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Dear Tesla Gigafactory

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Dear Tesla,

I’m excited about the recent announcement of your US-based battery manufacturing facility, which you’ve named the “gigafactory”, but I have a few concerns. The project sounds promising: you’ll be producing 500,000 electric vehicles per year by 2020, employing 6,500 people, installing new wind and solar power, and building the facility in either Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, or Arizona. But while you’re still deciding which site to pick can I offer you some advice? It’s all about location, location, location—and here’s why.

You can site the facility in a location with a low(er) carbon electricity grid. 

First, I want to commend your efforts to build new solar and wind facilities to power the gigafactory because that can reduce the emissions of producing more and more batteries. Ideally you could power the entire plant with renewable energy.

Nealer Tesla Test Drive

The author test driving a Tesla in Palo Alto, CA in March 2014.

However, in case you need power from the local electricity grid you may want to consider where you’re plugged in. The State of Charge report from my colleagues at UCS looks at the global warming pollution from plugging in an electric vehicle (EV) based on location. This impacts the production of EV batteries as well. When I do a quick comparison of the average* electricity grid emissions using EPA’s 2010 eGrid data I find the greenhouse gas emissions from a lower-carbon grid mix (like Nevada and parts of Texas) can be as much as 46 percent lower than a higher-carbon grid mix (like parts of New Mexico).

Choosing a location based on how clean the local electricity grid is, or how much renewable energy you’ll be able to utilize,  may not be the top criteria for you, but it’s definitely an important one for the overall impact of your products. Both strategies—installing renewables and locating the facility in a low carbon electricity grid—will help to reduce overall emissions of producing batteries for your EVs.

*For this calculation I used average instead of marginal emissions from the electricity grid. The estimate also accounts for transmission losses and upstream emissions from electricity production as estimated by the GREET model. 

Building the facility around a dense population with employee accessibility is important. 

It is great to hear this facility will create new US-based jobs, but it is imperative this facility is not located in the middle of nowhere. Although there are significant space requirements which restrict where it can be built, building a facility that employs 6,500 people who then drive to and from work could result in significant emissions. Having access to public transit and/or locating near a city with a dense population to reduce the average commute distance could reduce these emissions.

A possible added benefit of being near a city could be all the people that could come out to see the gigafactory. I know I’d love to see it!

Look for a location that can utilize low carbon transportation for moving goods. 

This one is a bit trickier, because there are some tradeoffs in the emissions related to the transportation of moving goods for the states you’ve already selected (NM, NV, TX, and AZ). The name of the game is to maximize the use of the most efficient freight modes. In terms of carbon emissions (excluding air transportation), ships and trains have lower carbon emissions per ton moved than trucks do, though trucks are getting better!

Relative to other modes of  freight transportation, trains produce fewer carbon emissions. Source: Duncan Brown.

Relative to other modes of freight transportation, trains produce fewer carbon emissions. Source: Duncan Brown.

There are two major considerations for your goods movement: getting materials to your facility and then getting the batteries to the vehicle assembly plant. First, you have all the raw materials and components that make up the batteries coming in to the facility. I assume these materials come from all over the world, and the best way to transport them is by ships. So locating near a port would be beneficial. But it looks like only Texas has that available. And unfortunately Texas is the farthest away from Fremont, CA where you will assemble the final vehicles. Which means all the batteries produced at the facility will have to be transported to Fremont, and if done by truck could result in significant emissions.

But fret not, I have thought of another emissions reducing solution: what if you were to transport the batteries by rail and locate the facility near a railroad? Doing so could minimize the amount of truck transportation needed, and might even save you on transportation costs as well.

Finally, I can’t wait for the projected battery cost reductions of 30%!

The most exciting part is really reducing the costs of batteries, and you’ve given yourself a very ambitious goal of 30% cost reduction. The reason this is the best part is because it could have major impacts on the battery industry as a whole. This includes making batteries more accessible for other EVs and lowering the costs of energy storage. Lowering energy storage costs could help solve some challenges related to adding more renewables to our electricity grid, making it even cleaner. The opportunity to have trickle-down effects into other applications is promising.

I look forward to hearing more as this project moves forward.

Sincerely,

Rachael

Posted in: Vehicles

About the author: Rachael Nealer is an engineer and Kendall Science Fellow exploring the lifecycle environmental impacts of advanced vehicles, specifically hybrid-electric, plug-in electric, and fuel cell vehicles. See Rachael's full bio.

