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Better Batteries

An employee inserts lithium-ion battery cells during battery pack assembly at the Johammer e-mobility GmbH electric motorbike factory in Bad Leonfelden, Austria, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. First released in late 2014, some 60 Johammers are storming across Europe, and can to cover more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) on a single charge.
Photographer: Lisi Niesner/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Hopes that renewable energy could blunt the worst of climate change used to face a seemingly insurmountable hurdle: the need for better batteries. After all, the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. But those better batteries are on their way, thanks to a myriad of small improvements that will both add life to the phone in your pocket and speed the day when electric vehicles (EVs) overtake those that run on gasoline. Now there’s a different worry: Can we turn batteries out fast enough? Fulfilling a vision of a clean-energy future — where wind turbines and solar panels are knit into a new kind of power grid — depends on creating an almost entirely new industry. 

In China, where the government is throwing its weight behind the electric-car industry, plans have been announced for factories that could produce enough batteries every year to hold 120 gigawatt-hours of storage capacity — enough to tide Italy over an hour-long blackout. Those plans include a 10 million square-foot factory opened in 2018 by the world’s biggest EV supplier,  BYD Co.,  and another of similar size it broke ground on in February. That’s enough to equip 1.2 million cars, according to the manufacturer, which is backed by Warren Buffett. That’s larger than Tesla Inc.’s giant Gigafactory battery plant in the Nevada desert, though Tesla plans to expand that facility and build as many as four more big battery factories in the U.S. And General Motors proposed building a factory with Korea’s LG Chem Ltd. if it can overcome union opposition to the shift to EVs, whose simpler workings could mean steep job cuts for manufacturers and suppliers. Giant battery plants are also planned in Germany and Sweden, and Europe is set to overtake the U.S. as the second-largest market for EVs in 2020. The price of a lithium-ion battery pack holding a kilowatt hour of electricity has already plunged and is expected to fall by more than 90 percent from 2010 to 2030. Utilities are also boosting battery installation. California is requiring power companies to install a combined total of close to 2 gigawatt-hours of storage by 2024 — more than twice what existed in the U.S. at the end of 2017. Not counting car batteries, global storage capacity is expected to rise from 7 gigawatt-hours now to 305 gigawatt-hours in 2030.