Anti-battery propaganda on Facebook

Perhaps one of your Facebook friends posted this piece of propaganda on their feed:

This machine is required to move 500 tons of earth/ore which will be refined into ONE lithium car battery.
It burns 900-1000 gallons of fuel in a 12 hour shift.
Lithium is refined from Ore using sulfuric acid.
A battery in an electric car, lets say an average Tesla, is made of …
25 pounds of lithium,
60 pounds of nickel,
44 pounds of manganese,
30 pounds of cobalt,
200 pounds of copper,
400 pounds of aluminum, steel, and plastic etc.
That averages 750-1,000 pounds of minerals, that had to be mined and processed into a battery that merely stores electricity …
Electricity which is generated by oil, gas, coal, nuclear, or water (and a tiny fraction of wind and solar)….
That is the truth, about the lie, of “green” energy.
There’s nothing green about the green new deal… Just a lot of pockets being lined and our environment being destroyed by greed, wilful ignorance and selfishness.

Fossil fuel companies have a lot to lose when the energy transition to renewable carbon-free energy sources takes place. Their whole business model of extracting, refining and selling fossil fuels will collapse. The longer they can delay that transition, they more money they can still make. That’s why they have an interest in spreading propaganda like that post above.

No verifiable source is given for any of the numbers in that text but here are some facts: Typical lithium ores (spodumene) in Australia contain about 1-2% Li, meaning for the 12 kg of Li in a car battery listed above you’d have to mine 0.6 to 1.2 t of ore, a far cry from the 500 t claimed. Since they gave no source it’s hard to know how they came up with such distorted figures.

Another major source of lithium are brines which don’t involve any hard rock mining at all though the quantities available are more limited and there are some issues with water consumption. Some companies are working on extracting lithium from geothermal brines as a side product of geothermal energy production.

The majority of Li-ion batteries produced in China these days are based on Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) chemistry, which unlike earlier Li-ion chemistries (NMC, NCA) do not require either cobalt or nickel (the C and N respectively in those acronyms).

In April 2022, LFP batteries in electric vehicles sold in China already outsold other types of Li-ion car batteries by about 2:1 (8.9 GWh vs 4.4 GWh). Tesla’s entry level models made at the Shanghai Gigafactory have switched to LFP too.

By the time most of us will switch to battery electric vehicles, i.e. within the next decade, LFP is likely to be largely superseded by sodium ion batteries. This new chemistry is technically very similar to Li-ion batteries. German battery expert Frank Wunderlich-Pfeiffer (@FrankWunderli13) estimates that by 2026-2028 sodium ion production will exceed lithium ion on a GWh basis. Why is sodium ion cheaper? Unlike lithium which only occurs in special ores that require processing, sodium makes up 39 percent of common table salt. A cubic meter of sea water contains about 14 kg of it. So any time someone says we don’t have enough lithium needed for replacing internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, they are not really looking at where the industry is heading over the next decade.

Talking about the CO2 output from electricity production is a distraction: Even in places like Poland or West Virginia where much of the power is produced from dirty coal, an electric car is responsible for less CO2 output than an ICE car because power plants are far more efficient than car engines. But the main point to remember is that the mix of energy sources will dramatically shift over the next 15-20 years, the lifetime of a car produced today. This will make BEVs cleaner every year. 20 years from now a gasoline powered car will still depend 100% on gasoline and emit as much CO2 in 2042 as it did in 2022. Meanwhile a BEV will run on a zero-carbon mix of solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal once the grid has been fully upgraded.

For those promoting hydrogen as an alternative to BEVs: That’s not going to happen. Hydrogen is not a viable alternative to BEVs, except maybe for trucks, ships and airplanes. There are several reasons for that. For a start, fuel cells are much more expensive than batteries. Battery prices have been falling faster than fuel cell prices which depend on platinum, a rare metal much more costly than any of the metals mentioned when people talk about batteries. Not coincidentally it is also the most widely used material for electrodes of electrolysers. Its second largest producer is Russia, a country now widely sanctioned because of a war that its government started.

BEVs have greatly benefited from demand for batteries by phones, laptops and other mobile devices that have paid for R&D, scaling up production and thus bringing down prices. In fact the first Tesla was based on the same battery cell type that laptops were using at the time. There has been no such synergy for hydrogen. It lacks economy of scale for fuel cells and its distribution system lags far behind while BEVs harness the existing electric grid.

The biggest problem with hydrogen however is the inefficiency of green hydrogen production: It takes roughly three times more electricity for making and consuming hydrogen than to charge and discharge a battery for a given driving distance. That’s because there are more energy losses turning electricity into hydrogen and back into electricity than there are in charging and discharging a battery. Because of this we’d have to build three times more wind turbines and solar panels to replace the same number of ICE cars with hydrogen cars than we would with BEVs. And it’s even worse with ICEs running on hydrogen, a concept promoted by some car manufacturers. On top of that ICEs burning hydrogen have higher smog-forming NOX emissions than ICE cars running on fossil fuels. BEVs don’t release any NOX. If you want clean air, BEVs beat hydrogen hands down.

In a world facing disastrous climate change that urgently needs to get down to zero carbon emissions, ICE cars have no future. Sticking with ICE cars isn’t an option. The choice is not between ICE cars or BEVs, it’s between either BEVs or walking, riding a bicycle or using public transport.

