WHEN HANS ERIC Melin thinks of battery waste, he imagines American driveways filled with electric vehicles. They look much like the gas-powered cars of yesterday, large and handsome and well-equipped: family-haulers, boat-towers, off-road ready. They also do things that those cars didn’t do, like go from zero to 60 in three seconds and travel 400 miles without emitting any carbon. The trade-off is that they carry a burden: a massive battery pack that can push the vehicles’ weight to over 10,000 pounds. Most of the time that pack is parked, or is being used to a fraction of its capabilities on school pick-ups or runs to the grocery store. Unless those cars are flying hundreds of miles down the open highway, which they rarely are, the precious atoms of cobalt, lithium, and nickel inside of them have very little to do.
In the United States, fewer than 5 percent of trips are longer than 30 miles. For a gas engine, that represents a portion of a fuel tank. For an EV, range is the result of a more complicated set of decisions about how to best use expensive, hard-to-obtain metals. Melin, an expert in battery recycling, is often asked by governments and automakers how those resources can be stretched. It would be nice if he could tell them that recycling materials from old batteries would do the job. But it can’t. Batteries can power cars for a decade or more, and with EV adoption and the size of the average vehicle increasing every year, old batteries can contribute only so much. So Melin’s suggestion: Start off with less. Use smaller batteries in the first place.
That’s a tough sell, especially in the US, and especially at this moment of EV adoption. “The push has been for more: more power. More range. Faster zero-to-60,” says Gil Tal, a professor at the UC Davis who studies the choices of EV buyers. That’s partially driven by an effort to rescue the narrative about electric cars. For decades, the popular image of an EV was a golf cart that might maroon you on some stretch of godforsaken open road. But battery technology has improved immensely. Now automakers are eager to show off improved power and range—even if that’s more battery than most drivers can actually use. “The big issue is that we buy cars for the dream,” Tal says. “When we buy for a dream in the US, we buy bigger than what we need. We buy four-wheel drive. We buy towing capacity, dreaming that one day we’ll get a boat.”
Mostly, that’s the same fossil-fueled dream as before. For years, automakers have sold high-horsepower trucks and SUVs as “a paradigm of freedom,” says Thea Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College who studies resource extraction for low-carbon products. “Really, it’s a paradigm of choicelessness.” Now EVs are carrying the same message—one that’s visible in the proliferation of luxury SUV and truck lineups in the US, Melin adds. Automakers could stretch their materials into selling more cars—like many do in China—but treating EVs as a luxury good translates into higher profit margins per car.
To be sure, EVs of all kinds are lower-carbon than their gas-powered counterparts. But battery size matters. Horsepower has been replaced by variables like range and battery size, which is usually expressed in kilowatt-hours. Those numbers make a difference when it comes to the greenness of the vehicle. According to Minviro, a consultancy that studies lifecycle carbon emissions of products, a 30-kwH battery is about half as carbon intensive as a 60-kwH battery. As Melin notes, the amount of lithium in a Ford F-150 Lightning could have built four or five Nissan Leafs, which are 3,000 pounds lighter but travel half as far. New mines for lithium or cobalt mean more waters poisoned, more species endangered, more homelands scarred. The moral calculus is still in EVs’ favor, especially if it means taking gas-powered cars off the road. But that avoids a harder conversation about what we’re using their batteries for.
When a recent New York Times op-ed asked how often people actually used 300-mile battery range, readers responded with indignation. Each person, it seemed, had a routine long-range commitment that mooted the article’s point: an extensive work commute, season football tickets at their alma mater halfway across the state. A 20-minute recharge along the way simply was not within reason. “This is the kind of silly coastal stuff Republicans like to ridicule,” one wrote.
“People just don’t want to get stuck,” Melin says. Understandable. And in that case, those people have plenty of options for long-range electric cars, if they’re willing to pay for it. But within the climate movement, fears of those kinds of reactions have grown intense. Some prefer to instead offer a message of low-carbon abundance—that clean energy technology can do everything we do now, and more. By that theory, the electrification of the Ford F-150, the best-selling automobile in America, stands above criticism. (One analyst, who did not want to be named, said he thinks the truck is “evil,” whether it’s electric or not.)
Yet even a truck could be much more efficient in terms of materials if it did not promise trips that went as far. Long trips are “drastically overrepresented in people’s minds,” says Tobias Brosch, a psychologist at the University of Geneva who has studied why people don’t buy EVs. The trick is how to convince them otherwise. Information about where and how to charge remains confusingly abstract to people who have only previously used a gas station. They just don’t quite believe it can be convenient. One solution is careful counseling tied to drivers’ individual behaviors—effectively simulating how an EV would work in their current lives.
The good news is that this year buyers started wising up. Tal, who conducts annual surveys of EV buyers, has noticed that as more people buy a second EV, or take a trip in their cousin’s car, they become savvier. They realize that, actually, those occasional trips aren’t deal breakers, that they can stop for a few minutes, use the bathroom, get some fro-yo, and it all feels quite normal. They have more confidence that few trips require extensive planning and that things will get easier in the future as charging infrastructure expands. They enter a new reality, one in which the rhythms of charge and discharge are regular, habitual.
At the same time, companies, pushed by government policies and supply chain pressures, are easing on the quest for “more.” Volkswagen and Tesla are bringing lithium-iron-phosphate, or LFP batteries, long popular in China, where cars tend to be smaller and charging stations are more plentiful, to the US. CATL, the world’s largest producer of batteries, has said it will soon bring sodium-based cells to cars alongside those made of lithium. Both involve reducing demand for some of the most scarce and destructive minerals—in the case of LFP, that’s cobalt, and for sodium batteries, it’s lithium—and translate into lower costs for consumers. But as a trade-off, they also typically promise shorter range.
Those developments are important, says Riofrancos. It’s a good thing if savvier EV buyers, watching their wallets, make the choice to go for the smaller battery option. That will reduce demand for materials. And it’s also a strong signal “that consumer preferences are not set in stone,” she says—that tropes like “range anxiety” are surmountable, or maybe not such a problem after all. It gets us away from that “choiceless” paradigm.
There’s a long way to go, though. There’s much more that Americans could do to get more out of each EV battery, like sharing cars or adopting new technologies that let drivers swap different-sized batteries based on their needs. Both are popular approaches in China, Melin notes. And choosing a smaller battery is less of a big deal than swapping a truck for a car, or giving up car ownership entirely in favor of a bus or ebike—options that would get us to a decarbonized future much faster. Despite localized experiments like fare-free mass transit or tax incentives to go car-free, this year of climate investments has still ultimately tipped in the favor of private vehicles, even as urban sprawl expands and major public systems are trapped in a pandemic-induced death spiral. Is it possible to have more electric cars on the road and fewer cars at the same time? “This will be much harder to change,” Tal says. “We are losing the fight.”