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  • Roger Gordon

    As regards to Lithium. I am a stock holder in a company(Rare Earth Minerals) drilling on a rich reserve of Lithium clay deposit in the Senora desert area of Mexico.
    It is my hope that the giga-factory will be built in or near Tucson, Arizona as this would link to the main railroad that is heading south to Hermesillo, Mexico, which would be a short distance to our mining area. This would be in easy reach of the factory, whichever state may be chosen.
    This week there should be an announcement as regards to grades on site and pilot plant, which in turn will lead to future production in time for the Tesla factory.
    Lithium carb from clay is by far the cheapest way of production and will replace more costly and time consuming methods like saline and rock bashing.
    Please look at REM on the London AIM markets for more info.
    Thank for reading from a very excited stockholder in the UK.

    • Rachael Nealer

      Thanks for your comment, Roger!

  • Richard

    Thanks for an interesting look at an important aspect of the battery related issues.

    The NY Times has an article about a company developing alternative ways to obtain lithium needed for these batteries from the brine resulting from hydro power plants. The company claims the extraction process is environmentally safe and less energy intensive than traditional mining methods. But it does require the use of a lot of water. As the plant is located in So California where water is at a premium, even in non-drought years, I am not so sure about these claims.

    I’d appreciate it if someone at UCS could do some research on this extraction process and offer an opinion about it.

    • Rachael Nealer

      Thanks, Richard. Extracting lithium from geothermal power plant brine is an interesting prospect. A lifecycle analysis done on lithium batteries from experts at Argonne National Lab looks at Li2Co3 processes in Nevada and Chile and finds the energy intensity of producing the lithium domestically is outweighed by the energy savings from transporting it a shorter distance. In other words, there’s no clear energy or emissions benefit from producing lithium in Nevada compared to Chile. This new process in Southern California may prove to be more efficient though, and if it’s using a waste stream that could be an advantage.

      Thanks again for your comment! And please stay tuned for more discussion on these issues. You can find the research paper mentioned above here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es302420z

  • Jim Stack

    Rachael, Tesla has already narrowed their initial search to fours states that are close to their factory. I’m in Sunny Arizona but we may not have a chance since our state is not allowing them to sell their vehicles direct, the ADEQ cancelled the Clean Cars policy and the commission just allowed the biggest utility to charge solar customers a fee each month.

    It’s hard to fly with eagles when we live with turkeys. In the mean time Arizona imports every drop of the oil people burn everyday in 20% or less efficient gas cars. We have a brown cloud from pollution and many still burn COAL from Wyoming to make power heating precious water.

    At least we can still the Tesla on line or the very efficient Nissan LEAF. I still prefer my bicycle for most trips and they haven’t outlawed them yet.

    Jim Solar stACk

    • Rachael Nealer

      Thanks for your comment, Jim!

  • Abe

    I don’t think the local grid matters too much, the entire factory can be powered by renewable energy. There is actually a benefit for them to go where the grid is worse for 2 reasons:

    1) If the battery factory generates extra energy, it can help clean up that grid.
    2) One of the requirement of the factory can be clean energy, thus pushing areas that have been more resistant to clean energy.

    One thing we do know is a requirement for Tesla’s location based on leaks is redundant rail service. So they are definitely going to use rail. Since the location will have rail service, it might not even be necessary for the workers to drive at all and instead have a rail shuttle to the factory. Though even if they are going to be driving, I am sure most of them will be driving the Tesla Model E. (Tesla tends to have very strong support from the workers they hire)

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/rachael-nealer.html Rachael Nealer

      Thanks for your comment, Abe! I hope your insights are true. It would be great to power the entire facility with renewables and to utilize rail transportation as much as possible. However, the facility has to be built at some point and that will likely be powered by the existing electricity grid. Also, adding passenger rail to freight rail lines may be possible but with permitting, scheduling, etc. may prove a bit more challenging that it would first seem. Thanks again!

  • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/rachael-nealer.html Rachael Nealer

    Thanks, Nathan! You’ve brought up an important point. I was focusing more on the GHG emissions perspective, but I hope Tesla also considers their water impact.

  • Nathan Rogers

    Great post! It shows the complex analysis required for both Tesla and any other company looking to manufacture products as sustainably as possible. One key variable that was left out, however, is water. I can’t speak to precisely how much water Tesla’s gigafactory will require, but my guess is that it will be substantial. Unfortunately, none of the proposed locations — all of which being in the increasingly drought prone desert/semi-desert of the Great American West — are particularly suitable from a water consumption perspective. One can only hope that Tesla will be employing state of the art water recycling technologies to minimize their consumption of potable water.

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