Japan’s new energy minister: More of the same

In his initial press conference, newly appointed Japanese energy minister Nishimura Yasutoshi called for restarting nuclear power stations to secure stable energy supplies. He announced there would be no policy change regarding Japan’s involvement with the Sakhalin-2 LNG project in the Russian Far East.

This choice of main topics of the news conference is typical for the public discourse here about energy policy and security:
1) Talk about whether to restart nuclear power or not
2) Talk about securing fossil fuel imports
3) Do not mention investment into offshore wind
4) Do not mention investment into grid expansion

Topics 3) and 4) are critical for weaning Japan off fossil fuel. 1) is a mere stop gap solution at best. Many nuclear stations shuttered after 2011 are too old for operators to make the necessary investments to bring them up to current safety codes. It wouldn’t be economically viable. The reactors whose restart is being promoted are equivalent to about 1/3 of the pre-2011 nuclear generation or roughly 10 percent of the pre-2011 annual electricity generation. While not trivial, it’s not a game changer. For that, Japan would have to embark on construction of new stations, which would be likely to run into political resistance at the local and national level.

Construction of new nuclear power stations will run into cost issues (see Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, Flamanville/France, Plant Vogtle/Georgia USA, Hinkley Point C/UK, etc). Many of these high profile nuclear projects by different companies in various countries have been billions of euros, dollars and pound over budget and years behind schedule. This seems to be a common theme. To build nuclear power stations takes a decade or more, which means capital is tied up for years and years before the first power flows ever into the grid. For example, construction at Flamanville started in 2007 while fuel loading will not take place before 2023, i.e. 16 years later. Or take Olkiluoto 3, where construction started in 2005 and as of 2022 i.e. 17 years later it still is not operating.

By contrast, large solar or wind projects tend be completed in 2-3 years at most.

As a country with a long coast line Japan has huge wind power potential which will complement its solar potential but it is way behind the curve compared to China, European nations or the US. Almost all renewable energy other than hydro power in Japan has been photovoltaic.

To maximize the potential of renewal energy which will often be found far from population centers, Japan needs to build long distance High Voltage DC (HVDC) lines so power from Kyushu and Hokkaido can supply Tokyo and Osaka.

Offshore wind and HVDC are near absent in the public energy debate in Japan. The Japanese economy suffered “lost decades” after the burst of its 1980s’ investment bubble. Unless it invests in offshore wind (and also geothermal power) and a HVDC grid backbone, it will suffer another lost decade in a delayed energy transition.

So why is the government not acting? The interests of Japanese utility companies on one side and of Japanese power consumers and of the planet as a whole on the other are not aligned and politicians of the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition are picking the wrong side.

Japanese utility companies own existing assets such as old nuclear power stations and thermal power stations. The longer they can utilize these assets to generate and sell power, the more money they will make. If they were forced to buy zero-carbon wind power from third-party offshore wind farms in Hokkaido or Kyushu they won’t be able to sell as much power from their own coal-burning or nuclear power stations in the Kanto or Kansai. Utility companies are still building new coal-burning power plants today. They don’t want to see these plants shuttered but to contribute to their profits for the next 20 years and more.

If we let them get away with it, it would be disastrous for trying to minimize the scale of the climate change threat. Climate change will devastate Japan through hurricanes, flooding, landslides and rising sea levels. The political leaders of Japan need to prioritize the interests of the power consumers and of everyone threatened by climate change. Currently they are acting as lobbyists for the utility companies.

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Battery electric cars in Japan

BYD, China’s leading EV maker announced it will release three models for the Japanese market in 2023.

Meanwhile Toyota has only launched a single battery electric model in its domestic market (Toyota bZ4X SUV in 2022) while Nissan has launched two (Nissan Leaf in 2010, Nissan Ariya SUV in 2022). Both brands are still concentrating on gasoline-powered hybrids. The bZ4X is also offered as the Subaru Solterra, with some minor differences from the Toyota-badged model.

Germany’s VW is still holding back on its ID.3 and ID.4 models in Japan, perhaps because it can’t manufacture enough of them even for the European market. The VW group is only represented here in the battery electric market by its luxury brands Audi and Porsche.

Korea’s Hyundai launched the Ioniq 5 this spring, with the larger Ioniq 6 to follow next year.

It looks like 2023 will be an interesting year for BEVs in Japan which until now has been lagging far behind China, North America and Europe in the electric mobility transition.

On my last trip to the UK I was amazed by the number of BEVs of every brand and model I saw in London compared to Tokyo. In 2021, only 10,843 Nissan LEAF and another 8,610 imported electric cars were sold in Japan (about 60% of which were Tesla). That’s under 20,000 in total or 0.2 % of about 6.9 million new cars sold. The UK, with roughly half the population of Japan, bought 190,727 new electric cars the same year. About 1 in every 6 new cars registered in June 2022 in the UK was battery electric.

China recognized that BEVs are a strategic move. Taking the lead will allow them to leapfrog laggards like Toyota who are too wedded to their own past successes to make the necessary transition to a decarbonized future. And it’s not just about the cars: China also added more solar and wind power last year than the rest of the world combined to make it possible to charge these cars without burning fossil fuel. It has heavily invested in long distance HVDC transmission to shift renewable power over great distances while Japan’s grid still consists of separate grids in West Japan, East Japan and in Hokkaido with extremely limited interconnection capacity.

