In late 2019 images of Australia in flames spread around the world. Record weather extremes related to global heating had created conditions in which vast areas of forest and brush easily caught fire. The poignancy of the plight of so many Australians was heightened by having a Prime Minister who was initially absent from the country when the fires were taking hold, and was a strong supporter of the coal industry, who also at first denied any link between the climate emergency and the fire disaster itself. But something else happened in Australia in 2019 which might point the way ahead for accelerating the rapid, global transition to renewable energy. Can the nation now point the way from its fire disasters to a clean energy future?
In South Australia in 2019 the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery – 129MWh, which is enough to power 30,000 homes for one hour during blackouts – was switched on just 60 days after the contract to build the facility was signed. The battery is paired with the neighbouring Hornsdale Wind Farm, in partnership with its French owner Neoen. It was installed to bring greater reliability and stability to the state’s electricity grid, helping to even out price spikes, prevent blackouts and improve reliability across the network. The state’s efforts to increase their proportion of renewable energy had previously been hampered by freak weather events causing outages, which in turn sparked a political brawl over energy policy; the federal government blamed the supply failures on the use of renewable technologies.
The Australian Energy Market Operator said there were actually many factors behind the power cuts, including extreme weather events and higher demand than anticipated. But the solution came about after the state premier challenged battery entrepreneur Elon Musk on Twitter and he responded to say he would build a giant battery within 100 days of signing the deal.
The idea is to charge up the battery packs when the system is producing excess power and the cost of production is very low and then discharge it when the cost of power production is high, lowering the average cost to the end customer. This is just the latest example of the importance of battery technology and our future reliance on it for a rapid transition to stable renewable energy supply.
We are becoming increasingly reliant on battery power, largely because of the need to reduce carbon in the transportation sector; almost 60% of new cars sold in Norway during March 2019 were entirely electric-powered. A recent World Economic Forum report expects global battery demand to increase by more than 19 times current levels in the next decade. Billions of mobile devices and consumer electronics also depend on this same technology and the raw materials needed to deliver it. At the same time, our economies are relying more heavily on renewable energy – whole countries such as Uruguay, Nicargua and Costa Rica are already approaching 100% renewable energy production, while many European and Asian states have set ambitious targets for the next decade. This means we need better ways of storing the energy we create from the sun, water and wind in batteries that can be produced and recycled sustainably.
Such expansions in demand also heighten the need for proper regulation of supply-chains to avoid damaging social and environmental impacts associated with the mining of lithium and cobalt for example.
This example deals with one of the biggest questions of our age – how to store the energy we produce as we seek to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Oil and gas can be held in a conveniently liquid state, which makes them relatively easy to transport and store until needed. The science of storing solar, hydro and wind power is in relative infancy, as most countries and companies have been focussed on the challenge of increasing production and use of renewable energy. It is the success of these efforts that have resulted in the need for batteries – a way to solve the challenge of having too much energy at some times and not enough at others. This has long been the stick the anti-renewable lobby has used to beat the renewable energy industry with – where do we get our power from when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is still? Demand management to lower energy use and even-out when it is used goes some way to answering that challenge, as does building flexible systems which use a variety of renewable sources. For example, wind and solar power complement each other seasonally, with more wind in winter and sun in summer. But so called ‘capacitance’ – the ability to store electricity – has long been a technological holy grail for renewable energy researchers.
The battery story is also a rags to riches one. Batteries have historically been a dirty product of convenience, requiring the mining of metals such as nickel and zinc, yet considered disposable; our landfills are sprinkled with these hazardous toxins, with more arriving every day. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each year Americans throw away more than three billion batteries – 180,000 tons of wasted batteries. Yet the World Economic Forum report projects that new generation batteries could not only enable 30% of the required reductions in carbon emissions in the transport and power sectors, providing access to electricity to 600 million people who currently have no access; they will also create 10 million safe and sustainable jobs around the world. Batteries will likely play a large part in our future energy supply systems; in 2018, the state of South Australia invested $100 million in a scheme to encourage householders to fit batteries to their solar systems, enabling them to use their own power on site rather than exporting it to the grid. This helps to reduce demand at peak times.
Electric cars are not the only part of the transportation sector that will be in need of batteries. A number of companies are currently working on electric-powered commercial aircraft designs, and their efforts have been heavily hyped by an aviation sector in response to criticism over its climate impact. These efforts do not, however, represent an answer to the aggregate emissions of the industry, due to its overall growth and the fact that any electric substitutes will take years to introduce and then remain marginal, focused on short flights using small planes. But, they include a project from Rolls-Royce Airbus and Siemens to adapt a BAe 146 regional jet to a hybrid-electric aircraft. Zunum Aero, together with Boeing and JetBlue, are developing a family of 10-50-seat hybrid electric regional aircraft, while US-based Wright Electric is working with EasyJet to develop an all-electric passenger aircraft by 2027. Israel Aerospace Industries also announced plans in 2018 to develop a short-haul electric airliner. In Norway, the state-owned operator of the country’s airports, Avinor, has announced its desire to use electric-powered aircraft on short-haul flights by 2030 and Scandinavian Airlines have teamed up with Airbus on hybrid research. The UK government recently announced a $12 million grant to Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS) to develop a hybrid-electric propulsion system for the small twin-engine aircraft that operate on short regional airline connections to island locations.
