100 year supply. Hardly anything to panic about

    lanthanum: Again, not particularly “rare” (Except in comparison to common elements). It’s found in the Earth’s crust in “relatively large quantities” of 32 ppm)

    Not a lot of info on the other metals. Suffice it to say, though, that as the demand for these metals increases, the market will gladly denude some far away forgotten corner of the planet to provide the materials necessary so we can all feel “green”. :) Recycling will probably contribute more of these materials as well.

    One interesting bit of info that the article alludes to: Many of these metals currently come from clays mined in China. The production methods sound pretty nasty so I would imagine China’s relatively lax environmental laws make it easier to mine there. Assuming the price for these metals heads northward, companies will find sources available in areas with more stringent environmental regulation (US, Canada, Australia, etc…) will become more economic. That’s just a guess though.

    Unless Toyota is still taking a loss on every Prius sold, there’s probably plenty of these metals to go around.

    1. This has nothing to do with scarcity, and everything to do with price.

      Price goes up when we have to go for the stuff that’s deeper underground, or mixed in with other things. You don’t get that information from looking at reserves – who says how expensive those reserves are to get at? They’re in the ground.

      Scarcity is a straw man here, which is why it’s easy to knock down! It’s not the issue at all.

      1. The Sahara Desert may be full of sand, but when you want some for your back yard you will have to pay for it.

      2. To follow up on your economic analysis, assume that the current prices stay solid. Gasoline prices don’t have to go up very much to make the electric cars price-competitive over the lifecycle. Carbon taxes/credits will add part of that price increase, and the fact that we’ve hit peak cheap oil will add most of the rest.

        Cars will get less affordable period, electric or gasoline. However, I expect electric cars will be *more* affordable than gasoline cars. Where there’s some density of people, however, mass transit will be much more affordable than either. I, however, live outside that density level and am therefore seriously interested in an electric car (to get me to town, or for long distance trips, to the train station).

        Do you disagree?

    2. HAH!!! “A quick Bing.”

      Oh you crazy Softies, trying to play verb catchup. Good luck with that. (And I was soooo ready to hate Kumo)

  3. I’m skeptical of electric cars as any kind of long-term solution, but I think it’s worth investing in them to help reduce carbon emissions as we transition to a sustainable mass transit and greater urban density model.

    1. I definitely agree with the “transition” concept. Since we have approx. 40 years of oil left and biofuels haven’t really reached a sustainable or cost effective level, petroleum powered vehicles are on the way out. While I’m all for dense, livable cities, I really doubt we’ll see a complete shift in 40 years meaning that the automobile is still a necessity. Electric vehicles, while more expensive (and thus helping push us away from being a car dependent society), can help us survive with our current road dependent infrastructure.

      1. If the automobile isn’t shifted out in a lot less than 40 years, quite frankly, hundreds of millions of people die as a result of their tailpipes.

      2. Sadly I think more likely than a shift from fossil fuels or everyone abandoning cars is use of coal to liquids or gas to liquids technology. This buys some time from the perspective of peak oil, but it is even worse than what we are currently doing from a global warming standpoint. The news on the climate change front just keeps getting worse too.

  4. Just want to add a geologically important caveat to the conversation. The “rare” in Rare Earth Elements (REE) that I deal with on a daily bases is very much a misnomer. The name arose from the scarcity of the minerals that they were originally discovered in. However, they can be quite concentrated in mundane minerals and even sedimentary deposits. That said mining practices for these metals is often times the most destructive on the planet. Though I know for some that isn’t an issue.

  5. I cannot imagine that we’ll ever see cars, or at least the idea of cars, disappear. It’s unrealistic thinking to believe that we’ll ever give up the freedom of individual transport. When oil disappears something else will take its place.

    That’s no different than our desire for heat or cooling in different climates. We’ll switch energy sources as necessary, and wring out significant efficiencies along the way. Look just at the technological progress made in light bulbs in recent years with more light per input of energy.

    What may change is the dependance on cars, which is maybe what everyone’s really getting at. In our suburban settings, and many urban ones, a car is necessary to fulfill most every need.

    Transforming our communities to ones where some trips can be replaced by walking, biking or mass transportation is probably cheaper both individually and as a society – and is an expansion of freedom not a diminishment. It was the introduction of Metro when I was a teenager that opened up the ability to head into Seattle before I had a drivers license. The ability to walk to a store helps both those too young, and those too old, that cannot drive to accomplish somethings without depending on others.