A couple of months ago Toyota upgraded its forecast for electric vehicle sales in 2030 from 2 million a year to 3.5 million a year, which is about one third of its current annual sales. That’s for almost a decade in the future! This suggests it doesn’t see a tipping point where battery electric overtakes internal combustion engines until later in the 2030s. It is hardly surprising then that during the recent G7 conference in Germany, Japan lobbied hard to remove a goal of at least 50% zero-emission vehicles for 2030 from the climate goals communique, presumably at the request of its car industry. Meanwhile 80 percent of new car sales in Norway are already battery electric.

When Toyota launched the bZ4X into the Japanese market this year, it announced a sales goal of only 5,000 units, roughly 1/10 of annual sales of the Toyota RAV4 that it most closely resembles and half of the annual volume of the 11 year old Nissan LEAF.

Furthermore, the bZ4X is not offered for sale to individual consumers who can only get it through leasing contracts. Supposedly this is “to eliminate customer concerns regarding battery performance, maintenance, and residual value.” This move paints long term performance of battery electric cars as a weak point when it isn’t (at least it isn’t with Tesla and other brands). By offering only leasing contracts, Toyota is casting shade on the technology.

At least due to the launch of the bZ4X Toyota will install DC fast chargers at its dealerships by 2025. Many Nissan and Mitsubishi dealers already have 30 kW DC chargers installed and a few have 50 kW chargers (more kW means a faster maximum charging rate) while most Toyota dealers still only offer 200 V AC charging, the most basic of all. The maximum charging rate with 200 V AC is a mere 6 kW. In countries with three phase AC, a 3 phase domestic AC charger that supports 11 kW will be offered by Toyota from the end of 2022. Until then, home charging in your garage or driveway will be limited to the lower rate.

DC charging of the bZ4X can go as fast as 150 kW, but available public DC chargers in Japan right now tend to be limited no more than 50 kW (most of them at car dealerships). For example, right now there are only 4 locations in Central Tokyo that offer 90 kW or more.

I think we will see change in the battery electric vehicle market Japan in the next few years, largely driven by foreign manufacturers introducing new models that Toyota, Nissan and other manufacturers will struggle to compete with. But they will have no choice but step up the pace of the zero-carbon transition if they don’t want to lose their existing market share here in Japan and in export markets. Otherwise Toyota may become the Nokia of the car industry.

Russia’s Gas Blackmail

Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s dependence on Russia for gas supplies rose as high as 55% in 2020.

The first gas pipeline connecting Germany to the Soviet Union crossed the then Czechoslovak border at Waidhaus. The Transgas pipeline crossed the former Soviet (now Ukraine) border at Uzhhorod (Russian: Ushgorod). Via Ukraine it connects to Belarus and Russia. Even during the cold war it reliably supplied Germany with cheap Soviet gas.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, its largest successor state Russia has had disputes with several of its ex-Soviet neigbours, including Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. These countries were earning transit fees from gas exported through their territory while also buying some Russian gas for their own use. As long as large consumers in the west were relying on the same pipelines as Russia’s immediate neighbours it wasn’t possible for Russia to halt gas supplies for example to Ukraine as a method of blackmail without jeopardizing long-term lucrative contracts with Western European customers.

That is why Russia came up with the plan to essentially duplicate the existing pipelines through these countries with a more costly set of new pipelines at the bottom of the Baltic sea that went directly from Russia to Germany, without crossing other countries.

The primary purpose of Nord Stream 1 (NS1) and Nord Stream 2 (NS2) was to destabilize the European countries hosting the existing transit pipelines and to expose to Russian energy blackmail. When Germany signed up for NS1 and later NS2, it clearly understood this motivation on Russia’s side but, with active lobbying by ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, it chose to turn a blind eye to the implications. To Germany it was somebody else’s problem.

Well, the chickens have come home to roost: Now it is Germany that is being blackmailed and extorted by Russia while the Baltic states and Poland are already independent from Russian supplies as they have sought out supplies of LNG instead. Germany is still working on making that switch.

On June 13, Russia cut the flow of gas through NS1 by 60%. It blamed this on a turbine at the Russian compressor station in Vyborg (between Finland and St Petersburg) that needed to be refurbished in Canada. The Canadian government was reluctant to return it to Russia because of sanctions.

Eventually a deal was reached between Canada and Germany to return the turbine to Germany, which could then send it to Russia. However, that is not the real story: Germany’s economy minister Robert Habeck made clear that this is just Russia’s excuse and not the actual reason for cutting supplies. Germany can also receive gas from Russia via pipelines that terminate in Mallnow (Yamal-Europe pipeline) and Waidhaus (Transgas). Right now, no gas enters Germany through Mallnow and all the gas that eneters via Waidhaus is fed via NS1 in the north, not Transgas in the east. As separate pipelines, Yamal and Transgas do not depend on the NS1 compressor station and turbine. On top of that there are also multiple turbines at Vyborg, which is why any single one being out of service is no cause for major disruption.

What Russia is doing is to intentionally throttle gas supplies to Germany to prevent it from refilling its gas storage sites. Germany is aiming to fill its storage sites to 90% or more of capacity by November 1 so that it can get through the winter without being subject to Russian blackmail. The less gas it receives now when demand is relatively low the more difficult that goal becomes.

