The Electrification Dilemma: We Need Batteries To Stop Emissions, but We Need Emissions To Build Batteries

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

The Electrification Dilemma: We Need Batteries To Stop Emissions, but We Need Emissions To Build Batteries

In a sprawling new report, researchers from the University of California Davis asked what would would it take for the United States to electrify its entire passenger vehicle market by 2050. Their answer? The country would have to use three times more lithium each year than is currently mined globally.

Our planet, contains more than enough lithium to provide the batteries necessary to electrify the global economy. The issue is that extracting it from the ground requires a lot of energy in its own right. And while there’s been progress in transitioning the machines and supply chains involved in mining, most of the energy in the sector is still supplied by fossil fuels: A recent study from MIT concluded that manufacturing the 80kWh battery in a Tesla Model 3, created up to 12 times the carbon emissions of a car driven from New York to LA.

The problem basically boils down to this: We need batteries to stop emissions, but we need emissions to build batteries.


“There might be plenty of lithium in the long run, but that doesn't mean that we won't have shortages during crucial periods of time that prevent, essentially, the deployment of electric vehicles,” says Alissa Kendall, a civil engineer at UC Davis, who led the report’s lifecycle modeling. “It takes a long time to permit and build a lithium mine or an extraction site, and to also build the refining capacity and everything else that might be needed. The expectation is that the next five to 10 years is where we would expect to see some shortages.”

But that same 2050 demand curve is not absolute. In other words, there are other ways to meet the country’s 2050 climate goals. The UC Davis report focuses on three potentially dramatic changes the United States could make in order to reduce the demand for lithium and lithium mining: Reducing vehicle ownership, reducing battery size, and improving recycling.

Reducing vehicle ownership

The sprawling web of highways and streets that blanket the country and the existing high rates of vehicle ownership makes it nearly impossible to make drastic culture changes to the way we think about traveling.

That said, reducing personal vehicle ownership could reduce the demand for lithium in the country by 18-66%, depending on how aggressively we scale back. Fewer cars on the road obviously means fewer batteries, but historically in the United States, where car culture often feels like it’s enshrined in the Constitution, this has been a tough sell.

But according to Kendall, the sunken cost fallacy is in fact a fallacy.Our roads and car-centric infrastructure is heavily subsidized by the federal government. “If we actually look at a systems level, if we look at the true cost of everything, [personal vehicles are] very expensive as a way to move around,” she says. “And if we were to essentially change the way we do our accounting, we'd find that mass transit systems and other active modes of transport, like walking and cycling, are much more cost effective. But we need to make that initial investment to make that work.”

Reducing battery size

Similarly, just reducing battery sizes could reduce lithium demand by 42%. Which is a major ask considering the country is trending in the opposite direction. As EVs have gone mainstream consumer demand for larger cars and longer ranges have caused the average battery size to nearly double from 40kWh in 2015 to today’s average of 77kWh. As charging infrastructure improves and becomes more abundant, range anxiety should subside to some degree. But reducing battery sizes will require national-level policies aimed at densifying urban areas and promoting mass transit at a scale far beyond anything that’s been proposed so far.

Kendall is quick to point out that she and her colleagues are not arguing against electrification. Instead, they’re merely showing that electrification alone won’t get us to our climate goals without bigger changes. “If I had to crystallize it into one thing, it would be that investments in electric vehicles should be coupled with investments in mass transit and alternative modes of transportation,” Kendall says.

In the same vein, the report also emphasizes that these changes don’t apply to urban and rural areas equally. Rural areas will require cars with longer ranges and bigger batteries, but the majority of driving still takes place in cities, where mass transit, walking, and cycling would be most feasible and most effective.

Improving battery recycling and technology

According to the study, improved battery recycling could cut lithium demand in half. It’s also the least politically and socially contentious option. The process, however, is likely to face hard economic realities in terms of profitability and will likely require some level of subsidization if the burden is going to be absorbed by the private sector. There is grant money on the line for projects like this to the tune of $3 billion, but the funding environment is nascent, and the specifics of how much of that money will go towards recycling and how much is needed, is still being worked out. The application period hasn’t even opened yet.

There is, of course, the potential for new battery technologies to enter into the equation that disrupt the forecasts outlined in the report. Iñigo Capellán Pérez, a sustainability researcher at the University of Valladolid in Spain, likens these questions to the solar panel industry of 15 years ago.

At that time, solar panels relied on silver to convert sunlight into electricity, and forecasts showed dire bottlenecks looming for the industry as it attempted to scale up. Scientists eventually figured out, however, that with some tweaking, they could use copper instead. His own research on batteries mirrors many of the conclusions that Kendall and her colleagues draw in the new report. “So what happens is that these kinds of studies it’s like an alert or an alarm for manufacturers and for people developing new batteries, so that they know what they have to replace,” he says.

To that end, sodium-based batteries are in development, but are likely still 15 to 20 years away, if they pan out at all. Sodium is even more abundant than lithium, and while slightly heavier, it’s easier to mine and the process creates far fewer emissions, making it a tantalizing possibility as an alternative to lithium. Solid state batteries may wind up using somewhat less lithium and could be available somewhat sooner, but no one has successfully brought the technology to market yet.

The problem is the electrification of transport is happening today, meaning lithium ion batteries are the technology that has to work. It will be up to policymakers to ensure that electrification happens in concert with investment in mass transit and changes to our urban centers that reduce our dependence on cars. The Inflation Reduction Act contains billions in provisions to that end, but the specifics of how they’ll be used is still being worked out. The coming months and years will determine if electrification is remembered as a vital piece of the climate puzzle or another greenwashed idea that sounded nice on paper.

🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures
Image Source: Tinder

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Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

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  • Penguin Random House agreed to acquire comic book publisher Boom! Studios from backers like Walt Disney Co. - learn more

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Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

Focus: Industry Agnostic, AI/Robotics, Consumer, Clean Energy

Notable Past Companies: Lumin, Coinbase, Tenor


Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

Focus: Industry Agnostic, Connection to South LA and related communities

Notable Past Companies: ChargerHelp, Peadbo


Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

Location: Westwood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Health Care, Health Diagnostics, Medical Device

Notable Past Companies: Zeto, Genetesis


KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

Location: East Hollywood

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed, early stage

Focus: Pediatric Health Care Innovation

Notable Past Companies: Smileyscope, Zocalo Health


Disney Accelerator

Disney Accelerator is a startup accelerator that provides early-stage companies in the consumer media, entertainment and technology sectors with mentorship, guidance, and investment from Disney executives. The program, now in its 10th year, aims to foster collaborations and partnerships between innovative technology companies and The Walt Disney Company to help them accelerate their growth and bring new experiences to Disney audiences.

Location: Burbank

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Technology and entertainment

Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

Notable Past Companies: Pixxel, Morpheus Space



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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

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Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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