Published December 13 2023
Understanding the five crucial investment areas needed to secure the transition to clean energy
Nanotech Energy Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Maher El-Kady outlines the strategic decisions needed for the US to become a global clean energy leader.
When it comes to the clean energy transition, US politicians and leaders need to concentrate on five key investment areas in order to push the country into a position of long-term strength, stability, and energy security. Those five areas are renewables, energy storage, infrastructure, battery manufacturing, and battery materials.
Let’s start with renewables. We often hear the fossil fuel industry ask if green technology is really green, especially when it comes to electric vehicles. The precise answer depends on so many factors. In general, electric vehicles are more green than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles of a similar size. Using an ICE engine involves burning a lot of oil. An electric vehicle obviously doesn’t burn fossil fuels in the same way, but you must still consider where the electricity is coming from. If you’re burning fossil fuels to make electricity, you still have a problem. But if you invest in renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, wave, or hydro power, plus nuclear, then your energy production infrastructure becomes cleaner and EVs become significantly cleaner than they are already.
So investing in renewables is clearly a big part of the transition to clean energy. However, there are other aspects, too. We have to think about how we produce electricity, how we secure the supply of critical battery materials, and how we improve batteries to store more charge and reduce the charging time. On a practical level, that means securing enough supplies of lithium and manufacturing enough energy storage for the entire grid. Because if we move to renewable energy sources, they’re basically intermittent in nature. So you need ways to store that electricity for use when you need it. All of these are important considerations that make the translation inherently complicated.
When I look around, there are obviously different attitudes towards the switch to clean energy. Some embrace it; others remain skeptical. There are big contrasts in different regions, age groups, and industry bases. But I would say the overall trend is positive. People would love to see this cleaner transition happening, but there are lots of issues to resolve along the way. When it comes to infrastructure, is our current grid strong enough to support even half of ours being electric and needing charge? How quickly can we get enough charging stations online? At the moment, 29% of all US charging stations are in California. So clearly the rest of the country needs to accelerate. This is something the Biden administration has started to acknowledge. Significant investments in new charging infrastructure are crucial. This not only enhances the practicality of electric cars, but also places tangible reminders of cleaner transportation in people’s daily lives. As more charging stations become available, individuals are more likely to consider making the switch to EVs, thus contributing to the broader goal of a sustainable energy future.
The final issues revolve around battery production. Currently, the US only has about 6% of the worldwide battery manufacturing capacity. That’s a very humble figure for a country like America. However, when it comes to innovation and technological leadership, there’s no doubt the US has been at the forefront. After all, it was within these borders that lithium-ion technology, the cornerstone of modern battery systems, was initially discovered and we’re now investing huge sums into research and development. But we also need some policy changes so that we’re not risking our future on an uncertain supply of batteries or battery materials. Thankfully, politicians are starting to realize that. The Inflation Reduction Act gave some important incentives to battery manufactures and it’s a step in the right direction, but we also need more investment into manufacturing the raw materials that go into batteries.
Strategic thinking and investment decisions are required across the entire clean energy chain, from energy generation through to battery materials and manufacturing. If those decisions are avoided, America will pay the price. But if they are embraced and made with clarity and understanding, America’s position as a global leader will continue during the 21st century. It’s up to our leaders to grasp this opportunity while they still can.
Image credit: Financial Times