In 2015, a year after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, a subsidiary of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom bought Germany’s biggest gas storage site in Rehden near the northern city of Bremen. Rather than fill the site before winter as is usual to insure against supply disruptions, Gazprom has kept this site nearly empty for the past year or so. Normally companies use cheap gas in Summer to fill storage sites to have sufficient gas available when demand is high. Without storage if gas flow through the pipelines is stopped there will be no immediate alternative to keep homes warm and the economy running. Germany has now taken control of the storage site had been steadily refilling it until the recent supply cuts.

Right now gas flow through NS1 is completely suspended for annual servicing but the big question is if supplies will resume after 10 days or if Russia will come up with a different excuse. It is playing mind games with Germany. If Germany can not fill its storage and Russia choses to cut supplies during the winter then this will create political pressure on Germany to do whatever Putin wants it to do. It’s an effort designed to split the Western alliance and to end Germany’s support for Ukraine, which already is somewhat half-hearted compared to eastern NATO members or the United States.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, Russia’s highest priority with gas supplies is not to make money but to project imperial power. Gazprom is part of an empire, not a business. Russia has already sacrificed its position as a reliable energy supplier for political purposes, i.e. an attempt to restore Imperial Russia. There is no going back now. Even if Putin were to lose power, Europe will never again make itself dependent on Russian supplies. It will transition to alternative gas supplies and non-fossil energy as quickly as possible. Russia’s biggest cash cow will soon become worthless, long before gas wells would normally have run dry.

The transition to a non-fossil future may be difficult and expensive, but it is necessary because of climate change and Putin’s blackmail of several countries may end up greatly accelerating it. To get through the transition, Europe needs to work together to maximize alternatives to Russian oil and gas. It must not give in to blackmail.

Tokyo in a power crunch

On March 22, 2022 the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco) warned electricity consumers in east Japan about the risk of rolling blackouts from a tight supply situation. The recent M7.3 quake near Sendai had knocked several of Tepco’s thermal power plants offline, which left the company in a difficult situation when a cold spell with snow flakes hit the region of the capital. Demand at times exceeded generation capacity and only the availability of pumped hydro storage saved the day before measures to curb demand such as turning down heating and switching off lights averted an outage.

No doubt this experience will increase pressure to restart more nuclear power stations that have been shuttered since the tsunami and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima in March 2011. Before the nuclear disaster about 30% of Japanese generating capacity were nuclear; now only about 10% comes from restarted nuclear reactors. The current high prices of natural gas will further enhance the attraction of nuclear, at least in the eyes of anyone whose financial interests are tied to the balance sheet of the utility companies, such as their individual and institutional shareholders.

However, that is not the whole story.

While eastern Japan was in a power crunch, western Japan has ample spare capacity, as did Hokkaido. Why could this power not be used in Tokyo? You would have thought Japan would have learnt its lesson from the 3/11 disaster in 2011 and addressed it in the decade since then, but you would be wrong: Japanese electricity markets are still split between a handful of regional near-monopolies with minimal interchange capacities between them. For example, the Hokkaido grid has a generating capacity of 7.5 GW but only 0.6 GW of interchange capacity with Honshu (8% of the total). Tepco supplies up to 47 GW to customers in its area but can only exchange up to 1.2 GW with major utilities in the west of Japan. This leaves little margin when earthquakes or weather events with a regional impact hit supplies.

By contrast, China has built huge high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines between the industrialized coastal cities on one side and hydroelectric power stations near the Tibetan plateau and solar and wind farms in the arid north on the other. Many of these lines are longer than the distance from Tokyo to Hokkaido, let alone Tokyo to Kansai. The Chinese government understands that if it wants to wean itself from the dependence of dirty coal or imported oil and gas then it will need to vastly increase power transfer capacity from the interior of the country where renewables are available to the densely populated urban areas near the coast lines.

Japan is actually in a similar situation. The elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about is offshore wind. While European countries and the US are building up tens of Gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity, Japan has very little installed capacity, particularly offshore. The entire conversations seems to be about nuclear vs. solar vs. gas vs. coal, leaving out one of the most promising renewable energy sources available to Japan. So far the regulatory hurdles for erecting and connecting wind turbines in Japan have been high and that has left wind as an also ran compared to much more widely deployed solar. However, solar does not provide power at all hours. Wind would complement it.

Much of the European wind power capacity is installed offshore where wind speeds tend to be high and more consistent than onshore. This is where the largest and most economical turbine models tend to be used. By contrast, almost 99% of Japan’s wind power capacity is still onshore. A cumulative total of only 51.6 MW of offshore wind capacity was installed at the end of 2021 while total installed wind power capacity was 4.6 GW. Meanwhile the UK had 24.7 GW of wind power capacity, Spain 27.1 GW and Germany 62.2 GW. China is in a league of its own with 282 GW, more than all of Europe combined. Japan’s installed wind power base is less than that of small European countries such as Belgium (4.7 GW) that have relatively short coast lines and tiny EEZs: Japan’s EEZ of 4,479,388 km2 is over 1000 times larger than Belgium’s at 3,447 km2!

