In the modern era, batteries are king

In the modern era, batteries are king

It may surprise some people to learn that our transition to a low-carbon economy is actually progressing very well. It’s obeying every basic economic principle, such as those described by Rogers S-Curve, and Wright’s Law, and the Osborne Effect. The economic textbooks of the future will all be about how wind, solar and batteries entered the energy market and came to dominate it, and did it in a way that was exactly as we should have expected.

On the other side of the ledger, organisations like the International Energy Agency, OPEC and the OECD have been particularly bad at accepting (and expecting) what would happen. The problem with not understanding that things would change is that policy settings have said, “Oh, this is all too hard. This will be too expensive.”

But it hasn’t been too hard. It hasn’t been too expensive. We really should have gone faster. We’ve still got fossil fuels operating in a way today that, had we been more aggressive in our policy settings, we could have easily achieved a far more significant reduction without the costs that were being suggested.

Did we need to move faster on this climate change thing?

Yes, we did.

Those economic theories tell us that when you adopt a product quickly, it gets cheaper. And as it gets cheaper, it is adopted more quickly. Every time you double manufacturing, you reduce manufacturing costs. As we’re seeing with solar and wind and particularly now with batteries, the price has come down dramatically.

Did we need to move faster on this climate change thing? Yes, we did. When I was being interviewed on this subject back in about 2006, I was saying then that if we’re going to really beat climate change, then we need to have all our actions in place by 2020. When I’m asked in 2023 when we need all our actions in place, my answer is that we should have had them in place in 2020. That number was pretty much exactly right. The only thing we can do now is make things less bad.

We can make things less bad if we continue to push forward the adoption of low-emissions technologies, the rollout of renewables, and the end of new coal, gas and oil. All these things are actually happening now. We probably passed Peak Oil in 2020. We’re now seeing OPEC countries dropping oil production due to the adoption rate of electric vehicles. We passed 27 million vehicles at the end of 2022, and we’re going to hit 40 million in 2023. While electric vehicles are on a rise, overall car sales are falling, which means that combustion engine cars are actually exiting faster than people are thinking.

Graph showing oil consumption by selected countries from 1965 to 2021.
Oil consumption is measured in terawatt-hour (TWh) equivalents per year. Credit: Statistical Review of World Energy – BP (2022) /

I’m mostly an optimist. I’m very optimistic that we’ll do the wrong thing. Here we are investing in nuclear submarines when all the logic says we should be planning for a fully electric version.

Why would I say that? The big lesson of the 21st century has been all about mobility. To be mobile, we’ve needed to improve batteries. Batteries are king.

Mobile phones started us on that path in the 1990s. We went from carrying around those house bricks to get to the smartphone devices we’re using now which are incredibly energy hungry, but with batteries that can deal with it.

Graph showing increasing density of lithium-ion battery packs from 2008-2020.
Heavy investment in battery development has led to increases in the energy density of lithium-ion battery packs. Credit: Next-Generation Cobalt-Free Cathodes – A Prospective Solution to the Battery Industry’s Cobalt Problem by Muralidharan et al., published in Advanced Energy Materials, 2022.

Battery density is increasing at 6% per year. So over five years, you’ve got 30% improvement, over 10 years you got 60%. At the same time, we’re improving materials, and the way that batteries perform.

Bring that back to submarines. Conventional submarines run with diesel power and with lead acid batteries in the hold to give the submarine a range of about 700km before they have to come to the surface to recharge with their diesel generator.

If you swap those lead acid batteries with lithium-ion batteries, they increase the range six-fold. So we go from 700km to around 4,000km. And that’s with current battery density. We’re expecting to double that battery density in the next six to eight years, so then we’ll have a submarine without a diesel generator that’s got a range of 8,000km. Five years after that, we’ve got a submarine that will run only on batteries that could go 10,000km without carrying fuel and without producing any pollutants.

Every car that we build, every TV set, every computer needs to be able to be designed for its life after use.

The other component that’s really important for batteries is recyclability. A battery should be 100% recyclable. Ultimately, we should be able to reach a point where much of the battery ecosystem isn’t a mined resource but a recycled resource. We have to make sure it’s designed that way.

Apple has famously taken a sustainability path over the last decade or so. In 2013 they redesigned the iPhone so that it was recyclable: it can be stripped down into 13 component parts.

We need to do the same with everything. Every car that we build, every TV set, every computer needs to be able to be designed for its life after use. The key phrase these days is “cradle to cradle”. Recyclability is critical to everything we do.

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