Fascinating facts about advanced clean vehicle technology — from copper to the state of energy backup

Copper more important than lithium: I had an electrician in my house not long ago, evaluating what changeovers will be needed to plug in new appliances and get them working at the voltage and safety level they need. Somehow that kitchen evaluation meeting led to comments about a major problem for electricians, and electric vehicle makers and buyers, being caused by Elon Musk — too much copper is being put into Teslas and their charging network. That’s creating scarcity and driving up costs, he said.

Did Elon Musk take too much copper away from the global market?

Copper is used throughout electric vehicles, charging stations, and supporting infrastructure because of its durability, high conductivity, and efficiency — according to Copper Development Association Inc., a key trade group in the copper sector. For EVs, copper is a major component used in electric motors, batteries, inverters, and wiring. A battery electric vehicle can contain more than a mile of copper wiring in its stator windings used in electric motors.

Yes, Teslas and other EVs do use a lot of copper. They have four times the copper content than do gasoline-powered vehicles, says Greenlight Capital hedge-fund manager David Einhorn — and the cost is going up.

Copper Development Association reports that conventional cars use 18 to 49 pounds of copper; hybrid electric vehicles use an average of about 85 lbs.; plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) use about 132 lbs.; battery electric vehicles (BEVs) use about 183 lbs.; a hybrid electric bus uses about 196 lbs. and a battery electric bus uses about 814 lbs. of copper.

The copper trade group also estimated that BYD used 26 million pounds of copper in all its vehicles manufactured during 2016. The Chinese company that year also used more than 295,419 pounds of copper for all the chargers it sold.

Einhorn said demand for the metal has been growing significantly — 4 percent on average over the past 10 years. Beyond EVs, some of that growth will also continue to come form chargers, solar panels, and wind power. That should equate to about five million tons of demand growth per year by 2029, predicts Goldman.

Einhorn advises investing in copper due to increasing commodity prices and elevated profits for copper producers compared to past years. Prices have been going up — about 33 percent this year.

It ain’t all about the copper: Prices have been going up for EVs, such as the Tesla Model 3 recently being raised about $2,000 in sticker prices to a $39,990 starting price. The Model Y went up about $5,000 to $51,990. Asked about this on Twitter, CEO Elon Musk replied, “Prices increasing due to major supply chain price pressure industrywide. Raw materials especially.”

One of those materials has been computer chips. During the quarterly conference call in April, Musk told investors that the company set aside building luxury models — the Model S and the Model X — to send more chips over the Model 3 and Model Y. The shortage of computer chips has been a “huge problem,” Musk said.

It’s not all about Tesla, or EVs, overall. In July, the average price for a used vehicle jumped more than 21 percent to about $25,400 from $20,900 a year ago. For new cars, buyers that month started paying roughly $40,800, up about 4.9 percent year over year. Other similar price spikes were seen during that time, such as rate prices for rental cars at airports and in local markets. New and used vehicle supply has been tight, with much of that coming from the global supply chain being thrown off by COVID-19. Transporting vehicles from one city to another is also taking longer and costs have gone up.

GM facing EV battery fires: For months, General Motors faced mounting pressure this year connected to fire risk associated with LG battery packs used in the Chevrolet Bolt; a few of them caught fire during charging. The company has been able to resume production after fixing the problem, according to an August announcement. The automaker will replace batteries in all 2017 to 2022 Bolt EVs — which the company said will cost it about $800 million.

LG’s battery plants in Holland and Hazel Park, Mich., have resumed production. LG is also adding capacity to provide more cells to GM. Replacement battery modules are expected to begin shipping to dealers as soon as mid-October.

The cause of these fires will be addressed by new manufacturing processes by LG, and reviews of quality assurance programs with its partner, GM. The root cause has been identified as two manufacturing defects known as a torn anode and a folded separator, both of which need to be present in the same battery cell.

Heavy trucks helping AVs: Commercial trucks are likely to break through the barriers faced by autonomous vehicles in safety regulations and widespread adoption. That was highlighted recently during an ACT Expo speaker panel when Charlie Jatt, head of commercialization for trucking at Waymo, explained how the Alphabet subsidiary’s business plan has been morphing.

The Waymo One autonomous ride-hailing service is still going strong in the Phoenix area. Waymo Via, an autonomous trucking and local delivery solution, is a more recent addition to the Waymo family. Lessons have been learned from Google, and later Waymo, testing self-driving cars, and then transitioning over to Waymo One delivering passengers to destinations in converted, autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Lessons learned are being taken over to the heavy-duty side.

“We’ve taken that playbook, in knowing how to develop and deploy a fully driverless, fully autonomous, all-the-way solution, and apply it to the trucking market,” Jatt said.

Total cost of truck ownership study: Electric and fuel cell trucks gained attention as well lately from a new study launched by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The federal agency seeks to pinpoint the conditions for when battery electric or fuel cell electric commercial trucks offer economic advantages over traditional diesel-fueled trucks by examining a key metric—the total cost of ownership (TCO). 

Commercial trucks have quite different challenges than do passenger vehicles for complying with greenhouse gas emission rules. For one, the miles driven is much more for commercial trucks — about 120,000 miles per year versus about 15,000 for personal vehicles. The weight is much heavier, too, with Class 4 trucks starting around 14,000 pounds to Class 8 tractors hauling heavy loads and bringing the GVW up to 80,000 pounds. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks use about 26 percent of transportation fuel nationwide, while only making up about 4 percent of the total vehicle fleet.