Japan is really only starting to build up offshore wind capacity, with projects off the coasts of Akita, Chiba and Nagasaki getting under way in the last two years. By 2030 its goal is for 10 GW of offshore capacity either installed or under construction which is still tiny compared to the already installed base of Germany, Spain or the UK.

Unlike fossil fuel or nuclear power stations, wind turbines are not location independent. They will be installed where wind conditions are favourable, where the sea is not too deep and connections to the coastal grid are cost-effective. To make the most of the wind conditions, the grid will need to be greatly expanded to allow large amounts of power to be transferred from regions with plenty of wind to regions with many consumers. This will be quite different from the current model where utility companies try to generate all the power they need within their own region, which is why there is only limited interchange capacity to help out if one company loses a large part of its generating capacity as happened in the recent quake or after 3/11.

Japan needs to start building high capacity long distance HVDC power lines like China has in order to enable a transition to zero carbon electricity. The fragmented power markets dominated by local utility companies are an obstacle to this transition as the interests of the regional companies seeking profits from existing investments in their area are not aligned with the interests of the consumers who want reliable green energy regardless of where it comes from.

Japan quickly needs to remove regulatory obstacles to expanding wind power and then invest to build a HVDC backbone to connect renewable power generation with consumers.

Hokkaido wind power for Japanese energy

Nikkei reports (“Japan pushes for undersea cables to solve wind power puzzle”, 2022-01-02) that the government is allocating 5 billion yen (about US$43 million) in its supplementary budged for a feasibility study for a 4 GW high voltage direct current (HVDC) link between the power grids of the northern island of Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu, where most of Japan’s population lives. This would be by far the biggest HVDC link ever built in Japan. The Japanese government wants to generate 45 GW of power from offshore wind in 2040, up to about a third of which (14.65 GW) is to be produced in Hokkaido. The development plan lists several promising offshore areas along the southwest coast of Hokkaido.

For this power to be available to consumers outside the northern prefecture, it would need to be exported via a HVDC link. This is the preferred technology for shifting large amounts of power over long distances, especially between AC grids not synchronized with each others or operating on different frequencies. Since 2019 there have been two 300 MW HVDC links between the two islands. Their combined capacity is to be doubled to 1.2 GW by 2028.

Japan has relatively little capacity for transferring power between its regional grids. This is because its grids used to be operated by regional monopolies that had little incentive to ever import or export power. This lack of interconnect capacity became a major problem following the power shortage after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami when less affected areas could not help out the most affected region. There is a conflict of interest between the local utility companies and the country as a whole. Tepco owns a lot of nuclear power stations, expensive infrastructure with huge sunk costs. It would rather generate power from these plants than pay another supplier from outside its area for renewable energy. However, many of these power stations have yet to be restarted since their shutdown following the Fukushima meltdowns. By restricting how much power can be imported from other grids, Tepco can put pressure on regulators to allow it to restart more reactors to ensure a stable supply of power. On the other hand, expanding interconnect capacity would ease the pressure. Which side will the Japanese government take?

A related issue is the variable output of renewable power sources. Long distance transmission will make it easier to compensate for local weather patterns by shifting power between different regions, which allows a larger share of renewable energy to become part of the mix without having to resort to either energy storage or peaker plants (e.g. gas turbines to cover peak loads). That again means Tepco loses leverage to maintain coal and other fossil fuel powered generating capacity as insurance against shortfalls of renewable energy.

China, one of Japan’s main economic rivals in the world, has pursued a completely different course. Over the past decade it has aggressively expanded long distance HVDC links to stabilize its grid. Japan operates a single HVDC link of at least 1 GW, a 1.4 GW link between Honshu and Shikoku that started operating in 2000. All other links are only in the several 100 MW range and most of those are not long distance lines but back-to-back local interconnects, for example between the 50 Hz grid of eastern Japan and the 60 Hz grid of western Japan near Nagoya. By contrast, China has built over 20 HVDC links over 1 GW, mostly with a capacity of 3 GW or more. Many of the biggest projects cover distances of 1,000 to 2,000 km. This allows China to supply it coastal megacities with hydroelectric power from its southeastern mountains or from other power sources from its arid central parts. China is the world leader in wind power. Its windiest parts are along its border to Mongolia and on the Tibetan plateau. Large scale HVDC is key to China’s energy policy for the 21st century.

An alternative to shifting power long distance is to use it to locally generate hydrogen from water (“green hydrogen”) and feed it into pipelines or use it to make ammonia. This makes some sense for applications that already use hydrogen, such as the fertilizer industry or for carbon free alternatives to existing technology, such as direct reduction of iron ore for steel making without using coking coal. However, it makes little sense to use green hydrogen for power generation: if you convert electricity to hydrogen which you then use to generate electricity, more than 70 percent of energy is lost in the process while less than 30 percent remains. By contrast, batteries are 90 percent efficient. Therefore, if excess wind or solar power is used to produce hydrogen, that resource should best be used by industries that directly consume hydrogen, until all fossil fuel currently used for such purposes has been replaced.

If Hokkaido had a surplus of hydrogen from wind power, it would make more sense to have it consumed by steel works and fertilizer plants built in the prefecture rather than sending it through a pipeline to Honshu.

