Breadcrumb

COVID-19: The Importance of Batteries (with Steve Christensen)

In this episode, students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy talk with Executive Director of Responsible Battery Coalition, Steve Christensen about the important contribution of batteries in daily life, but specifically during a pandemic.

 
FEATURING STEVE CHRISTENSEN
June 23, 2020
25 MINUTES AND 29 SECONDS

In this episode, students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy talk with Executive Director of Responsible Battery Coalition, Steve Christensen about the important contribution of batteries in daily life, but specifically during a pandemic.

About Steve Christensen:

Steve Christensen is the Executive Director of Responsible Battery Coalition, a nonprofit  coalition of companies, academics and organizations committed to the responsible management of the batteries of today and tomorrow. Prior to this role, he served as the Managing Director in the U.S. Public Affairs and Crisis Practice at Burson-Marsteller in Washington DC, where his clients include some of the world’s largest agriculture, chemical and consumer products companies. Before joining the private sector, Mr. Christensen served in several roles as a senior policy official at the United States Department of Agriculture where he concentrated his efforts on supporting public health and production agriculture through the development and implementation of sound science-based public policy. Mr. Christensen is also an Advisory Board member for the UC Riverside School of Public Policy.

Learn more about Steve Christensen via https://www.responsiblebatterycoalition.org/leadership-team/

Podcast Highlights:

“A concern we did have when things started to close down was a state government or some official not allowing recycling of batteries...we want to make sure that recycling would remain stable so we wouldn’t see an increase in resource extraction.”

-       Steve Christensen on the topic of battery production recycling and its role during COVID-19.

“The reliance on batteries, as we get out of this, one of the ways we are going to manage it is through battery operated devices, from your phone to a thermometer. It all relies on battery.”

-      Steve Christensen on the topic of COVID-19’s impact on battery support for the transportation in medical industries.

“It is rare that you will find a food or beverage company that relies on a single source or a single region for any aspect in their business...for the next generation of batteries...the majority of those materials are coming from China and there is no where else to get them.”

-       Steve Christensen on the topic of the prevalent issues within the supply change and obtaining the material needed for batteries.

Guest:

Steve Christensen, Executive Director of Responsible Battery Coalition

Interviewers:

Maddie Bunting (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Paola Loera (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Ambassador)

Music by:

Samuel Roberts (UCR Public Policy ‘20)

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy: https://spp.ucr.edu/

Subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss an episode. Learn more about the series and other episodes via https://spp.ucr.edu/podcast.

Transcription

  • COVID-19: The Importance of Batteries (with Steve Christensen)

    Introduction: Welcome to the official podcast of the University of California Riverside School of Public Policy. I'm your host, Maddie Bunting. For this podcast series, I will be talking with various voices in the public policy world about today's pressing societal issues. Join me to learn about potential solutions and interventions for today's biggest policy challenges. Be they about health, the economy, the environment, or other societal problems impacting families in your community or the international community. Joining me today is Dean’s Brand Ambassador Paola Loera, and Steve Christensen. Mr. Christensen is the Executive Director of the Responsible Battery Coalition and Founder of Christensen and Consulting, LLC. Before joining the private sector, Mr. Christensen served in several roles as a senior policy official at the United States Department of Agriculture, where he concentrated his efforts on supporting public health and production agriculture through the development and implementation of sound science-based public policy. Mr. Christensen is also an advisory board member at the UCR School of Public Policy. 

    Maddie Bunting: You are the executive director at Responsible Battery Coalition. Are batteries considered an essential business during COVID-19, it's been interesting what's been labeled essential and what hasn't. And in that case, has the production, transportation, sale, or recycling of batteries, has that been halted? Is it continuing? Can you give us a little insight on that? 

