The Toyota Prius is among the most popular cars under the Cash For Clunkers program right now. But many people who want one will have to wait, as production of the popular hybrid has slowed because of a battery shortage. The supplier of Prius batteries, Panasonic EV Energy, can not keep up with Toyota’s 500,000 annual Prius capacity. While Panasonic EV says it should have its production capacity ramped up to a million units annually by mid-2010, this begs the bigger question;
Will battery packs hold back hybrid production and development?
Disclaimer; I am no fan of hybrid cars. It feels more like a band-aid for a much bigger problem. But for some people, the economics makes sense; hybrid cars get great gas mileage, and while they aren’t going to save the world on their own, the fuel revolution has to start somewhere, right?
One of the big problems with hybrids however is the use of battery packs. These packs are expensive because they use rare or hard-to-mine metals. The current Prius makes use of nickel-hydride batteries, and the upcoming Plug-In Prius will be using lithium ion batteries. But the shortages of Prius batteries, at a time where much of the world is pushing for more fuel-efficient cars, highlights the problems of supply and demand for electric powered cars. The problem is so severe that Toyota is delaying its decision to begin building the Prius at its Tupelo, Mississippi plant. That means the Prius still needs to be shipped in from Japan on those dirty container ships.
There are reports saying that in the next 10 to 15 years, lithium prices will double. Bolivia holds half of the world’s total lithium supplies, but they are holding out for now (side note; it would be a good time to explore the lithium stock market). Lithium prices have already skyrocketed from a few years ago, up to $8/kg from a $1.50/kg a few years. There are people out there who say don’t worry, there is plenty of lithium to go around.
But what these estimates don’t take into account is that lithium-ion batteries are found in more than just cars. Laptops, cameras, even iPods all use lithium, and while individually they use small amounts, I’d be willing to bet there are a lot more iPods in the world right now than there are electric cars. That all starts to add up, and may leave electric cars out in the cold.
The Chevy Volt also uses lithium-ion batteries, as does the upcoming all-electric Nissan Leaf. By 2015, demand could outstrip supply, if certain estimates are to be believed. Then there are estimates that place lithium as more common than lead, the main component in lead-acid batteries found in most cars today. Who do I believe?
The technology has been picking up speed, but with a slew of electric cars on the way from many different manufacturers, we might find ourselves at a bottleneck with supplies. This brings up many questions in regards to hybrids.
Is there enough lithium in the world to power a world of electric cars?
Will we move beyond lithium sooner rather than later?
Are there other batteries that could prove the salvation of hybrids, or are we witnessing a short-term fix?
Will this affect the popularity electric vehicles as a whole?
In fairness, this issue has been brought up before (and counterpointed) , but I think it warrants another look. If you’re like me, you take anything the internet tells you with a grain of salt (I learned the hard way not believe everything you read).
Tough questions, and there may not even be accurate answers right now. But it is a bridge that must be crossed one day. Will it be made of lithium?