Although green hydrogen or ammonia can be used as fuel in thermal power plants in place of coal or LNG, it would be a terribly wasteful use. Because of the huge conversion losses, we would need three times more wind or solar power to end up with the same amount of usable electricity than if we used grid-scale battery storage to absorb any surplus and make it available when needed. This advantage makes grid-scale battery storage a strategic technology.

Most existing Li-ion batteries depend on relatively scarce resources such as cobalt, nickel and lithium. Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries only require lithium and widely available materials, while sodium ion batteries use only readily available raw materials. Japan will need to invest in high capacity long distance HVDC links as well as in battery storage to speed up its transition to a carbon neutral economy.

Toyota Hydrogen Combustion Engine Cars

Since 2014 Toyota has sold a little over 10,000 Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV). The starting price of this 4 seat sedan model in Japan is about 7.1 million yen (currently about US$63,000) which is more than 50% more expensive than a battery electric Tesla Model 3 which seats 5 adults. And it seems unlikely that Toyota can make a profit on a car being made in such small numbers as the Mirai, unlike Tesla does with the cars it makes in large numbers in its plants on three continents.

Tesla sold about half a million battery electric vehicles (BEVs) last year and looks set to sell somewhere between 900,000 and 1 million cars in 2021. This means Tesla will have sold twice as many BEVs every week in 2021 than the total number of FCVs Toyota has sold since 2014. The sales gap between BEVs and FCVs is getting bigger and bigger.

Recognizing that the high cost of fuel cells makes it difficult to compete, Toyota has announced that it sees a market for cars with internal combustion engines (ICE) that burn hydrogen instead of gasoline. They should be cheaper to make than fuel cell cars and will not produce any CO2 if hydrogen is made from non-fossil energy sources.

It’s not a novel idea though. BMW tried it in its BMW Hydrogen 7 technology carrier based on its 7-series back in 2005-2007. It never went anywhere. Besides the absence of a fuel supply network, there were also issues with emissions. Hydrogen flames burn extremely hot, which means you end up with a lot of smog-forming NOX emissions — worse than diesels.

In terms of efficiency, hydrogen ICEs are worse than FCVs which are much worse than BEVs. While BMW used cryogenic tanks with liquefied hydrogen at -253 °C, Toyota most likely will use high pressure tanks like in its Mirai for its hydrogen ICEs. They hold hydrogen gas at pressures of up to 700 bar. Both liquefaction and compression require huge amounts of electricity that can not be used for propulsion but is effectively wasted. An FCV consumes three times more electricity for electrolysis to make the hydrogen fuel it consumes than a BEV uses to charge a battery to drive the same distance. A hydrogen combustion engine is even less efficient. Where will this hydrogen come from? We don’t currently have a surplus of solar panels or wind turbines to produce this electricity. That means a hydrogen economy will need significantly larger investments in renewable energy than with battery vehicles. Hydrogen for cars makes no economic sense whatsoever.

It makes even less sense for hydrogen ICEs than for hydrogen FCVs. Fundamentally, it’s no more than an excuse for not giving up on building internal combustion engines, pretending that nothing has changed even in a world that is facing climate change that we need to address as soon as possible.

I am afraid Toyota will not make a turn-around and face the reality that the industry is switching to BEVs within the shortest time possible until it replaces Toyoda Akio, its current company president. Mr Toyoda is the grandson of the founder of the company and a keen race car driver. He lacks the vision that Toyota will need in the transition to a carbon free future. Mr Toyoda needs to retire, along with the dead-end technologies he is committed to.

Subaru announces the Solterra, it’s first battery electric car

Perhaps not by coincidence Subaru chose the week of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to launch its first battery electric car, the Solterra (the name is a portmanteau of the Latin worlds for sun and earth). To say that it’s based on the same “e-TNGA” electric vehicle platform as the Toyota bZ4X understates how much the two cars have in common: They are basically one and the same car fitted with different badges. Even the wheels are the same. You have to look very carefully at this pair of genetically identical twins until you find a minor detail that distinguishes them: Yes, the rear lights are a bit different.

Toyota owns 20% of Subaru and they have shared models before (Toyota 86 / Subaru BRZ), but I did not expect to see so little recognizable Subaru DNA in their first battery electric vehicle. Yes, there is a four wheel drive model of both the Solterra and the bZ4X and one assumes that Subaru had a hand in design choices for this, but 4WD is by no means unique for BEVs, as models ranging from the Tesla Model 3 to the Volkswagen’s ID.4 are also offered in dual motor 4 wheel drive configurations. Even the hybrid Prius is available in an electric 4WD version.

What seems a little odd is that the non-4WD model is front wheel drive (FWD). In internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, FWD offers some advantages as it saves having to have a long drive shaft between the front engine and the rear differential. The engine and the gearbox can be bolted together and directly drive the nearby front wheels. At the same time the weight of the engine and gearbox provides good traction for the driving wheels, especially in wintry conditions.

With a BEV however, the bulk of the weight is not in the engine but in the battery under the passenger compartment. Thus there is no real advantage in driving the front wheels as opposed to the rear wheels.

An electric motor driving the rear wheels can be very compact, not much bigger than the rear differential and exhaust system in rear wheel drive (RWD) ICE car. Without the traction advantage of the engine over the wheels, it would be better to go for RWD to get more weight on the driving wheels when going uphill or when accelerating. The turning circle would benefit too if the driving wheels don’t have to steer. It is no coincidence that both Tesla and Volkswagen use RWD for their BEVs, in the case of Volkswagen despite the fact that its best selling models such as the Golf and Passat are FWD. So why not Toyota and Subaru? It’s a mystery to me.

