Welcome back to The Electric!
The next Live Chat is this Tuesday at noon E.T.: Will the U.S. Control Its Own Battery Fate? At the cusp of the new age of batteries and electric vehicles, China starts with a potent strategic advantage—possession of some 80% of the global battery metals supply chain. For the entirety of the 2020s, it will supply most of these materials to the rest of the world, making it sort of a battery OPEC. To discuss what the U.S. does next, I'm excited to welcome Venkat Srinivasan, who is coordinating the joint U.S. government-private effort to create a U.S. battery supply chain. RSVP here.
The 7 Things That Changed the Game for EVs and Batteries in 2021
For a decade and a half and longer, battery researchers around the world have toiled away to beat the horrendous physics of electrochemistry. Their objective has been to enable a goldilocks electric vehicle—one that can travel a long distance on a charge, accelerate fast, last a long time, not catch fire, and cost the same as a conventional car. In a battery, many of these are contradictory objectives, but if you could get there what you would have is a superbattery.
Last year, the superbattery seemed to become real: Tesla unveiled work on a massive reconfiguration of the lithium-ion battery that it called simply the “4680,” named after its metric dimensions, and said would lower costs by more than 50%. General Motors announced the Ultium, a battery it claimed would achieve all the supercapabilities. And Chinese company BYD disclosed the most revolutionary battery of all—the Blade, achieving almost all the goals with an iron-based cathode at a much lower cost than the others. The sky seemed the limit in terms of accelerating the age of EVs that most people can afford.
As 2021 draws to a close, though, last year’s celebratory mood seems premature. All at once, auto and battery makers are confronted with higher-than-expected costs for the raw materials required to manufacture lithium-ion batteries, as well as acute metals shortages and a threat to the basic economics of their EV strategies. As a result, the more than $100 billion GM, Ford, Volkswagen and other major automakers have pledged toward developing EVs looks woefully inadequate. And the arrival of large numbers of affordable EVs seems likely to be delayed until the late 2020s.
Below, I sketch seven events that fundamentally changed EVs and batteries this year, and how those events could mean that the rest of the decade will look decidedly different from what much of the industry and many investors expected when the year began.