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Massive Investment in Battery Technology Accelerates Energy Transition

Report shows the reality of a future energy system rich in renewables and electric vehicles is closer than ever.

A recent report from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) shows exploding investment in battery technologies is revolutionizing the sector much faster than expected, setting in motion a seismic shift in the way lives are powered and energy systems are organized as early as 2030. With funding pouring into battery technology companies — over US$1.4 billion in the first half of 2019 alone — the RMI found the reality of a future energy system rich in renewables and electric vehicles (EVs) is closer than ever.

The report, Breakthrough Battery Technologies, highlights the growing threat of stranded assets in natural gas and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle markets, and an opportunity for the United States to become a global leader in the battery industry by constructively aligning efforts from the public and private sectors to support technology growth.

Throughout the report, the RMI investigates new markets and applications and the potential for commercialization of battery chemistries beyond lithium-ion. This diversification of battery technology has been made possible by robust private investment; governmental support of research and development; national-, city- and state-level electric mobility and renewable energy targets, and growing adoption of EVs.

“We can now say with confidence that the age of affordable battery technology is coming and it’s happening faster than anyone expected,” said Madeline Tyson, senior associate at the RMI and lead author of the report. “We’re incredibly excited about what this accelerating pace of change means as we fight the climate crisis. Advanced battery technologies have the power to outcompete many fossil-fueled energy systems in the near term and can help us meet ambitious carbon reduction goals on or ahead of schedule.”

Key takeaways include:

  • Battery cost and performance improvements are quickly outpacing forecasts: Increasing demand for EVs, grid-tied storage, and other emerging applications are further fueling the cycle of investment and cost declines in batteries, and setting the stage for mass adoption. Total manufacturing investment, both previous and planned until 2023, represents around US$150 billion dollars. Analysts expect the capital cost for new planned battery-manufacturing capacity to drop by more than half from 2018 to 2023.
  • These improvements spell trouble for natural gas and ICE vehicle markets: As batteries become cheaper and make renewables-plus-storage more competitive, legacy energy infrastructure will struggle to keep up. The RMI finds new — and soon, existing — natural gas plants are likely to be outcompeted by clean energy portfolios as early as 2021, leading to a much greater risk of stranded assets. This mirrors a similar risk for traditional ICE vehicles.
  • Lithium-ion, while still the leading battery technology, is likely not the universal solution of future energy storage technologies: Other technologies that are better suited for applications like long-duration energy storage, heavy trucking, aviation and EV fast-charging infrastructure will increasingly drive these emerging battery markets. Savvy companies, governments, and investors should explore and support these alternative battery technologies — not just lithium-ion — to accelerate and scale climate-critical solutions.

The RMI’s Breakthrough Battery Technologies report makes evident that the United States, in particular, has an opportunity to either become a leader in battery technologies beyond lithium-ion, or risk ceding ground to China and other major players globally. In order to avoid replaying the evolution of the solar photovoltaic market — in which China made significant investment early in the game in order to become a dominant world superpower — the United States must prioritize investment and policies conducive to success now, or risk being pushed out of the market.

“It’s crucial that the investor, policymaker, and regulatory ecosystem stay ahead of the curve on battery cost and technology developments in order to fully capture the enormous environmental and economic opportunities to be had,” said Charlie Bloch, principal at RMI and coauthor of the report. “Climate progress can be supercharged if these groups stay aligned with each decision they make.”

The RMI report outlines several key opportunities for a wide range of industry stakeholders to support a holistic approach to the battery-driven energy transformation. For example, national governments should find ways to incentivize component manufacturing, continued research and development, and battery deployment; manufacturers should work to improve the technology in ways that can reduce cost and reveal new use cases; and investors should consider diversifying their portfolios across promising near-term technologies as well as precommercial battery technologies, even if risks and investment timelines don’t perfectly align with typical venture capital criteria.

By working in alignment to support breakthrough battery technology success, energy industry stakeholders have an opportunity to hasten, not hamper, the rapid and economic transition to resilient, clean, and affordable energy systems.

The report is available for download here.

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