If you need any further proof that electric vehicles (EVs) are taking over the world then consider the fact that my 86-year-old father already drives one. And like EVs produced by BMW, Mercedes, Honda and Renault, the model he owns—a Nissan Leaf—runs on batteries crafted by AESC Group, a world-leading greentech company founded by CEO Zhang Lei.
Zhang graduated from the London School of Economics and worked for Total and Barclays Capital in the U.K. before returning to his native China to establish Envision in 2007. The Shanghai-headquartered firm began by designing and operating smart wind turbines in places as far-flung as Chile, New Zealand and Sweden, but has since expanded into storage systems, green hydrogen power and Artificial Intelligence Internet of Things (AIoT) solutions for industrial and state clients.
Zhang’s EV battery division, AESC Group, has supplied over 600,000 units and claims zero critical incidents. He spoke to TIME about his latest venture of Net Zero Industrial Parks that bring together suppliers and manufacturers into a single facility powered by green energy, as well as the Envision Racing Formula E team that he now runs.
“I like [Formula E’s] slogan ‘We are racing against the climate crisis,’” says Zhang. “It’s kind of symbolic of things.” He compares the ethos to the thinking behind the Net Zero Industrial Park Envision is building in China’s biggest coal city, Ordos in Inner Mongolia. “It’s an attitude, a kind of demonstration. It’s also about technology. In racing, just one second can separate first place and number 10. So you need advanced battery management systems, IoT systems,” he says. “So it’s a very good challenge which can push us to innovate.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
AESC has sprawling interests in battery production, wind farms and Net Zero Industrial Parks. What’s your guiding philosophy that knits the company together?
Our mission is to solve sustainability challenges for mankind. So, if you see batteries, wind turbines and digital IoT, they are relevant—batteries are the new oil; wind turbines are the new coal; and IoT is the new grid. Net Zero Industrial Parks are a combination of the three to create green infrastructure for governments [to build] industrial clusters to decarbonize the supply chain. So it’s about solving the toughest challenges of our time.
Was there a particular moment or event that made you believe that climate change must be addressed by business?
In 2006, I was working in London and had the idea to create a renewable energy company and the vision was to harmonize energy and the environment. If you look at AESC’s character, we are a company to solve challenges; it’s not about discussing, it’s not about debating, we take real action.
In the days when I was preparing for AESC, I heard lots of debate about climate change. Most people kind of ignored it. I have a scientific mind, I respect science, but at the same time, I respect history. When I went to Venice, I saw Renaissance buildings—they’re already in danger. Maybe within 50 years, they’re gone. So it’s our generation’s responsibility to solve [the climate crisis]. Because I care about history, I care about the future.
AESC has battery Gigafactories in China, Japan, the U.K. and Tennessee and is building new plants in Spain, France and Kentucky. Where are you heading next?
Our goal is to help our customers solve their challenges. So companies like BMW, Mercedes, Nissan, Honda and Renault are our important customers—they have huge pressure to decarbonize their supply chain, and also to have the most advanced batteries. So, this is a challenge that is not only happening in the U.S. It could happen in Mexico, in other parts of Europe, or in China. They need top quality batteries, competitive prices, advanced technology, and they need the supply adjacent to them. So whereever our customers need us, we go to be with them. It could be everywhere.
What’s the biggest challenge the EV battery industry faces?
Today the common challenge for EV and battery makers is the tightening supply chain around raw materials like lithium and nickel, which is making battery costs surge a lot and EVs more expensive. Because unless electric vehicles become very cost competitive, people will lose the motivation to change.
There’s lots of discussion about different breakthrough technologies regarding EV batteries, such as sodium ion, solid-state, and many other things. Where do you believe battery technology is going next?
I think solid-state batteries. AESC’s [battery] headquarters in Japan is testing and designing the latest solid-state batteries that will have much higher energy density and other good performance parameters. And we will think about industrializing in 2027-2028 for commercial scale productions. So our headquarters and our [Research and Development] in Japan is full speed on solid state batteries.
There’s lots of talk about recycling EV batteries but it’s actually quite a dangerous process. Do you think there’s going to be some breakthrough to enable the large-scale repurposing of EV batteries?
Of course, you have secondary uses now and companies already have battery swap technology, which is becoming more standard. But I think the final recycling is about breaking down batteries to take out the precious materials, and that isn’t dangerous. I think after 2030 when batteries start to recycle into the value chain we can reduce dependence on lithium and nickel mining.
There were projections of battery costs dropping dramatically through this decade. Do you worry that recent increases in raw material costs and energy costs will have a significant impact on this?
I’m very optimistic for the [medium] and long-term. Because today there is a rush for electrification, but once new demand reaches a [steady] level in time, the pace of refineries and mining facilities will increase. So you should see shortly that prices will come down. [Maybe] three to four years.
Battery manufacturing requires a lot of energy. I understand 96% of AESC Group’s total operational emissions come from AESC Group, your battery division. The energy consumed in the supply chain for battery materials means that an EV typically has to run over 40,000 miles before it “breaks even” in greenhouse gas terms compared with a gas-powered vehicle. How can embedded CO2 be reduced in the future?
That’s why we created Net Zero Industrial Parks. So we are using green electricity to produce a battery, but not only for ourselves; I will also bring my suppliers into the Net Zero Park. We’re using abundant wind and solar energy to supply them, which is not only cost competitive but also a fully green source. It’s going to be very powerful to cover the entire supply chain industrial system in the Net Zero Park, because you also reduce transportation costs, packaging cost, energy costs and transmission costs, because [there are] no power losses. Starting from mining, to refinery, to precursor, to cathode, to anode, to battery cell, to packs—you are able to make a “natural” product. Their processes have no embedded CO2. Globally, with our partners we’re going to build 100 Net Zero Industrial Parks and we want to cut 1 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. If I’m able to do that, I should win the Nobel Prize!
Is that your aim?
It’s my KPI [Key Performance Indicator], it’s not my aim. [laughs]
The Chinese government has made a lot of bold, ambitious climate pledges such as reaching peak carbon by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. But at the same time, there is still a reliance on coal and indeed more coal plants being built. Are you concerned by the facts on the ground?
I’m quite confident of the Chinese government’s strategy and commitment. Maybe in the short term, they have to deal with some conflicts. But if you see the recent statement by President Xi [Jinping], he said “let’s build before we destroy.” So let’s make renewables stronger before phasing out fossil fuel. They are restoring some coal but overall coal is still balanced. And they are much, much more aggressive on the renewables side.