    We don’t need to get rid of cars, we just need to use them better.

    1. BA – nobody’s getting rid of cars. That’s a misunderstanding of the argument. But if we started having to pay the energy and environmental cost of using them, no one would be able to afford them. Electrics are a good demonstration of the energy side.

      1. Really, no one would be able to afford them?

        We arguably do pay for cars now – but the costs are externalized from the owner so that the true cost is hidden and we use our cars inefficiently.

        Shift those externalized costs to the car user will certainly reduce car use as marginal trips are priced out.

        But, to think that cars will go away as you suggest when you say no one would be able to afford them just isn’t realistic and arguably even desirable. It marginalizes the overall effort to make our transportation systems more efficient and useful – and there are plenty of instances where the car is the most desirable and best fit for a particular transportation need.

        I agree our commuting solution now of packing underutilized cars in congested freeways is ludicrous. So is the need for every minor errand to involve a car, or worse, running around from parking lot to parking lot in one general location. Concentrating on fixing those issues through creating good transportation systems and land use patterns should be the focus.

        Arguing that cars are on their way out is a distraction.

      2. It’s like the 40 plastic coat hangers my neighbor found in the trash last week. All in good condition. As the price of oil rises, plastic products won’t disappear but disposable items will, and plastic hangers will no longer be 5 for $3.99. Same with car trips. There will still be cars for heavy loads, and rich people will still ride in limousines. Hopefully the disabled who can’t walk far will still be able to drive. But “discretionary” trips will diminish as people weigh the cost of driving to Wal-Mart. Battery-powered cars are part of the solution but maybe not for the bulk of working-class car owners.

      3. You’ve hit the nail on the head. The costs don’t have to go up much for people not to be able to afford to use them for the things they use them for today.

      4. “But if we started having to pay the energy and environmental cost of using them, no one would be able to afford them.”

        Nonsense. Just like private horse ownership and private aircraft ownership, the rich will be able to afford them, and so will enthusiasts who devote all of their spare income to them, and so will people in certain specialized businesses which require them as a cost of doing business.

        I think you meant to say “The majority of people will not be able to afford them.”

  6. I will echo that EV is not for everyone. Given the east coast winter climate I need my Wrangler to safely maneuver uthru the snow storms and heavy rains. I would definitely invest in a small ev for quick trips around town though.

    And kudos to those companies who deliver in urban areas and have invested in EV trucks to supplement their fleets. They lower their operating costs (gasoline) and demonstrate their commitment to be enviromentally responsible.

    And if your in NYC – el pollo loco is classic rotisserie chicken.

    1. I’m not sure where the myth that anyone “needs” 4wd and/or an SUV to drive in rain/snow/ice comes from. The truth is most cars can drive on most paved roads in most conditions with good tires/chains and proper driving technique. Yes, there are exceptions where if you don’t have good ground clearance and 4wd you likely aren’t going to get where you are going but they are rare and don’t apply to a majority of drivers most of the time.

      1. Electric cars can have 4-wheel-drive with no trouble at all. Wheel-motor designs provide it particularly easily. You certainly don’t need an SUV for snow and rain and ice; in fact it’s worse to have an SUV than a good sedan, because the sedan has a lower center of gravity.

    2. Jenny, my point is that you’re never going to be able to justify the cost of an EV for “quick trips around town”.

      1. That depends.

        Suppose you live in a rural or semi-rural area, beyond the reasonable range of public transit. But you have to make frequent trips to town, which is only 10 minutes away by car, but a very long distance by bicycle.

        You are damn well going to be able to justify the cost of your EV even if it’s $50K. If you’re a farmer (going to market), you’ll be able to justify the cost of an electric truck or panel van.

        People living *in* town will generally give up cars, however.

        The thing is that the rising cost of petroleum fuels relative to electricity is going to skew the balance towards electric cars and away from diesel/gasoline cars for anyone who can afford to save up for one; the running costs will be much lower and they’ll last longer.

        However, neither will compete with good public transportation in denser places like cities; congestion alone determines that. I expect cars to be reduced to the rural and small-town market, plus the rental car market, eventually. Which would be a serious drop in car ownership. People living in (for an example) the outskirts of Ellensburg, WA would own electric cars/trucks. People living in Bellevue wouldn’t.