Another detail that surprised me was that even though DC charging on this car can reach a respectable 150 kW, AC charging at home is limited to mere 6.6 kW, which is less than for a compact Chevy Bolt. A Golf-sized ID.3 actually handles up to 11 kW. Some of this may be due to the Japanese Chademo charging standard and domestic grid considerations, as Japanese households only have access to 100 V and 200 V single phase current while the US and Europe use the CCS standard and 120 V / 230 V respectively, with 400 V 3-phase AC available anywhere in Europe. So even if there were technical reasons for limited AC charging speeds in Japan, export models should be able to do much better. Toyota may have specified its home charging module to the smallest common denominator, which if true is a bit disappointing.

As for the looks of the Toyota bZ4X / Subaru Solterra, to me they look like a close cousin to the existing Toyota RAV4 that I personally do not find very appealing. However, it is a big seller in the US market and this similarity may help move existing RAV4 owners over to BEV models once they become available some time in 2022.

Toyota has never been enthusiastic about battery electric vehicles. Its official line has been that hybrids are good enough for today and tomorrow we’ll get hydrogen fuel cell cars like its own Toyota Mirai, with all the benefits of battery electric but none of the drawbacks. There was no real space for battery electric in this vision. Toyota clearly over-promised and under-delivered on this strategy: Hybrid cars still spew CO2 into the atmosphere while almost all hydrogen today is made from fossil fuels. Battery electric does much better than that.

In Japan Toyota could rely on the government to help promote its “hybrids today, hydrogen tomorrow” story but in international markets that won’t fly. There the war for the future of the car is over and battery electric won hands down. No other country has a comparable push for hydrogen refuelling infrastructure as Japan has. Even if there were a domestic market for hydrogen cars in Japan, there won’t be any export markets.

Most experts agree that hydrogen vehicles are at least three times less energy efficient than battery electric vehicles, a flaw that would kill them even if the cars and the necessary fueling infrastructure could be built for the same cost, which isn’t the case. Batteries are far cheaper than hydrogen fuel cells and DC chargers are cheaper than electrolysers and hydrogen fuel stations. With battery prices falling further and further, within a few years BEVs will become cheaper to build than hybrid cars. Then the speed of conversion will only be limited by battery production capacity. It’s not clear Toyota will have the right investments in place by then, since it says its future BEVs will eventually be using solid-state batteries, an as yet unproven technology that only exists in the lab.

Until now Toyota had been avoiding BEVs except for the Chinese market, as it hoped buyers would keep buying its existing more profitable hybrid models. That is becoming a risky bet. Drastic changes needed to avoid the worst of a climate disaster no longer seem so radical compared to worldwide measures taken to deal with SARS-CoV-2. Huge numbers of consumers are ready for change. New BEVs by competitors are picking up market share in the US and in Europe. Toyota can no longer afford to wait on the sidelines or it will be seen as becoming irrelevant due to obsolete products.

This new BEV model is a very cautious move by Toyota and Subaru. Instead of competing head on with Tesla or Volkswagen, Toyota and Subaru are entering the BEV market only about as far as they absolutely have to, to still be a credible global player in 2022. The two companies will have to up their stakes to keep up with market developments.

METI and Japan’s exit from the Carbon Economy

On the eve of COP26, the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the Japanese government took out a full page ad in the Japan times to talk about “beyond zero”, a series of events and initiatives related to Climate Change. It struck me that none of them were specifically about renewable energy, the essential ingredient for a carbon-free economy.

The title of “Tokyo Beyond Zero Week” already had me confused: It reminded me of the Toyota bZ4x, a battery electric SUV that is the first mainstream battery electric vehicle for the Japanese market that Toyota has announced. Toyota has become notorious for bucking the Battery electric trend by plugging hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells, despite hydrogen fuel from renewable sources being 3 times less energy-efficient than battery electric vehicles. The bZ4x is too little, too late when Toyota is telling potential customers that they should really be buying hybrids like the Prius or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles like the Mirai.

METI, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has been sponsoring vehicles based on hydrogen fuel cells using hydrogen made from Australian brown coal (lignite), with the resulting CO2 emissions sequestered using “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) and the hydrogen shipped to Japan in cryogenic tank ships developed by Japanese shipyards with METI funding. Essentially it’s a massive pork barrel project, designed to pay industry players to go along with a Rube Goldberg project that will not be economically viable. It’s a way of keeping ecological laggards such as Toyota and the huge Japanese shipbuilders and trading companies relevant. Some of the initiatives sponsored by METI are:

  • LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) Producer-Consumer conference
  • International Conference on Carbon Recycling
  • International Conference on Fuel Ammonia

There is no place for LNG in a zero carbon economy. “Carbon Recycling” aka CCS is a fig leaf to keep burning fossil fuels. Ammonia may be a necessary fuels for ships and airplanes, but if it’s made from coal it won’t be green energy.

Why is the METI ad not talking about offshore wind and geothermal power, two of the most important energy sources for green baseload electricity? It’s because they are primarily concerned about creating and maintaining business opportunities for Toyota, trading companies making profits from fossil fuel imports and other companies wedded to the fossil fuel industry and not about how to get Japan ready for the zero carbon age.