    Steve Christensen: Yeah. You know, whoever gives out the official designation of essential and I don't think batteries are on that list, along with antibiotics and things like that. But for the most part, the right people in both the federal government, state and local governments have identified the importance of batteries and have essentially allowed battery production and recycling to continue throughout this and sales as well because batteries do play... Thinking vehicle batteries, I mean, all batteries play an essential role in our lives. I mean, the battery, the small battery that goes into your, you know, your, your consumer electronics, you know, your, your computers and so forth. Our focus as a coalition is largely on vehicle and industrial batteries. So really anything from a scooter to a golf cart to an electric powered big rig would be something we would be within our scope of our work. And then going into stationary applications, there are actually large batteries that are used for backup in hospitals. It's when the power goes out, you know, they do have a generator, but it's not a, you know, the generators are not just connected directly to everything in the hospital that the generator actually is charging batteries so there's a stable flow of electricity into the building and other commercial buildings do that same thing. So those large batteries and batteries that power in facilities that are used at large power supply facilities for neighborhoods in cities and things like that, those are the types of batteries that we're looking at. So all the materials that go in those batteries, yes they’re essential. A concern that we did have when things started to close down was a state government or just some, you know, some official not allowing recycling of batteries to go on. And the lead acid battery that goes into most vehicles, internal combustion, as well as electric vehicles have lead acid batteries, you know, powering a low-voltage system in the car. Those, it's essential that those be recycled. It is the perfect circular economy that exists around the lead acid battery. The lead that is in the battery in your car today could have been in your grandparents cars. It's infinitely recyclable. It is an amazing product. 99% of most lead acid batteries, that the materials are recycled and the plastic, even the sulfuric acid that by the time of the battery can't do its job anymore, that acid is turned into a really strong base, which is what is used for detergents. So that's where that goes. So every boast, every bit other than just a few little dinky pieces of a battery is completely recycled. Most of it is made in, except for the fluids, most of it is made into brand new batteries. So we don't have to go back to the earth to get a lot for new lead acid batteries. And that's why we wanted to make sure the recycling would remain stable. So we wouldn't see an increase in resource extraction from the Earth. Because then you get into issues with not only the carbon involved in that, but also different manufacturing processes and so forth. They can be pretty resource intense. It's much better just to recycle it. So that was one concern at the beginning, but yeah long way around the barn. But yes, they are. They are an essential product. We were glad to see that really there has been no interference. When the folks who manufacture and recycle batteries in the facilities, they wear protective equipment anyway. And this largely conforms with a lot of the safety measures for COVID-19. They do wear respirators and think because you're handling some materials that are pretty nasty, right? So once they're in the battery, the battery itself is very, very safe. But that's why it says like, don't open up the battery. So folks are already protected, so there's not a lot that most sophisticated facilities, manufacturing facilities and recycling facilities need to do to take the measures. But they've all taken measures to make sure that their workers are safe. And to my knowledge, I have not heard of any incidents involving the virus at any battery facility. That way, yeah. 

    Paola Loera: Yeah, it's very interesting that you see that I know the production of a lot of industries are being impacted by COVID-19. Which kind of leads into my next question. Many battery industry leaders have spoken about the optimistic message that the industry will bounce back from the pandemic, do you agree with this? 