      2. “I expect cars to be reduced to the rural and small-town market”

        Unfortunately people in the exurbs think they’re in a rural or small-town market when they’re actually part of sprawl.

  7. Ben,
    You are correct any many ways regarding EV’s. I’m a car guy, that loves taking the Sounder to work, and I do so as often as possible. As to “justifing” a car purchase. It’s not possible to do with logic, as it rarely makes any sense financially. It is possible to rationalize a car purchase,and people do that all the time. Fortunately, for our air quality, EV’s are coming, and they will be zero emissions for the end user.

    EV’s of course don’t fix congestion, and will still hog tons of room. And we have to ensure that we mine for lithium responsibly, and we need to work on getting rid of coal fired power plants in the rest of the country to really make a difference.

    EV’s will also be expensive….quite a bit more expensive initially, but ICE vehicles will get exceedingly expensive too with the newer mpg cafe standards. If we incorporate a carbon tax, or cap and trade on carbon, ICE vehicles will go up even more. The point being, it may not be affordable for families to have as many cars as they have now. Families with one car only will be more common, and teenagers won’t be getting cars for their 16th birthday.

    In the not to distant future, Mass transit will be even more necessary when the average car cost $40K.

    1. There’s basically no such thing as responsible mining for lithium. This is part of the problem.

  8. For an interesting codicil to this discussion, The New York Times published a brief article (in it’s real estate section!) about the availability of charging stations in the New York city area. So it appears developers and management companies are beginning to leap on the bandwagon, and if EVs take off in New York, at least a few locations will be well-positioned to cater to vehicle owners.

  9. High-emission vehicles yellow carded in Beijing

    There was a wonk on BBC a couple nights ago that said last year China bought more new cars than the USA. India can’t be far behind. We already have emissions checks in the Puget Sound. It wouldn’t be hard to issue stickers that prohibit “clunckers” from the high conjestion areas. They could also be charged higher tolls. Eventually you move to zero emission vehicles in the CBD. It might not drive a lot of folks to buy an electric car but you can bet Flexcar and the like would do a brisk business. Taxis would be big. The swappable battery packs seem like the way to go. Seems very short sighted to scrap the ETBs.

    1. To get there, we’d have to have a lot more people on transit first. As long as the expectation is that you have a car and you can take it anywhere, you will never, ever, ever win any battle to close a CBD in the US to cars.

  10. My take on the EV ideal is how it connects to the grid. The household with an EV gains a backup power supply that can survive an emergency grid failure; with a rooftop photovoltiac solar panel, indefinitely. Also gained is the choice whether to drive or cut utility bills. This leads to shorter drives whereby in time, more trips can be made without having to drive. Thus, walking and bicycling become more viable travel options, and mass transit more practical to arrange.

    So, the size of the EV battery should be determined by a limited driving range, NOT the maximum driving range, ie, 10-20 miles on battery-power is sufficient. This cuts down on the cost and weight. NiMh battery tech becomes viable, another cost saver.

    With this factor in mind, plug-in hybrids are more ideal than straight battery-only EVs. Plug-in hybrids can use a variety of fuels, bio-fuels, even combustable hydrogen, more readily stored for that use than in fuel cells. With a combustable fuel, households gain another means to provide emergency power.

    Overall, we’ll be driving less, walking/bicycling and using transit more. But, when we must drive a longer distance, the plug-in hybrid again offers the advantage over full battery-electric. Try making this argument to battery-electric fans, seriously. Many fleet vehicles must remain heavier. These do better with plug-in hybrid drivetrain. Naturally, GM’s new hybrids are priced in the luxury car market. A car that’s driven less? GM’s solution: make them too expensive.

    1. This leads to shorter drives whereby in time, more trips can be made without having to drive.

      Take a trip and never have to leave the farm :=

    2. Serial hybrids are good tech — the smaller batteries make it much cheaper and with a much smaller environmental footprint. However, I would see those as being more appropriate for truly rural areas. For small towns and their environs, a short-range electric car — note, still smaller batteries — should be able to get you to *the train station*, where you would go if you needed to go long distance.

      Yes, I’m hoping for a substantial revival of intercity train service.

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