At Tesla, Peter Carlsson spent nearly five years at Elon Musk’s side, locating various parts of the Model S as the electric car company’s global supply chain manager. “The overarching goal of Tesla is to help reduce carbon emissions, and that means low cost and high volume,” Musk said back in 2006. “We will also serve as an example to the auto industry, proving that the technology really works and customers want to buy electric vehicles.”
Now, as Tesla builds its Gigafactory in the Nevada desert, the company is recapitulating that mission, aiming to reduce not just the energy consumed by its cars, but the energy used to build its battery in the first place. Tesla says the factory will employ rooftop solar and wind turbines for energy, along with a closed loop water system. But Carlsson, who left Silicon Valley in 2015 for his native Sweden, wants to make his own progress toward the goal of green batteries.
In May, Carlsson and fellow former Tesla executive Paolo Cerruti announced plans to build their own $4.5 billion electric battery plant to power electric cars, trucks, ships and, of course, a few Swedish snowmobiles. “We will produce a battery with significantly lower carbon footprint than the current supply chains,” Carlsson said during a September visit to his office in downtown Stockholm. His startup firm Northvolt is raising $120 million for the first phase of the plant, which Carlsson says will produce 32 Gigawatt-hours when fully running in 2023.
How will they do it? Raw materials like graphite and nickel will be sourced from deposits in Sweden, while cobalt will come from a huge refiner in Finland. Renewable energy will flow from Sweden’s hydropower dams. Waste heat will be recycled to keep factory neighbors warm in the winter. Old batteries will get new life through recycling.
The Gigafactory will produce 50 GWhr of batteries when complete (although that might triple with two additional factory segments). Tesla expects to have a net zero energy factory without even a natural gas line. Excess energy from its rooftop solar panels will be stored in wall battery packs, and it will also have an onsite battery recycling facility.
Like Musk, Carlsson says Northvolt’s lithium-ion batteries will have a carbon footprint close to zero. That’s in keeping with Sweden’s goals of a zero-greenhouse-emissions economy by 2045. In addition to satisfying EU environmental rules, Northvolt hopes to appeal to green-minded drivers who are not only looking at the energy costs of driving an electric car, but also count the energy consumed to build the lithium ion battery.
Carlsson is banking on European drivers’ shift from “clean diesel”—a fantasy that turned out to be a fraud when EPA officials found that VW had rigged engine software to cheat on emissions tests—to electric vehicles. Volkswagen said this month that it will spend $60 billion on batteries to power dozens of new EV models in the next five years. That announcement follows BMW’s plan to mass produce 12 EV models by 2025, while Volvo is switching to EV manufacturing beginning in 2019.
Looking at these carmakers’ PR moves in the past few months, Northvolt’s timing could be right. But is it realistic to think that a small Swedish startup company can produce a perfectly green electric battery?
For one, Carlsson says Northvolt plans to make its own anode and cathode chemical mixes instead of buying them from European or Asian manufacturers. And Sweden has an excess of clean hydropower from Sweden’s northern mountain rivers that can be used to power a massive battery factory without burning fossil fuels or running a nuke. “The point is to support Europe’s green energy transformation,” Carlsson says. “Right now the flow of batteries to Europe would mainly come from Asia. If you take the [coal-powered] energy grids of China or Japan, both of their carbon footprints are pretty high. When you accumulate that into a battery pack for a vehicle, that’s a significant footprint.”
But some experts say that the real environmental costs come earlier in the supply chain, when companies obtain lithium, cobalt, graphite, manganese, and nickel for their batteries. “They come in ores that need to be smelted,” says Jennifer B. Dunn, a chemical engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory who researches the environmental footprints of various manufacturing processes. “In addition to the carbon emissions, there can be a lot of sulfur oxide produced, and as Northvolt thinks about their supply chain, these are factors they are going to want to consider.”
Dunn and her Argonne colleagues have been examining the energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and air pollution from the “cradle-to-grave” of EV batteries. In this 2016 study, Dunn found that the biggest environmental impacts occur during the conversion of mineral ore to chemical pastes that are applied to the anode and cathodes of the battery. Bigger, busier battery manufacturing plants are more efficient than pioneer plants that are ramping up because of the energy needed to run big dryers on the assembly plant.
Recycling metals from worn-out batteries makes a big difference too, Dunn says. “If you could recover those metals, especially from the battery itself, you wouldn’t have to go back to the mine and it would save a lot of emissions,” she says. Recycling old batteries is one reason why Northvolt is considering building its plant in Skellefteå (pronounced shuh-LEFF-too), an industrial city in Sweden’s mining district, some 480 miles north of the capital.
Today, the Northvolt site is a scenic area of rolling forests, blueberry bushes and biking trails on a peninsula jutting into the Bay of Bothnia. But it’s also sweet spot for heavy industry. A few miles away lies Boliden’s massive e-waste recovery facility that extracts gold and other precious metals. While lithium-ion battery recycling still isn’t economically feasible, Carlsson says he believes that the technology can be improved by Boliden and other commercial partners.
At the same time, thermal energy generated by Northvolt’s plant might be diverted into the Skellefteå municipal heating system, or converted into another source of electricity. “There is enough energy from the plant to heat the whole city,” says Christoffer Svanberg, a spokesman for Node Pole, a business development group that has been working to bring data centers like Facebook and other energy-intensive industries to Sweden’s north.
In the end, though, the success of Northvolt and electric cars will depend on individual consumer choices. A green pedigree on the battery might not be enough for a US driver to buy a car powered by a Northvolt battery, but knowing where the battery goes in the future might be more of a selling point, says Alissa Kendall, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis and a former auto engineer at Ford. “From consumer perspective, they don’t think too much about the life cycle impact of producing that electric vehicle,” Kendall says. “I do think the consumer cares about the life of the battery.”
Tesla says it will replace its batteries when they begin to lose the ability to hold a charge, and BMW is using some older batteries to store grid power in California and Germany. Northvolt will be selling its batteries to two or three automakers, so it hasn’t made that kind of promise yet.
At times, it apperas, Carlsson is challenging his former boss to a game of who’s-got-the-greenest-battery. But Carlsson shakes his head when asked if they are competitors. “Tesla is a very challenging culture, but it’s also a very rewarding culture,” Carlsson said. “There’s one thing that nobody can take away from Elon; he has always put his mission above everyone else. Hopefully we can spread that kind of culture also within Northvolt.”
With Carlsson, a bit of Silicon Valley’s hard-charging corporate DNA has been inserted to Sweden’s cooler corporate tech culture. Sweden is one of the greenest countries on the planet, but whether Northvolt can turn that ethos into a successful car battery might depend more on future European and American car buyers.