    Steve Christensen: Yeah. Well, operationally it hasn't been affected, but economically, yes. Think about the battery industry in a few different segments. There are batteries that are made for new cars, okay. There's batteries that are replacement batteries that are sold at auto parts stores and Walmart and other places. And these are, these would be the lead acid batteries. Think of it. And then the third segment, I suppose you can think of nothing complicated too much if you have a lot of folks call advanced batteries or next-generation batteries. And these are the lithium ion nickel metal hydride batteries that power different electric vehicles most commonly. So they're very, they're very different batteries. And I suppose you could have a forced segment, and that is the lead acid batteries that are used in emergency vehicles and so forth. Those are actually, there's criteria for those batteries and they're very specific batteries here still lead acid batteries, but those are, that's a different type of product line as well that you don't necessarily buy at your Auto Zone. The batteries for new cars, that's where I would say economically, there's a concern because folks are buying new cars and I know of battery manufacturers that make those batteries, those divisions in those facilities that they have, those product lines are basically just at a standstill right now. And so we're not seeing a lot happen there and that would be a concern of yours when you talk about bouncing back. And that might lag because I don't know how fast folks are going to go back and start buying new cars. At the rate they were, you know, pre, pre outbreak. When we look at replacement batteries, I think we're gonna see a surge there. When a battery sits in the car and the car doesn't run a lot, so the bad is not being charged regularly. That battery fails a lot faster, its lifespan is shorter. So a battery that may have failed, just hypothetically, let's say the rate it was going regular driving the person's driving into work until they're everywhere they go and drop the kids off and all that stuff. Regular use, it was going to fail in February of next year. Now what we might see is that failure might be in November because the battery has been sitting for two and a half, three months and maybe just an occasional run to the grocery store that might not be enough to charge it up and to keep it stable. So it's degrading as it's sitting, it's degrading parts are oxidizing. Metal oxidizes, right? It doesn't work as well and electricity doesn’t flow and I don't want to give you a science lesson, but it doesn't, it's not, it's not a good thing when a battery sits and does it get used. So I think what we're going to see is a lot of people getting back to work, getting back on their cars, driving their cars a lot more, and especially as we head into cold weather in a lot of parts of the country, cold weather is pretty hard on a battery. I think we're gonna see in the fall some of those aftermarket sales and batteries go up, especially if people hang onto their car. If they don't buy a new car that can have an older car, older cars tend to be harder on batteries than new cars, just because sometimes they’ll  have what is called a parasitic drain, the car sits and it's drawing energy even though the card shut off. No, but something electrical still working in the car. But so I think we're gonna see a good, good amount of that where it remains, really where a lot of folks are speculating right now is when we think about electric vehicles, kinda, this is sort of along the lines of new cars, but a different battery, right? The new electric vehicles, Tesla and those types of things, you know, those types of new vehicle sales, that's a real uncertainty right now. Between the price of fuel going down and just, we don't know what the economics is gonna look like. You know what, we don't know what our economies look like coming out of this thing just yet. People not, might not be running to the nearest dealership. Now, thankfully, you know, some, you know, there's a lot of popular cars that are coming online like the Ford Mustang Maki, I mean, they sold out the first year of production of that car. You can’t even get one yet, but it's up. But now, if you wanted to afford an ordered one, they'd say, well, that's great, we'll get you next year. So that's a great thing to see. But we don't know what's gonna come next right now. And there's some real uncertainty there. Again, I hope people are motivated to buy an electric vehicle and more than just the price of gas, because really the cost of ownership and electric vehicles are quite low. But when gases, a $1.50 in the short term, when you think, well, am I going to pay a little bit more for this electric vehicle that I never have to put gas in? Or can I just hang onto my car or buy the fuel version of it at a buck 50 a gallon or whatever it is, dollar it is. So that's that's something really that the vehicles need to compete with. But I hope folks equate their electric vehicle purchase a little bit more than just the price of fuel. But, I think that's what a lot of consumers do. So I would say it's uncertain. Some sectors are going to do very well. Some sectors are not gonna do so well. But like I said, as far as lead acid batteries, really any of the batteries, the ability to get the resources, recycle them. And manufacturing batteries, I mean, it remains intact and they think that will still, still go the, the folks who are actually in the recycling side, even in the advanced batteries, they are not slowing down our member, Lifecycle, which is a company headquartered in Toronto, but they're setting up in, in the United States. They are not slowing down. They are not slowing down. They are full steam ahead because things need recycled materials in them. They need to be recycled. There's no reason to stop. So they're very optimistic. And obviously we share their optimism for the near future might be a little bit rough, but I think in the long-term this all settled down. I think they're going to be okay, but I think, I think we're still in for a lot of uncertainty in the next six or eight months. 

    Paola Loera: Yeah, I'm excited to see how the battery industry will pull through despite the struggles the pandemic has presented. Given that batteries support many of the operations and infrastructure critical to our nation, including transportation and medical equipment, how has this affected their transportation and medical industries? 

    Steve Christensen: Well, there's certainly a huge reliance on batteries in the medical industry. You know, the talk, the issue with the ventilators. Those ventilators have battery backups. You know, aside from the building itself having giant rooms full of batteries, full of these huge batteries, they're like cabinets. But they also do ventilators allow the ventilator designs to have batteries and a lot of the medical equipment for monitoring heart rate and all that, you know, that on a pole, you know, with a little with wheels on it. I can't remember what it's called. I don't spend a lot of time in hospitals. Thankfully. Thankfully right now. But those, you know, the reason why it kinda looks a bit like a lunch box is because there's a big battery in that thing. There's a lot of times it's the lead acid battery that goes right down the back of it. Even though it plugs into the wall, you know what I said, the power goes out. It's gotta be able to power itself and it's also so they can move it with, they gotta move the patients that they wanted to be totally mobile. So if you go into a hospital and look at all the things that require batteries, just in a room. And actually counted, I haven’t countered and I should have prepared better to actually counter all things that would be there. I mean, it's it it's at least five or six different things that have batteries in it. You know, not to mention the instruments that you electrical instruments that a healthcare professional might use. The thermometer that they put on your forehead now when you go to the dentist office has a battery in it and it's gotta be working properly. It's gotta give it the right reading, right? Because if it's wrong, you might be putting people in danger. So batteries are probably essential to this and also the reliability, the reliance on batteries as we get out of this, you know, one of the ways we're going to manage it is through battery operated devices. From your phone to like, a thermometer. It all relies on batteries. 

    Maddie Bunting: Have those who resource the materials of batteries been impacted by COVID-19? Are you worried about getting that material and people still working and producing batteries? 