The study compares six trucks powertrain technologies and operating scenarios for Class 8 tractors and Class 4 parcel delivery trucks. These technologies are conventional diesel, diesel hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric, compressed natural gas, fuel cell electric, and battery electric.

“Our objective was to provide a quantitative comparison of various powertrains to highlight the potential lifetime implications of each technology,” said Chad Hunter, lead author of the report and former NREL researcher. “This analysis found that battery-electric and hydrogen-electric powertrains could have a competitive TCO as early as 2025, even for Class 8 vehicles, which are notoriously difficult to decarbonize.”

Dead batteries galore: While electric vehicle sales haven’t hit the 10 percent mark yet, quite a few of them have been sold since 2010 — and the question of what happens to their battery packs once they end their shelf life becomes a tough one to answer. Millions of EV batteries will be showing up in the next few years. Once placed in landfills, the cells can release problematic toxins, including heavy metals. And recycling the battery can have hazardous effects, says materials scientist Dana Thompson of the University of Leicester in England. If you cut too deep into a battery cell, or in the wrong place, it can short-circuit, combust, and release toxic fumes, she says.

Thompson advocates for constructive actions to be taken to recycle some of the battery elements and take away valuable metals that can be used elsewhere. She’s worked on developing solvents for extracting valuable metals from spent car batteries. Another practice she and colleagues have advocated for has been testing and adopting better recycling methods for the used batteries that would not only prevent pollution, but also
Helping governments boost their economic and national security by increasing supplies of key battery metals that are controlled by one or a few nations. The U.S. Department of Energy has invested about $15 million into a ReCell Center to coordinate studies by scientists in academia, industry, and at government laboratories.

Big players in energy storage and backup: You might be familiar with the larger energy storage companies that are using battery storage systems to store and distribute electric power usually generated by renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal. The top five energy storage companies in the U.S. this year are: #1. NextEra Energy, #2. Toshiba, #3. Tesla, #4. sonnen GmbH, and #5. General Electric.

What about companies that are manufacturing home generator systems that can restore power to a home or commercial building during a blackout power outage? The unsuspected market leader here has been Generac, a 62-year-old Waukesha, Wis., manufacturer that has about 75 percent of standby home generator sales in the U.S. Climate change-driven weather crises have turned it into a hot commodity on Wall Street.

Homeowners are willing to pay about $12,400 for the Generic backup generator. Hurricane Ida left over a million people in Louisiana and Mississippi without power recently in the days of turbulent weather. Last year, the Energy Department reported 383 electricity disturbances. As of the end of June, there had been 210 so far this year with a larger surge typical to the second half of the year.

Engine-maker Cummins and heavy equipment company Caterpillar — two major players in the commercial truck manufacturing market — have entered the energy backup market. They have small shares compared to the market leader, but they could be tough competitors if they apply their experience and expertise in production and distribution to this new market.

And in other news………..
Beyond COVID-19: The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued new Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) that can inform the public and help reduce levels of key air pollutants, some of which also contribute to climate change. The new report shows a systematic review of accumulated evidence since 2005, with a marked increase of how air pollution affects different aspects of health. Exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million premature deaths worldwide each year, and results in the loss of millions more healthy years of life. In children, this could include reduced lung growth and function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma. In adults, ischaemic heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of premature death attributable to outdoor air pollution, and evidence is also emerging of other effects such as diabetes and neurodegenerative conditions. The report states that mortality is due to exposure to fine particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5), which cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers. Air pollution is now on a par with unhealthy diets and tobacco smoking for causing global health risks, WHO says.

Yet another EV SPAC coming up: Polestar, the Swedish electric car company that is a joint venture between Volvo and Geely, is going public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. Funds will be coming from billionaire and “serial SPAC backer” Alec Gores and investment bank Guggenheim Partners. Polestar is expected to have a $20 billion valuation and should bring in about $800 million for the company in cash.

The company’s headquarters is in Gothenburg, Sweden, and an assembly line in Chengdu, China. The startup has only released two vehicles so far: the $155,000 hybrid coupe Polestar 1 and the all-electric fastback sedan Polestar 2. The Polestar 3, an electric crossover SUV, is expected to be launched in late 2021.

More driver assist safety concerns: A regional California agency called out Tesla on Thursday over safety concerns for the automaker’s advanced driver assist system. This comes right before the company wants to launch a wide release of a test version of the software. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) is also disputing the name of the system, “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) saying it is an advanced driver assistance program, not an autonomous vehicle system.

Tilly Chang, Executive Director of the SFCTA, said in a statement to Reuters that a human driver should “continuously monitor” Tesla’s FSD system. “We are concerned about the safety record of this service and the name of the service as it could be confusing for consumers, and hope DMV, FTC and NHTSA continue to monitor and analyze this issue to protect consumers and the traveling public,” she said.

Charger landscape by 2030: Market research firm Guidehouse Insights expects that the world will have a fleet of 185 million plug-in electric vehicles by 2030. To keep these vehicles running, the charging infrastructure will obviously have to expand. That will come from a multi-tiered strategy. Light-duty vehicles capable of charging up to 500 kW will be common then, and heavy commercial vehicles capable of charging at more than 1 MW; some PEVs will be battery swapping capable, some will be vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capable, and some will be charged by wireless systems. Most will be AC- and DC -based charging systems. But more innovation is expected to show up with fast charging being part of it. Momentum is coming from programs and strategic moves adopted by governments, corporations, and automakers.

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