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How Tesla's Gigafactory will remove doubts about battery production

One of the criticisms of electric vehicles that you may hear from knowledgeable skeptics is that the production of lithium-ion batteries is energy-intensive and therefore significantly reduces the “cleanliness” of EVs compared to their conventional counterparts. Tesla, the electric-vehicle maker enjoying a meteoric rise on the heels of the successful launch of their flagship Model S, has a couple of answers to that criticism.

Tesla’s plan all along has been to mass-produce EVs to accelerate widespread adoption as quickly as possible and accelerate the future of low-carbon mobility. However, some quick math will tell you that 350,000 Tesla vehicles (the targeted volume of Tesla’s upcoming $30,000-$40,000 Model E) with 60 kWh of battery capacity apiece adds up to a phenomenal amount of lithium-ion battery production capacity. In order for the EV industry to truly take off, it is no secret that batteries will need to be produced en masse and at lower costs. To that end, Tesla has unveiled plans to build a massive “Gigafactory,” a battery production facility that would bring in raw materials and put out finished battery packs in huge volumes.

Initial estimates put the output of the Gigafactory at 50 GWh of battery packs per year, which is greater than current global levels of lithium-ion production. All that manufacturing capacity will surely require its own dirty power plant, thus making Teslas not as clean as they appear, right?

Wrong. CEO Elon Musk is a big proponent of solar energy, and he is truly committed to creating a sustainable future. To support his vision, the Gigafactory will be powered largely by nearby wind and solar power that will be constructed specifically for the purpose of powering the factory (no doubt using Tesla battery systems to compensate for the intermittent nature of these systems, though the site will be somewhere with excellent solar resources). So that battery riding under the floor of your Tesla could be the most carbon-neutral component in the entire vehicle.

The production of batteries using renewable energy is a brilliant move by Tesla, one that will hopefully set an example for the rest of the industry.

Tesla also has an answer for the other electric vehicles on the market as well as for their own batteries prior to completion of the Gigafactory. Tesla’s internal study of Model S showed that the carbon emissions resulting from production of the battery pack will be offset by the vehicle’s tremendous efficiency after just 10,000 miles of driving.

The full results of the study will be out soon, but the initial indications prove that the production of lithium-ion batteries isn’t as environmentally devastating as critics make it out to be. This result looks good for makers of other EVs as well; if the Model S and its massive battery pack can offset the battery manufacturing emissions in fewer miles than most people drive in a year, then no doubt the carbon footprint of other EV batteries is also not nearly as large as critics claim.

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Alexi (not verified)    March 7, 2014 - 9:43AM

I want to wait and see what the energy use data on this will be. It's interesting, but I think the energy use data of these batteries will be a key point. Any ideas Luke?

Parks McCants    March 7, 2014 - 11:44AM

Very informative read. Looking to the conceptual drawing of the Gigafactory, I quickly determined that it might as well be on the moon. The plant that I'm looking at would cost in the $ Billions. The in and out route to the facility would run $ millions. Planning time? Years. Building time? Years. While the writer does address concerns as to carbon footprint, he doesn't touch on the impact of battery production waist bi- products on the environment.(nasty) Noting can be produced or recycled without having " some" environmental impact on the planet. Thus, is the plight of man and " man made" technology. It occurred to me while reading this very well written expose. Future ( relatively short term) personal automobile transportation will be limited to the wealthy, the math
dictates it.There will be no $30,000 Tesla. For most inhabitants of planet earth, It will come down to walking, riding a bicycle or traveling on public transportation.

Luke Ottaway    March 7, 2014 - 2:02PM

Aaron, I believe you are partially right. Tesla at the moment remains first and foremost a car company, but I do agree that they are moving toward becoming an energy company. That is one of the reasons their business model is so clever; it makes so much sense for an EV maker to enter the energy realm. Being their own utility company, essentially, has enabled the rollout of the Supercharger network that by all accounts is vastly superior to other charging networks.

Luke Ottaway    March 7, 2014 - 2:03PM

Alexi, you make a good point. I would wait and see what the full results of Tesla's internal study will indicate, although there is a possibility that it will have extra positive Tesla spin given that it is their own study.

Luke Ottaway    March 7, 2014 - 2:04PM

Parks, you are will cost billions. Tesla's initial estimate is $4 - $5 billion, and hopefully they can stick to that. It appears that they won't have trouble raising the funds, especially if Apple gets involved (which is looking more and more like a possibility). No doubt selecting the ideal location is one of their primary concerns, for the purpose of the energy generation as well as the materials moving in/out which you mention. Though it will be a massive project, I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's finished by 2017 as Tesla hopes. They usually deliver on their promises. And I definitely agree with the concern about waste bi-products, though with a single dedicated facility it should be easier for them to control the process from beginning to end (post-raw material production, of course). As for the price of the Model E, they hope to make it competitive with the BMW 3-series. Certainly not accessible to all, but then again Tesla is considered a luxury automaker. I'd like to see them cross into the $20,000 realm, but at the moment that doesn't seem realistic given the standard they have set.

Aditya Vs (not verified)    March 7, 2014 - 5:07PM

Brilliant article Luke ! There is a lot on TESLA out there but nothing from this perspective !
After all you are from ICAR ;)