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Power struggle: The looming high-tech battery crisis

Batteries increasingly will be running our world, but they're both an environmental boon and bane.



While the world has continued to grapple with an unprecedented public health crisis, a small yet influential government agency issued a report that may have profound implications for the next one, as well as for our planet.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is a highly regarded government agency accustomed to toiling in relative obscurity. But its latest report should prompt everyone to take notice.

The subject? Climate action and other market forces are accelerating the adoption of larger batteries, and we’re not doing nearly enough to figure out the potential hazards, such as the environmental effects of mining for raw materials or looming national security issues if we fail to lock in an adequate supplies of raw materials.

President Joe Biden’s recent executive order calls for a review of critical supply chains across the U.S. to ensure a more resilient, secure economy as borders continue to be closed and the import of important raw materials is diverted. This action communicates the vulnerable, powerless position the U.S. could be in if not addressed quickly.

The numbers are staggering. In the next four years alone, the need for large batteries in renewable energy installations will be at least 10 times what it is today. By 2035, it’s expected that 46 million electric vehicles will be on U.S. roads, each with a sophisticated battery pack. Cloud computing is yet another source of demand for these high-tech batteries, with millions of pounds of these devices already being installed in data centers around the world.

Given the pace of change in these industries and the accelerating speed of adoption, these estimates are probably short of what will actually happen in the coming years.

This is good news, because it underscores the notion that the world is taking climate change seriously and that we’re finally doing what’s needed to undo the damage of centuries of fossil-fuel energy generation and use. Getting to zero-carbon emissions will require mass electrification across all sectors of society using clean energy. As that won’t happen without batteries, these trends are encouraging.

Yet, as NREL points out, it won’t come without a price if we don’t figure out how to responsibly reuse and recycle these batteries when they start coming out of service in a few years. These larger batteries have a lifespan of five to 10 years, after which they start to lose their effectiveness and need to be replaced.

It’s important to understand what these batteries are, and what they are not.

First of all, they’re big. In some cases, very big. The battery pack in an electric vehicle can weigh over 1,000 pounds and be about the size of a skinny twin mattress. Battery storage systems deployed in grid installations are another thing altogether. Imagine rows of shipping container-sized buildings each containing hundreds of interconnected lithium-ion modules, and you start to get an idea of the scale of these technological marvels.

The chemistry that makes these batteries work isn’t all that different from what’s inside your mobile phone or powering the electric bikes and scooters zipping all around us. All of these devices and applications are creating strong demand for the raw materials needed to make them work. According to the NREL report, worldwide demand for cobalt, lithium, nickel, graphite and manganese is expected to increase fivefold by 2050, with nickel shortages projected to start occurring in five or six years. Right now, the overwhelming majority of that material is pulled out of the ground, a situation that’s environmentally unsustainable over the long term.

Why should we care? Because batteries hold the key to modern life and a healthy climate. And they rely on raw materials that will someday be in short supply if we’re not careful. It’s often hard to see a technological revolution when you’re in the middle of one. Right now, we are in the midst of the biggest technological revolution since the first Industrial Revolution. That one lasted almost 100 years.

And we must learn from the past to inform our solutions for the future. In 1965, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), the nation’s first environmental law, aiming to reduce waste and protect human and environmental health. The increase in quality of living from manufactured goods led to increases in waste, thus resulting in unsafe or unsanitary disposal methods of the waste such as burning trash. As the germ theory of disease developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, this led to increased attention of waste disposal as a public health crisis in the United States.

In 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was created as the first amendment to the SWDA, addressing implications of hazardous waste, particularly in the context of recycling and renewable energy. The need for better waste management practices would mitigate potential hazards to our water supply and air quality, thus calling on government to support local communities in tackling this effort.

Government has a role to play in fostering innovation and clarifying the rules of the road. Better policies and economic incentives are needed, but that’s just the beginning. Corporations and civil society have important roles to play, too. Capital is needed, as is creative thinking. We need our greatest minds focused on solving this problem like they did in building these new tools that will enable us to fix the climate mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

The good news from NREL is there is a path forward, and collaboration is the key to success. Noted business strategist Scott Galloway has a simple way of putting it: "Greatness is achieved in the agency of others." The only way to avoid kicking this can down the road is by multiple actors collaborating, each playing to their strengths, and not working at cross purposes.

Can we adapt fast enough to do better by the planet this time as we make that transformation?

We’ve been here before with batteries, albeit at a smaller scale. Over 30 years ago, rechargeable batteries were in the market and concerns began growing about what to do about a looming waste problem. What seemed a monumentally complex problem at the time now seems quaint by comparison. Governments, NGOs and the battery industry took action, each in their own ways.

The result is that today, recycling consumer batteries has gained traction. While recycling rates remain stubbornly low, the supply-chain infrastructure and processing capacity isn’t the problem. If you want to recycle a consumer battery, options are available across the United States where you can do it safely and responsibly. With consumer batteries, education is more of a barrier than actually being able to recycle.

Unlike consumer batteries, these larger batteries present a different set of challenges and important parts of the infrastructure are still quite immature. For starters, they come in seemingly infinite shapes and sizes, making the collection and recycling of the units considerably more difficult than with standard consumer batteries.

When should we start? The answer is yesterday. Years down the road, we do not want to be looking in the rearview mirror wondering why we failed to prevent another public health and environmental problem from happening in the first place. Best we get going.

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