Is EV Battery Technology Goodenough?

Literally, yes it is. Last year, at age 97, John Goodenough received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to developing the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs) and cell phones. He shared the prize with M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino. It's because of their research that we have lots of fun electronic toys.

But also, no, EV battery technology is not good enough. The EV market is growing and people love their Teslas, but car battery technology is still too expensive to obsolete the internal combustion engine.  Here's fuel energy consumed in California through March 2020. Electricity reportedly provides 1% of the transportation energy provided by gasoline. 

LCFS Fuel Energy


Focusing on fuel energy is slightly unfair. EV batteries are 3.4 times more efficient than gasoline at turning energy into miles. Unlike internal combustion engines, batteries don't generate much wasted heat, and they can be recharged when braking.  But, 3.4 times 1% is still small.

California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) has a more modest goal than 100% de-carbonization. This year, it requires a 7.5% reduction in the carbon intensity (CI) of transportation fuels below 2010 levels, expanding to a 20% reduction by 2030.  Electricity is an important contributor to the 2020 goal; that 3.4 energy efficiency ratio helped it contribute a fifth of the credits required for compliance in the first quarter of the year.

LCFS Credits and Deficits

In its most recent data release, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) increased the amount of detail it provides on LCFS credit generation from electricity. Dan Mazzone added these data to our LCFS data app.

Of the 800,000 metric tons of credits generated from electricity in 2020Q1, two thirds came from electric cars, of which the vast majority (88%) came from at-home charging. Importantly, CARB observes the number of electric cars in each electric utility service area, but it doesn't observe the amount of at-home charging; it estimates the amount based on the best available data.

More than a quarter of 2020Q1 electricity credits came from electric forklifts and fixed guideway systems such as light rail and trolley buses. CARB has creatively found ways for low-carbon fuels to generate credits in the program even if they don't offset on-road consumption of gasoline and diesel in the state.

LCFS Electricity


In the first six years of the LCFS, the fuel industry accumulated 10 million metric tons of excess credits that can be used for future compliance. However, as the standard has gotten more stringent, it has gotten harder to meet. The industry has missed the target each quarter for the past two years, which does not bode well for compliance in 2030.  The credit bank balance is declining quickly.

The LCFS is a moving target, and it is speeding up. As I wrote last week, reaching the 2030 goal will require a whole lot more electricity or biomass-based diesel in the transportation system (unless hydrogen, biogas, or some other technology surprises us). There is no scope for LCFS credit prices to rise to incentivize these changes because they are essentially at their maximum allowed value. 

Battery technology has made great strides, but (without additional subsidies) it is not yet good enough to enable LCFS compliance in 2030, let alone de-carbonize transportation. Thankfully, Professor Goodenough is working on it, as are many others. 

LCFS Credit Bank


To investigate the LCFS further, including the plots in this article, visit our LCFS data app.  The app includes both the California and Oregon LCFS programs. 



Back-of-the-Envelope CI calculations:  In case you'd like to understand a little more about how fuel energy turns into credits and deficits, here are some rough calculations.  How did gasoline generate 3.4 million metric tons (MMT) of deficits and electricity 0.8 MMT of credits?

  1. Under the LCFS program, gasoline and gasoline-replacement fuels in 2020 are allowed a CI of 91.98 grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoule (gCO2e/MJ). Fossil gasoline has a CI of 101, and the state used 373 billion MJ of gasoline in the first quarter of 2020. At 9 gCO2e/MJ above the standard, this translates to 3357 billion gCO2e of deficits, or 3.4 MMT of CO2 equivalent.
  2. The state reportedly used 3.7 billion MJ of electricity in transportation in the first quarter of 2020, but electric motors are about 3.5 times more efficient than their internal combustion counterparts on average (3.4 for electric cars, 3.8 for forklifts), so electricity displaced about 3.5*3.7 = 12.6 MJ of gasoline. At 91.98-31.63 = 60.35 gCO2e/MJ below the standard on average, this translates to 782 billion gCO2e of credits, or 0.8 MMT of CO2 equivalent. 

All the details are in the app.