The Smart way to be Green: Tesla Battery Day


 


Why I am writing

As I continuously stress whenever I talk with someone interested in the sustainability world, it does not matter how green it is if it does not sell. Ok, that is a bold statement and it probably won’t make many green activists happy but that’s my way to trigger them into thinking about what I call “the supply side of the green movement”.

Relying on consumers’ self-control can be a slippery path: most of us even struggle to have the self-discipline necessary to study on a daily basis! Of course this should be done because it is right, but we must also work for, buy from and possibly fund sustainable businesses. Technological advance is key in innovating industries towards a more sustainable economy.

 

Reinventing the battery

That is why I am summarizing the achievement met by Tesla during the last Battery Day: they represent the Smart way to be Green! Now brace yourself because the takeaways from the company presentations were pretty awesome. Tesla has come up with new solutions in many components of battery manufacturing: first of all  they changed the cell design. The interior design has been changed using laser patterned foils ad a tablets architecture allowing for a 6 times increase in power. Even though the new batteries are heavier than previous ones the power to weigh ratio has increased and this gives another glance into the performance enhancement that this change will bring. Moreover, materials used in the manufacturing are either being changed -the case of the cathode, whose production is being switched to a nickel-based production- or substituted with, say, “rawer” version -the case of the anode, whose production is being simplified with the usage of metallurgical “common” silicon instead of its highly engineered version. Now, of course we are always talking about materials that are mined and extracted rather than recycled from pre-existing products, but since these are some of the most common materials on the Earth crust this is an extremely valuable alternative.

 

Structure & Manufacturing innovations

Being Tesla’s vehicles factories highly automized, it is no surprise that they have figured out to innovate the manufacturing process by tackling a tailored casting machine. This piece of equipment exploits an aluminum alloy that has been internally developed by Tesla engineers and does not require heat treatment and makes possible to build the vehicles rear section in a single metal piece. This method saves both raw materials and components, according to Musk’s words. Furthermore, the new shape and weight of the batteries turns them into a structural component of the car structure. Their reduced width, on the other hand, allows for a positioning that improves car agility. This and other changes all have the final goal of utilizing economies of scale to satisfy future demand of electric vehicles. It seems, indeed, that Tesla is aiming at producing a $25,000 car.

 

Talking Figures

All of this combined, accounts for an unprecedented 56% reduction in cost of energy. Imagine if this would happen for, say, gasoline. Everybody would be in line heading towards the gas station. Of course I am not referring to the final cost of energy but to the production cost of batteries, but, with a smart strategy, there is a good chance that this cost reduction may be translated from the produced to the consumer. But this is not the only figure that has come out of last Battery Day: apparently, the combination of all improvements will lead to a 54% increase in the range of the cars. Eventually the investment per gigawatt is expected to drop by 69%. This is an immense sum, given the capital intensive industry that battery manufacturing is and such savings could easily be reinvested in other projects

 

Grasp the compromise

It is as simple as that: most people live busy lives and nobody has loads of time to spend on researching green shops etc. An effective way of being green would be to deliver sustainable products at competitive prices, where their substitutes are. Now of course this easier said then done, but that should be the aim of many green businesses. I know what you are thinking about:

-Well…Tesla hasn’t a properly “sustainable” business model...it relies heavily on mineral extraction for its batteries and it manufactures its cars with energy-intensive materials-

I would say you are right! But what are the alternatives? Metal and iron can easily be recycled (even though the process is energy consuming) and nobody has yet come up with a better solution. One more major issue with Tesla is the cost of their products that are not accessible to most people. The major cost reductions that have been illustrated will hopefully make this happen. But I must remind you that all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the employment of many engineers and hard sciences people that used their scientific knowledge to advance the current status quo. This is the “smart way” to be green.