The million-mile battery and a clean energy future that’s built to last

Clean energy technologies are getting cheaper, more efficient and more capable with every passing year. They're also lasting longer. Here's why that matters.

Car dashboard with 999999 miles on odometer

A Chinese firm announced earlier this month the introduction of a new battery for electric buses with a 15-year/nearly 1 million-mile warranty. The arrival of the “million-mile battery” is something that’s long been anticipated in electric vehicle circles, but it’s one thing to talk about technological breakthroughs and another for companies to back up the durability of their batteries with cold, hard cash. 

It will take a while before million-mile batteries find their way into cars – early models are being targeted toward buses and heavy-duty trucks. But the moment when electric vehicle batteries – which are currently typically warrantied for 100,000 miles – last longer than the rest of the car is coming fast. 

As we’ve documented in our annual Renewables on the Rise reports, clean energy technologies are improving rapidly across virtually every dimension – becoming more efficient, less expensive, and more capable with every passing year. But one way in which they’ve improved hasn’t attracted nearly as much notice: they are also lasting longer. 

Solar panels in large-scale solar farms that were installed in 2019 had an expected lifetime of 32.5 years, up from 21.5 years for panels installed in 2007, according to researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Wind turbines, expected to last 20 years in the early 2000s, are now anticipated to last 30 years on average. And that is just the beginning – the U.S. Department of Energy is aiming to develop solar panels capable of producing power for as long as 50 years. 

Clean energy that just keeps going … and going

Extending the lifespans of clean energy technologies is a clear win for the environment and the energy transition – especially given concerns about the availability of the “critical minerals” used in clean energy technologies and the environmental impacts of extracting and processing them. 

But the implications go way beyond the environment.

For most of human history – and especially since the Industrial Revolution – energy is something we have had to continually wrest from the earth, day after day, year after year. Our ancestors devised their share of clever ways to take advantage of the renewable energy resources around them – storing vegetables in root cellars, orienting buildings in relation to the sun, drying clothes outdoors, and even building windmills and using hydropower to power farms and factories. But beyond that, obtaining energy has involved cutting down trees, digging out coal, and drilling for new sources of oil and gas. 

Things have, of course, changed along the way. Nowadays, most of us don’t have to go out and fell our own trees to stay warm through the winter or feed horses to transport us from place to place. Instead, we’ve built globe-spanning infrastructure to extract oil from the ground in places like Saudi Arabia, transport it halfway around the world, refine it into a variety of products and, from there, to deliver gasoline and diesel fuel to power our cars, trucks and homes. That takes a lot of work – enough to keep more than 8 million Americans employed – effort that must be maintained constantly to tap new sources of fossil fuels, process them, and transport them safely to market.

Just set it and forget it

The arrival of the million-mile battery and 50-year solar panel raises the possibility that the energy infrastructure we install today could conceivably be providing electricity and mobility to our grandchildren – and need far less daily effort from millions of people in the United States and around the world. 

Think of it, to borrow a phrase from vaunted TV pitchman Ron Popeil, as the “set it and forget it” energy system – an energy system that we build once, build well, and let work for us for decades to come. 

The rise of solar photovoltaics has given many people a taste of what this looks like. My family installed solar panels on the rooftop of our home in 2012. For a dozen years, those panels have cranked out electricity every day without me (or anyone else) usually giving them a second thought. They’ll probably continue to crank out power for another dozen years to come.

In reality, of course, we will never be able to simply “forget” about where our energy comes from. Things break, new needs emerge, etc. Someone will need to hook up those solar panels and, more importantly, make sure they work in harmony with other sources of energy supply and demand to ensure a clean, reliable grid. 

Building out the clean energy system of the future will still require a lot of work – and create jobs for millions of people – over the next couple of decades. But it is increasingly possible to imagine that all that effort might yield an energy system and economy where things last longer, are easier to maintain, and don’t require continual extraction of large volumes of raw materials from the earth. 

There is a lot to be said for that vision of the future. And yet, our default economic, political and societal assumptions seem geared toward making it impossible. From the dependence on planned obsolescence of consumer products as a source of economic growth to the concerns about lost jobs that are already popping up in debates about electric vehicles and renewable energy, we are in no way prepared as a society to recognize the opportunities that emerge from a clean and lasting energy system based on renewable energy sources that come to us, for long stretches of time at least, without our need to expend effort. 

Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a key step in the fight against climate change. But it also has the potential – if we play our cards right – to build an energy system that is truly sustainable in every sense of the word, and allows us to reorder our priorities in ways that create boundless new possibilities. With the million-mile battery and other long-lasting clean energy solutions on the way, it’s not too early to start imagining what those possibilities might be. 

 

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Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.

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