I find this very sad. As a country with limited fossil fuel resources, Japan could become a prime player in the post-carbon era, developing new technologies to help other countries move beyond fossil energy sources. Japan has huge opportunities in offshore wind, onshore wind, solar and geothermal but its government has been largely turning a blind eye to them because those energy sources can not be controlled by its big trading companies. Likewise, its biggest automobile manufacturer is a laggard in battery electric vehicles which is determined to sabotage the switch to BEVs.

Tesla 4680 cells and bad journalism

Tesla and Pansonic have introduced the new 4680 battery cell that future battery packs for the Model Y and the Cybertruck will be based on. These larger cells will replace the previous 2170 form factor that current Tesla packs are based on, which in turn replaced the 18650 cells that Tesla inherited from the laptop industry.

Some of the articles about the new cell have talked about the 5 times higher capacity of the cells saying it would address the problem of “range anxiety”:

5 times more energy means less range anxiety and more drive time. It means fewer stops on a road trip and a more enjoyable experience.
(Why The Tesla Tabless Battery Is So Good, torquenews.com, 2021-03-30)

Actually, this claim is embarassingly disingenuous.

Yes, the new cells have higher capacity but that’s because they’re bigger, which means a battery pack of a given capacity will be built from fewer but larger cells. The bottom line of capacity by weight or by volume is largely unchanged.

The new cells are 2.2 times the diameter of their predecessors, meaning they will have a cross section 4.8 times larger, so a given number of square meters of floor plan for a particular vehicle will fit 4.8 times fewer of these larger cells with each storing about five times as much energy as their smaller siblings. If you think this makes for 5 times more range then I have a bridge to sell to you 😉

The cells are also 80 mm long instead of 70 mm, but for energy density it’s basically a wash: The energy density per liter or per kg is unlikely to be vastly different.

Another point of confusion is Tesla’s claim that the cells will have five times the capacity but 6 times the power output. Some articles have interpreted that as 20% more range which is not the case. The truth is that the new cells can be discharged 20% faster without overheating but the total amount of energy released is unaffected by that. It’s like saying a car with 120 HP will have 20% more range than a car with 100 HP because it can drive faster. In reality it will burn fuel more quickly while doing so. This is strictly about peak power (energy by time), not total capacity.

The reason for the higher output is that the new batteries are tabless. All cylindrical Li-ion cells consist of two layers with a separator layer in between, wrapped up as a roll. Think of a double ply roll of toilet paper. When Tesla switched from 18650 to 2170, they made the roll wider (65 mm to 70 mm) but also made made the rolled-up sandwiched layers longer, giving the roll 21 mm instead of 18 mm of diameter.

This increased capacity per cell but it also meant that when energy is released in the ion exchange between the two layers in the innermost part of the cell, the current needs to flow round and round the rolled up layers until it reaches the tabs soldered to the exterior from where the power is transferred to the two opposite end of the cell.

The tabless design does away with that. In it, all the top edges of one layer touch each other and the battery pole at the top while the bottom ends of the other layer touch each other and the bottom pole. That dramatically shortens the path of the conductor through which current needs to flow. Internal resistance and waste heat are greatly reduced.

The bigger diameter means that the exterior steel skin of the cell is lighter relative to the reactive parts inside for some weight savings.

Not directly related to the bigger format, the new cells also break new ground by making do without any cobalt in their anodes which rely on nickel instead. Unlike cobalt which is primarily sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (a troubled country with huge corruption and human rights problems), Nickel is available from sources worldwide.

Several online articles have also repeated a claim that the new cells have a capacity of 9,000 mAh vs the approximately 5,000 mAh of the 2170 cells. This is way off the mark and must be based on bad arithmetic. To be consistent with Tesla’s claim of 5 times the capacity per cell, it would have to have about 25,000 mAh of capacity. That is also consistent with the quoted capacity of a 4680 cell quoted by a Chinese supplier of Volkswagen, which is also looking at using this format in the future.

LFP cells and the 4680 form factor

Personally, I think it would be great to also see a LFP (Lithium Iron Phosphate) version of 4680 cells. Panasonic announced that they would not be making it, but some of Tesla’s Chinese suppliers might opt for this format, which would work well for entry level models. LFP is a very safe chemistry and has a long cycle life, even if the energy density is somewhat lower.

In any case, it makes more sense for BEVs not to have the highest battery capacities possible but instead for some of the battery inventory to be used for infrastructure to decouple quick charging from available grid capacity: A certain percentage of annual battery production should be installed in chargers instead of in cars. Actually, recycled batteries from scrapped BEVs make a lot of sense for this, but so do different chemistries such as redox flow batteries including iron batteries.

If for example, most cars travel less than 150 km per day it does not really make much sense that they have a large but heavy battery that gives them 400 km of range but costs a lot of money and whose weight increases electricity use when accelerating. More weight also means more tire wear.

On the few days that cars need to travel further than their limited range, they should be able to quickly recharge from supercharger stations that use on-site battery storage to be able to recharge cars regardless of whether the grid has spare capacity at that moment or not. This is a far more efficient use of scarce resources than giving all BEVs a huge battery and makes for a more robust electricity grid.