The battery revolution is exciting, but remember they pollute too

The battery revolution is exciting, but remember they pollute too

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Batteries can cut carbon emissions, but mining the metals and other resources needed to make them can be a dirty business.

Batteries can cut carbon emissions, but mining the metals and other resources needed to make them can be a dirty business. Jon Seb Barber/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
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The Conversation

Batteries can cut carbon emissions, but mining the metals and other resources needed to make them can be a dirty business. Jon Seb Barber/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
Batteries can cut carbon emissions, but mining the metals and other resources needed to make them can be a dirty business. Jon Seb Barber/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The recent unveiling by Tesla founder Elon Musk of the low-cost Powerwall storage battery is the latest in a series of exciting advances in battery technologies for electric cars and domestic electricity generation.

We have also seen the development of an aluminium-ion battery that may be safer, lighter and cheaper than the lithium-ion batteries used by Tesla and most other auto and technology companies.

These advances are exciting for two main reasons. First, the cost of energy storage, in the form of batteries, is decreasing significantly. This makes electric vehicle ownership and home energy storage much more attainable.

The second, related reason is that these cheaper green technologies may make the transition to a greener economy easier and faster than we have so far imagined (although, as has been recently pointed out on The Conversation, these technologies are only one piece of the overall energy puzzle).

Beware the industrial option

These technological advances, and much of the excitement around them, lend themselves to the idea that solving environmental problems such as climate change is primarily a case of technological adjustment. But this approach encourages a strategy of “superindustrialisation”, in which technology and industry are brought to bear to resolve climate change, through resource efficiency, waste reduction and pollution control. In this context, the green economy is presented as an inevitable green technological economic wave.

But the prospect of this green economic wave needs to be considered within a wider environmental and social context, which makes solving the problems much more complex. Let’s take electric vehicles as an example.

The ecological damage of cars, electric or otherwise, is partly due to the fact that the car industry generates more than 3 million tonnes of scrap and waste every year. In 2009, 14 million cars were scrapped in the United States alone.

The number of cars operating in the world is expected to climb from the current 896 million to 1.2 billion by 2020. The infrastructure associated with growing vehicle use, particularly roads, also makes a significant contribution to the destruction of ecosystems and arguably has important social costs.

Electric vehicles (EVs) offer a substantial greenhouse gas emission improvement from the internal combustion engine. However, this improvement depends on green electricity production.

An EV powered by average European electricity production is likely to reduce a vehicle’s global warming potential by about 20% over its life cycle. This is not insignificant, but it is nowhere near a zero-emission option.

In large part, the life-cycle emissions of an electric vehicle are due to the energy-intensive nature of battery production and the associated mining processes. Indeed, there are questions around battery production and resource depletion, but perhaps more concerning is the impact that mining lithium and other materials for the growing battery economy, such as graphite, will have on the health of workers and communities involved in this global production network.

Processes associated with lithium batteries may produce adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological health impacts. Pollution from graphite mining in China has resulted in reports of “graphite rain”, which is significantly impacting local air and water quality.

The production of green technologies creates many interesting contradictions between environmental benefits at the point of use, versus human and environmental costs at the production end. Baoding, a Chinese city southwest of Beijing, has been labelled the greenest city in the world or the world’s only carbon-positive city. This is because Boading produces enormous quantities of wind turbines and solar cells for the United States and Europe, and has about 170 alternative energy companies based there.

But last year the air in the city of Baoding was declared to be the most polluted in China – a country where air quality reportedly contributes to 1.2 million deaths each year. These impacts need to be placed into any discussion or policy frameworks when exploring the shift to a “greener” future.

Beware new problems from new solutions

We should be excited about the shift to greener cars and affordable home electricity storage units, but in the process of starting to solve the technological challenges of climate change we must ensure that we are not creating environmental problems, particularly for the largely unseen workers and communities further up the production stream.

Our response to climate change needs to be more than just a technological adjustment. We argue that the shift to a green economy requires more transformative social political actions via skills and training, worker participation, and the coming together of environmental organisations, unions, business and government.

Indeed, the world of work is a critical site for emission reductions: 80% of Europe’s carbon emissions are workplace-related.

As we adopt emerging greener technologies, we will have to look beyond our shiny new Powerwall, or the electric car parked on the front drive, to ensure that the environmental and social changes promised by green technologies are not just illusions.

The Conversation

Caleb Goods is Postdoctoral research fellow at York University, Canada.
Carla Lipsig-Mumme is Professor of Work and Labour Studies at York University, Canada.


Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. Peter Campbell 6 years ago

    Initial extraction of battery materials might be dirty but greatly mitigated if the materials are then largely recycled. Whether lead or lithium, I think these can be recycled effectively.

  2. Rob W 6 years ago

    I love my bicycle.

  3. Presentlyfuture 6 years ago

    Raw mineral extraction serving a growing industrialised global population is having dire effects on us all.The mineral “Coltan” is needed for a Smartphone to function.The history of it’s extraction is diabolical.

  4. Ken Dyer 6 years ago

    The mining of materials, the processing and manufacture of recyclable batteries and other tools and technology to provide renewable energy seems relatively innocuous compared to the constant extraction and burning of coal. I may be wrong, however, and freely admit this.

    it is a good thing to point these issues out, but it would be a better thing to actually quantify any assumed damage that may be done, just as the damage caused by the burning of fossil fuels has been quantified, then used as justification to attack the fossil fuel industry.

    Either, the battery industry pollution is worse than fossil fuel burning, or it is not. The opportunity exists to establish its polluting effects at the outset, instead of referring to the issue as a mysterious “puzzle”.

    • chrgordon27 5 years ago

      You’re asking for someone to definitively say oranges are worse than apples… It can’t be done with any measure of accuracy.

  5. Chris Fraser 6 years ago

    Perhaps one part of the solution is to reduce our consumerist thinking towards the battery cell. For many years now, (and I have been part of the problem) it was considered so easy to just remove a used battery from so many portable things, dispose of it in landfill, and buy another. Now I think we have been made more aware of how to care for and cycle Li-ion batteries, because they are not so simple to remove and replace. I’m picking on i-Devices as examples, but there are so many others. So we need to migrate gadgets towards fixed batteries so we can charge them at night with clean energy, over 10,000 times. This will also be a significant cost saving.Now much bigger batteries are coming in various chemistries. Perhaps we could spare some ARENA funds to make commercial recycling and repurposing of those batteries economical.

  6. Alan S 6 years ago

    Cue for a RenewEconomy article: Battery materials – their extraction and disposal.

  7. JeffJL 6 years ago

    Having gone through the article where they come up with the 20% saving in global warming article I don’t see where they get their data for the ‘average European electricity production.’ With the article dated OCT 2012 their references will be even older. Hence with the current greening of the production in Europe (and around the world) the 20% is only going to improve and would have done so since their article.

  8. Neil Carmichael 5 years ago

    Not all batteries are made of horrible stuff, I’ve been following an American company called “Aquion” who make big heavy battery’s for application such as storing solar power that doesn’t contain anything toxic. It’s a pity Tesla didn’t choose to use something that for their home battery.

  9. DavidSnydacker 5 years ago

    Not all Li-ion batteries use Nickel and Cobalt. Essential reading:!divAbstract

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