Our efforts with this column are primarily aimed at keeping in mind the issues surrounding consumer and electoral choices related to energy. “Energy” in the sense of “How to tackle and move forward the obsolete fossil fuel society that is now endangering the planet”. How do we, as consumers and voters, filter out industry propaganda and analyze scientific data so that we can help reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?
There are myriad themes that illustrate the deadly struggle between the energetic forces of change and the powerful that are. This fight is marked by the slander of renewable energy and all related technologies.
You’ve probably noticed this by now and don’t want to believe all the bad news about the “dark side” of renewable energy technologies and products. But when something is repeated to your face 10 times a day, a little of it enters the clefts of the brain, followed closely by a little more; soon the channels are flooded and your resistance is simply washed away. They say, “Okay, so much for the electric car, I’ll just keep my diesel pickup.” (See previous column on energy issues)
One of the most popular campaigns involves the trope “lithium batteries are worse for the environment than anything else”. Let’s consider it a small but illustrative piece of this cosmic struggle to save the atmosphere.
Life Cycle Analysis: Suddenly life cycle analysis was discovered by the fossil fuel trolls. The unimaginable cradle-to-grave cost of lithium-ion batteries is in the spotlight. This life cycle assessment can and should of course be applied to ALL consumer goods. Well, let’s look at the batteries first.
LCA looks at all the costs (energy and money) of making, using and disposing of something. A number of researchers have performed such analyzes for lithium batteries (quotes on our blog). To save you a jungle of details, let’s look at just a few of the results:
Manufacturing: If one considers all sourcing (including mining the lithium with coal power in China or Congo), the total energy needed to manufacture 1 kWh EV battery is about 300 kWh (IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute) . This creates between 60 and 100 kg of atmospheric CO2. A typical long-range EV battery has a capacity of around 70 kWh and therefore requires 21,000 kWh of energy (resulting in 7 tons of atmospheric CO2).
This battery will be charged between 2000 and 2500 times before degradation becomes significant. That is a total of around 160,000 kWh for around 800,000 kilometers of driving performance. This generates about 29 tons of CO2 with Maine’s current power mix. If it were loaded from all renewables, that would be less than 10 tons.
A petrol vehicle with 24 MPG would produce around 200 tons of CO2 on this route from fuel alone. So 29 tons of CO2 compared to 200 tons of CO2.
As the battery manufacturing process evolves and components are increasingly recycled, this CO2 value will decrease. It’s also possible that the average gas-powered car’s fuel economy has also increased, which would be just great, but the proportions in this comparison will probably at least hold up.
Degradation: Battery capacity decreases over time. It is estimated that with normal use, a battery loses 1 to 2 percent per year of use. The range is therefore only 80 to 90% of the original value after 10 years; Battery technology will have improved by then, so new longer range batteries will be installed. In the meantime, the original battery can be repurposed for stationary storage and eventually recycled.
Recycling: The specter of huge mountains of old batteries is haunting certain corners of the internet these days. Why is that scary? A used EV battery has higher concentrations of cobalt and lithium than what is typically excavated from a mine or found in lithium-rich brines. With the right technology, it makes sense to recycle virtually all metals in batteries.
Some are simple, like steel, aluminum and copper, as they don’t need to be chemically separated. Others like lithium, cobalt and nickel are harder. Yes, these metals are currently more costly to recycle than they are to be mined, but over time, as the value of the metals increases with demand and more used batteries enter the recycling stream, recycling will become increasingly cost-effective. Northvolt, a Swedish company, claims to be able to extract more than 95% of the metals from a used electric vehicle battery. A Finnish company, Fortum, is building a facility that they claim will be able to recycle the majority of EV batteries that reach end-of-life in Europe.
Of course, it’s not currently possible to recycle enough metals from used batteries to make all the new batteries we need. (See our article “Materials and the Energy Transition” from last January). There are simply not enough old batteries in the recycling stream. In the coming decades, electric vehicle production will level off as the market becomes saturated. At this point, it’s possible that most of the metals for new batteries come from used ones.
In short, don’t let that put you off: the carbon benefits of switching to renewable, electrically powered transportation far outweigh the carbon costs of batteries!
Paul Stancioff, PhD., is Professor Emeritus of Physics at UMF. Cynthia Stancioff restates everything he writes. E-mail: [email protected] or [email protected] For previous columns, see https://paulandcynthiaenergymatters.blogspot.com/.