The Dirty Truth About Green Batteries

If we’re going to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we’ll need an energy revolution. Specifically, we need to replace our dirty, fossil fuel-based grids and dirty, fossil fuel-powered vehicles with clean, carbon-free grids, and electric vehicles that charge off them. But there’s a big problem.

Making that future a reality will, among other things, require a lot of batteries: batteries to charge our electric cars; batteries to store solar power collected while the sun’s up and wind power harnessed when it’s gusty out. But as a new report by researchers at the University of Technology Sydney warns, that’s likely to drive demand for the metals used to build green batteries—as well as wind turbines and solar panels—through the roof.

In other words the clean tech boom is, at least in the short term, likely to fuel a mining boom. And that won’t come without cost.

“We already know about the environmental, social, and human rights impacts extraction is posing to front line communities right now,” Payal Sampat, mining program director at Earthworks, which commissioned the new report, told Earther. “It’s kind of unimaginable to think about… how it would be considered sustainable to scale up those impacts that many fold and still be reaping benefits.”

Much like our smartphones and computers, the high-tech energy infrastructure of tomorrow requires a host of metals and minerals from across the periodic table and the planet. The lithium-ion batteries used in EVs and energy storage require not just lithium, but often cobalt, manganese, and nickel. Electric vehicle engines rely on rare earths, as do the permanent magnet-based generators inside some wind turbines. Solar panels gobbles up a significant share of the world’s supply of tellurium, and gallium, along with a sizable fraction of mined silver and indium. Most renewable technologies demand heaps of copper and aluminium.

Our appetite for these metals will only grow as these technologies proliferate. While that basic fact has been known for years, the new report takes things a step further by working out the projected demand for 14 critical metals if humanity were to limit global warming to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, by shifting to 100 per cent renewable energy by mid-century. In a scenario the authors describe “very ambitious”, the 2050 energy mix is mainly wind and solar PV-driven, with smaller fractions of our energy coming from geothermal power, hydropower, and other technologies. The transportation sector is also 100 per cent renewable, with over half of all cars, buses, and commercial vehicles being battery-driven electric or plug-in hybrids.

That future sounds great from a climate perspective. But as the new analysis shows, it also creates some daunting materials challenges.

In the authors’ scenarios, annual demand for lithium, as well as the rare earths neodymium and dysprosium, for batteries and EV engines, exceed current production rates by 2022. Batteries will also drive cobalt and nickel demand higher than current production around 2030, while tellurium demand for solar PV will peak well above current production rates in the late 2020s to mid 2030s.

It gets worse. By mid-century, even in the most optimistic scenarios, the battery sector’s cobalt appetite is projected to exceed known planetary reserves, while our lithium demand will have eaten up at least 86 per cent of known reserves. This doesn’t mean we will “run out” of these metals—known reserves simply refers to the metals that are currently economical to mine, and that can change over time—but it does serve to highlight just how big of a player batteries will be in fuelling our material appetite in the decades to come. Lead study author Elsa Dominish told Earther via email that for lithium and cobalt at least, new mining seems “inevitable.”

The numbers and forecasts in the report were not surprising to David Abraham, a senior fellow at New America who wrote a book on rare metals that discusses the clean tech boom’s role in shaping future supply risks.

“What’s happened is many of these materials make products lighter, stronger, more powerful,” Abraham told Earther. “And that’s exactly what we want from green technologies. We want the products to be as efficient as possible.” It’s also why we depend on very specific metals to build them and why those metals aren’t always easily substituted.

For batteries, the authors say the most important way to offset rising demand for key metals is to beef up recycling, something that currently isn’t happening at a large scale.

“Rates are very, very low for lithium ion battery recycling even though it’s something everyone seems to be offering as a solution,” Clare Church, a researcher at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) who authored a separate recent report making a case for cobalt and lithium recycling, told Earther.

As Church’s report points out, there are several reasons this, including technological limitations and inadequate regulation. Developing the infrastructure to collect and extract the metals out of spent batteries will require considerable effort, and absent governments that clearly designate who’s responsible and set ambitious targets, businesses often simply aren’t taking it upon themselves to make the initial investments. That’s despite what the report describes as a “considerable economic opportunity” in recycled lithium and cobalt—one that could be worth $US23 ($32) billion by 2025, according to Reuters.

Some companies, however, are starting to recognise the opportunity. This week, Tesla announced it’s developing a battery recycling system at its Gigafactory 1 plant that will “process both battery manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries” with the aim of recovering critical metals. Meanwhile metals company American Manganese, which has partnered with the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute on battery recycling, recently patented a technology to efficiently extract all of the metals from the cathode of lithium-ion batteries, including lithium which pretty much isn’t recycled at all today.

“I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever got my hands on,” Reaugh said in reference to the potential market in metals from spent batteries.

Church said it’s also important to think about how batteries, especially those in cars, can be re-used before the recycling stage.

“A lot of these batteries, when they reach end-of-life, still have a lot of energy capacity available,” she said. Even if an EV battery burns out to the point that it’s no longer safe to use in a car, it might still be perfectly good for another application, like home energy storage.

For some technologies, like solar PV, there’s an opportunity to reduce the use of rare metals through increased efficiency, according to the University of Sydney report. And Church said that for large, stationary batteries that store energy from wind and solar farms, we might be able to swap lithium-ion for a different emerging technology, so-called vanadium flow batteries which, in a delightfully nerdy blog post, she suggested might be the “Valyrian steel” of rechargeable battery tech.

But even with more recycling and technological breakthroughs it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a battery and renewably-powered future will mean more mining, especially in the near future. And if today’s mining industries are any indicator, that will have environmental and human consequences.

Take cobalt, which many lithium ion battery manufacturers add to improve energy density. Today, nearly 60 per cent of it is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, contributing to some of the worst pollution on the planet as mining and smelting cause heavy metals to seep into the air, water and soil. Cobalt mining has also fuelled notorious human rights abuses, including relying extensively on child labour and forcing miners to work in incredibly dangerous conditions.

Or you can look at lithium, which is mined mainly in the “lithium triangle” between Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. While many mines seem well managed the industry’s presence has raised concerns about freshwater contamination and conflict with local communities, per the new report. Or the a nickel refinery in Australia that closed after it was found to be dumping toxic wastewater onto the Great Barrier Reef. Last year, that refinery was set to re-open amidst rising nickel demand fuelled by the EV sector.

None of this is to say the clean energy revolution shouldn’t happen. But as Sampat put it, “where new mining is needed, it’s really going to have to be far more responsible and with far smaller ecological and human footprints.”

The entire point of the report, she said, was to get that idea on relevant stakeholders’ radars, from policymakers to those who buy minerals, to ensure more responsible sourcing moving forward. She said that in talking with R&D folks in the renewable energy and battery space, a lot of them “truly believe that they’re helping to save the world.”

“And they’re surprised by this information and don’t want to be part of the problem,” Sampat continued. “So I think there is an opportunity for information to result in shifts.”

But given the pace at which science demands we confront the climate crisis, these shifts need to happen quickly. “We’re in the middle of a crisis both on the climate side and the mining side,” Sampat said. “It’s not like we have a whole lot of time to make these adjustments.”

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