Dr. David Suzuki. Photo: CBC

Energy dilemma: to reduce oil consumption requires cheap, longer-range EVs but battery science is decade or two from delivering

David Suzuki is complaining “how difficult it is to have an honest, respectful, science-based discussion about Canada’s energy future,” arguing that Canadians are fearful and insecure about abandoning a big driver – oil and natural gas extraction – of the national economy. Well, let’s have that science-based discussion about oil.

About 75 per cent of crude oil is consumed by transportation (the remaining 25% is feedstock for petrochemicals), 55 per cent for ground-based transportation like light duty vehicles, freight trucking, and trains.

David SuzukiThere are only two ways to “abandon” oil in the near to medium-term.

One, with draconian public policy. Unfortunately for Suzuki, Canadians aren’t interested in this option. Across the country, even in hotbeds of eco-activism like Vancouver, Canadians favour a balanced approach that supports the energy transition but also supports developing oil and gas, as well as building pipelines to get those resources to international markets, according to David Coletto of Abacus Data, who has been polling on this issue for the past three years.

Two, find a substitute for it. The only plausible substitute is electricity.

When Suzuki argues that “By investing in this sunset industry [Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline], we further delay retiring carbon-creating assets and fall further behind in the global adoption of renewable energy,” he fails to acknowledge that those assets will only be retired when demand for them falls because consumers are buying a better technology.

So, how long before EVs finally crawl up the adoption S-curve, hit the tipping point, and begin displacing ICE cars in significant numbers?

Since Suzuki is touting “science-based analysis” he says argues against oil and pipelines, what is the state of EV science?

Not nearly as rosy as boosters like Bloomberg New Energy Finance claim.

“Our latest forecast shows sales of electric vehicles increasing from a record 1.1 million worldwide in 2017, to 11 million in 2025 and then surging to 30 million in 2030 as they become cheaper to make than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars,” BNEF forecasts in its 2018 EV report.

“By 2040, 55% of all new cars sales and 33% of the global fleet will be electric.”

If Suzuki is reading nonsense like this, no wonder he thinks oil is on its deathbed.

Now, let’s see what EV battery scientists and analysts have to say.

David Suzuki

Senior staff scientist Mike Toney and postdoc Johanna Nelson inspect the transmission X-ray microscope. Photo: Stanford University.

Prof. Mike Toney is an electrochemistry researcher with Stanford University, one of the leading American labs working on improved battery technologies.

“There’s that kind of incremental improvement which is kind of 5% or 6% per year, more or less independent of what your metric is,” he said in an interview with Energi News. “That will go on for a while.”

Chris Robinson agrees that EV sales will likely grow slowly over the next eight to 10 years as automakers squeeze every bit of improvement possible from Lithium-ion, the current dominant battery technology.

The next step change technology is likely to be solid-state batteries.

“If there’s been one development, it’s been really the strong emergence of solid-state batteries, using solid electrolytes instead of liquid electrolytes and incorporating nickel-rich cathode materials and silicon anodes to boost energy density,” the LUX Research analyst said in an interview.

While solid-state has leapt to the front of the pack over the past 12 to 18 months, it’s still a decade or so from commercialization.

“It’s not around the corner, but once again offers continued gradual improvements in energy density and, critically, safety,” he said.

I really wish I could tell you about these amazing battery breakthroughs, I think we might have a bit more business if that was the case, but, ultimately this is the same story of some really interesting and innovative ways to incrementally improve energy density and performance about 5% a year.”

David Suzuki

Tim Gretjak, Lux Research analyst.

Tim Gretjak is an engineer who worked in electrochemistry research before joining LUX as a battery analyst. He agrees with Toney and Robinson that solid-state technology holds the most promise for the future.

“Batteries in the future may achieve about double what you can get today. We’re talking about 400 watt-hours per kilogram as opposed to 250 today,” he said in an interview.

“The big question is, what’s the battery of the future going to be in 15 years? We think it’s probably going to be about 350 [watt-hours per kilogram] or so as sort of the upper end.”

In practical terms, this means a Tesla Model S range will jump from 500 kms to 900 or 1,000 and lower priced EVs like the Chevy Bolt will rise from 325 kms to 500 or 600.

It’s still too early, however, to guess how sold-state batteries will affect the purchase price of an EV (price is the #1 constraint to adoption, range is #2), according to Gretjak.

Based on LUX’s analysis of the science behind solid-state, and the interest in some of the larger players in the space – automakers, device manufacturers, research labs, chemical companies – Gretjak estimates that the new batteries “may see some early commercialization in the late 2020s on the consumer electric side, and then a few years for that to percolate into the EV space.”

I proposed a timeline for EV adoption to rise from its current fraction of a per cent of the global auto fleet to 80% to 90% market penetration for the three experts:

2018 to 2030 – an exciting time for EV battery technology and manufacturing that sees adoption rates rise to three to five per cent of global auto sales. This period lays the foundation for future rapid growth.

2030s – EVs are competitive with ICE vehicles and sales begin to accelerate.

2040s – Sometime this decade EV sales hit the tiping point in the S-curve and begin to rocket their way to market dominance.

2050 onward – The global auto fleet of over two billion vehicles turns over twice as ICE cars are retired and replaced with EVs.

David Suzuki

Chris Robinson, LUX Research.

Sometime around 2080, give or take a decade, EVs are the norm and aside from some residual demand for fuel in regions where ICE vehicles still make sense, the only demand for crude oil is for petrochemical manufacturing.

Toney, Robinson, and Gretjak agreed that based upon the current state of EV and battery technology, and the science that underpins it, this is a reasonable timeline.

The timeline comes with the usual caveat that a breakthrough in battery science or China’s manufacturing might driving down costs or the rise of mobility as a service or a global decision to price carbon – or some combination of all those possibilities – could speed up adoption.

But this is what the science says about the only fuel – electricity – that can displace oil for powering transportation.

If David Suzuki wants Canada to make energy policy based on one type of science (climate), he has to explain how policymakers are supposed to reconcile that goal with electrochemistry science and the lone timeline for EV adoption.

Suzuki and his fellow eco-activists aren’t the only ones that need to grapple with this question.

Any Canadian who argues that this country must do more to combate global warming so that Canada can meet its Paris climate targets has to resolve the oil conundrum: if we want emissions reductions faster, we either severely constrict Canadian lifestyles or we spend a great deal more to accelerate the technology that will displace oil.

Suzuki’s sin in The Guardian op-ed is to reduce this difficult policy and personal choice to talking points and sound bites about how “sound science is the best driver of smart policy” and “we risk meeting our Paris climate targets and we jeopardize our children’s future.”

Perhaps Dr. Suzuki could kick off the respectful, science-based discussion about Canada’s energy future by explaining how our country should resolve our fundamental energy dilemma?