    Steve Christensen: Yeah. Well, when we think of the lead acid, not so much because I said, you know, when we think because the recycling facility is still operational, we would be able to get the materials that we need to meet the demand of new batteries. When we think about the raw materials, a lot of these come from Central Africa, in South America, where there's a lot of lithium mining, and actually right here in the United States, in Nevada, there's quite a bit of lithium extraction that's starting up. Yeah, it's, it's right now like I said, I think because the demand isn't there for vehicles, that for the new batteries, it's not it's not an issue right now. But I think, these industries, especially on the material extraction for next-generation master the lithium, cobalt, all those, all those industries. They are very motivated. And you know, Australia is another place where they're doing, they're doing quite a bit. And I think they're looking for every opportunity they can to resume operations and keep things moving forward. I'm not aware of any issues. I think where my point on the supply chain issue is that yeah, as you said, China closed up the manufacturing facility that you would need to get battery parts out of was probably not not operating. So if we went to this scenario again, potentially where something else would just, let's say we're in a situation that unfortunately something just affects China and let's say everything was fine here. It would be a different picture, I think I think we would then have a choked off supply chain because we're getting it mostly from one place. And we still have the demand here and we couldn't meet the demand. And I think then we'd be in a real  situation where we would have some issues, but our economies are so interconnected right now, I don't think, you know, we kinda both sync at the same time. So it's in that way, it's kind of, I won't say it's fortunate, but it has set that's kinda avoided, probably a bigger catastrophe. 

    Maddie Bunting: So we've been talking about how, car batteries specifically, are mainly maybe 99% recyclable, which is amazing. I am curious for all sectors having this pandemic as a learning experience. I've heard a lot of comparisons to over a 100 years ago, the Spanish flu. But the talks of, well, hey, there could be another pandemic and our lifetimes or something like that. So I'm curious about batteries other than car batteries. Do you know whether through recycling or production, if there are any thoughts of more efficient ways or ways you think your sector might change or adapt because of COVID-19? 

    Steve Christensen: Absolutely. I would say there's probably three main areas right now where folks in the industry, the battery industry, are looking in and kind of scratching their chins a little bit, I guess you could say thinking, okay, how can we do this differently? And I'd say the first is when we're looking at, you know, public policy, government funding. When this all started, the Department of Energy had the recycling prize, battery, the battery recycling prize, which was really looking at all batteries. And they, the government was looking to getting more involved in what they call again, the next industrial revolution, which is in batteries. With money flying out of Washington D.C. right now, wouldn't be in the trillions. I'm not so sure what this is going to look like when I, you know, when things settle down and we go back to our regular meetings with officials in the Department of Energy and Department of Interior and on Capitol Hill and we talk about initiatives and how we can kind of share in making investments in new research and so forth to advance us into that industrial revolution. And because the industry definitely isn't looking for a government handout. As far as I can tell when we're not saying,  we’re not saying hey, come, just give us some money and we're going to go do some research and we look at ways we can collaborate effectively, in fact as an organization Responsible Battery Coalition, we collaborated very closely with Argonne National Lab, which is part of the Department of Energy. And we work on Lifecycle Assessments and looking at the economics of building a closed-loop recycling system that exists for, for some batteries but not for others we wanted to apply to all batteries. So we're looking at ways to make that happen. But anyway, so I think looking at how much the government might be involved in this post pandemic, I think is a real concern. Second, I think this has made a huge, this has exposed some huge issues in the supply chain. If you, if you look at food and beverage companies, they've been through all sorts of threats, right? So the ones that are still there's still succeeding, it is rare. I mean, really rare. And I worked in agriculture when I was at USDA for eight years and even when I went to the private sector, I worked a lot with the food and beverage industry and that's been a great asset as I move into this industry. But in the supply chain, it is rare that you will find a food or beverage company that relies on a single source or a single region for any aspect of their business. If, if you're, if you're a supplier to a food and beverage company, you think you're the only one, you're fooling yourself. They have two or three that are supplying it because they never want to be caught with an issue in their supply chain and not being able to provide product. You know, we saw that after Fukushima when they're in the battery industry with a lot of folks, you know, relying on Japanese companies for supply of materials, your battery parts and things like that. So we're seeing the same thing for the next-generation batteries. For those batteries that go into any sort of lithium ion product, the majority of those materials in that, for that product with the parts for that product coming from China. And there's nowhere else to get them. There's no North American or European manufacturers. They're starting to come about, but they're, they're very slow and it's hard to compete with the Chinese business model right now. So that's the second thing. Third is kinda touched on this before I would say is, you know, really, you know, the consumer sentiment, you know, I don't think most industries haven't been through rather than the folks who are in the industry right now, I don't think I've been through this sort of economic situation in the past. And it's a bit of a shock to us. Yes, we, you know, we, you know, we survived the 2008 economic downturn, this is a bit of a different animal. So I'm not sure how, again, kind of that there's some uncertainty of that.

    Outro: This Podcast is a production of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. I’m Maddie Bunting. Till next time.