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High price of lithium-ion batteries won’t die soon

The Tesla Model X is displayed at media previews for the North American International Auto Show on Jan. 15 in Detroit. According to the company, and despite the current cost hurdles of the technology, Tesla’s new Model X will feature 60 and 80 kWh lithium-ion battery options with various drivetrain configurations. / Paul Sancya/AP

Big investments in lithium-ion battery manufacturing plants won’t significantly reduce the cost of making batteries, a revised outlook that cautions that sustainable growth in electric vehicle sales will happen later rather than sooner.

For General Motors, that means the $40,000 Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric vehicle powered by a 435-pound lithium-ion battery pack, could stay expensive for years.

It also may limit the commercial potential of Tesla Motors, which sells luxury electric vehicles ranging from about $60,000 to more than $110,000. In January, Nissan cut the price of its Leaf S from $35,200 to $28,800, before tax credits. For the first two months of this year, Leaf sales rose 13 percent, but only to 1,303 vehicles.

Through the first two months of this year, however, alternative powertrain vehicles did not do badly. Sales of gas-electric, non-rechargeable hybrids rose 29 percent to 74,784. Sales of plug-in hybrids and all-electrics more than tripled to 10,081, according to Hybridcars.com.

Still, much higher volumes are needed to bring down the cost faster.
Breakthrough required

Jon Lauckner, GM chief technology officer and president of the company’s start-up investment operation, said in a recent interview that a breakthrough is required to reduce the cost of making battery packs.

“There are some advantages to cost that will accrue due to scale,” said Lauckner, who oversees GM’s research-and-development arm. “But the big steps are going to be the technology. It’s moving from the current generation of technology into the Gen 2 — and into the generation beyond that.”

Kevin See, analyst for Boston-based Lux Research, said it’s “not realistic or feasible” for automakers to significantly cut the price of lithium-ion batteries.

“There’s going to be incremental improvement,” See said. “But we don’t believe it will be enough to spur the huge adjustment everyone was hoping for.”

The consumer electronics industry, he said, already has made most of the advancements that are possible in lithium-ion batteries, which also power devices such as cell phones and laptop computers. The next frontier may come in technologies such as lithium-air and lithium-sulfur batteries.
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