Norway also leads the world in the transition to battery technology for shipping. An all-electric passenger vessel called “Future of the Fjords” already operates on the picturesque Nærøyfjord, ahead of the fjords becoming a zero-emission zone by 2026.
A battery is a pack of one or more cells, each of which has a positive electrode (the cathode), a negative electrode (the anode), a separator and an electrolyte. Using different chemicals and materials for each of these parts affects the properties of the battery – how much energy it can store and output; how much power it can provide; and how the number of times it can be discharged and recharged (the cycling capacity).
Scientists have been battling with batteries ever since the first commercial batteries were manufactured in the 1870s using lead acid. There have been only five major breakthroughs in battery technology since, with energy density doubling roughly every 30 years. Lithium-ion batteries, whose anodes are usually made of graphite or silicon, were invented in the early 1980s but not developed into a commercial product until 1991 by Sony. They quickly found their way into camcorders, computers, MP3 players, mobile phones, and more. The 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry went to the three scientists who made this breakthrough across the decades, perhaps revealing the current importance of the technology. If the 30-year cycle pattern continues, we are almost due the next breakthrough. Scientists are currently working on a new generation of Lithium-ion battery, Lithium Sulphur batteries and a “solid-state” battery, currently being piloted by US start-up SolidEnergy Systems and a Chinese manufacturer.
Lithium battery development to date has been incremental, but solid-state batteries represent a paradigm shift in terms of technology. Here, the liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid compound which nevertheless allows lithium ions to migrate within it. This concept is far from new, but over the past 10 years, new families of solid electrolytes have been discovered. This technology is much safer at cell and battery levels: solid electrolytes are non-flammable when heated, unlike their liquid counterparts. It also permits the use of innovative, high-voltage high-capacity materials, enabling denser, lighter batteries with better shelf-life as a result of reduced self-discharge. If they get it right, the boost in energy density offered by lithium metal batteries could effectively double the range of an electric vehicle, which would revolutionise electric road transport.
The mining of lithium, cobalt and nickel that is needed for today’s generation of batteries remains contentious, because extraction is energy-dense, polluting and degrading to the environment. It also involves other chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and often takes place in locations where workers’ rights and environmental protection is low. This, however, has to be seen in the context of the vastly larger scale and more polluting extractive industries for coal, oil and gas. But all mining has an impact and, for example, lithium mining around the town of Tagong on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau was shut down after the resulting pollution in the river killed fish and livestock. It has recently started up again, because demand for lithium is increasing exponentially. The price doubled between 2016 and 2018 and the lithium ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWhs by 2027. In South America, what is called the “Lithium Triangle” covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, and is estimated to hold over half the world’s supply buried beneath salt flats. Extracting lithium from brine is less energy intensive than getting it from rock, but it uses huge amounts of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium – in a region that suffers already from drought. This risks damaging the land and the people who live on it and work it.
Cobalt is even more problematic because it is almost all mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country where violence and exploitation is commonplace, and governance is poor. Mining as a whole contributes 97.5% to national exports, 20% to national GDP, 24.7% to government revenue, and 23.9% to formal employment. Cobalt mining brings severe environmental impacts: pollution of the rivers, the soil and food systems and even of the people themselves through contaminated dust and air. The mines also cause displacement of indigenous people as well as negative effects on community stability, including food security, as farmers are unable to grow crops in the polluted environment.
This particular transition was enabled by two specific factors: the demand for storage as a result of growth of renewables; and the demand for electric vehicles as the dominant response to reducing carbon from transportation. Both these factors have contributed to the renewed search for improved batteries as epitomised by the battery-makers, Tesla. The icing on the cake for South Australia was the involvement of a high profile individual, Tesla’s controversial founder, Elon Musk, whose promise to deliver at speed undoubtedly upped the momentum and global publicity.
Growth in renewables in Australia has been enormous in recent years, with the state of South Australia and Tasmania both on track to achieve net 100% renewables in the next few years. It had been claimed previously that 100% renewables would prove impossible, but 10 leading Australian institutions have so far published their own plans to reach this target. In the corporate sector, Commonwealth Bank became the first bank in Australia to join the global initiative, the RE100, of leading companies committed to 100% renewables. The domestic market has also boomed, with rooftop solar reaching a total of 2, roofs in 2018 – from just 100,000 a decade earlier. The Victorian and South Australian governments have even announced policies to support 50,000 rental properties to access solar – one of the market sectors most in need of cheaper energy but least able to access it historically.
The demand for electric vehicles has been particularly high in Norway, where a continuous programme of incentives and taxes has delivered the highest per capita EV usage in the world. As far back as 1990, the government began to introduce incentives for EV owners. This ramped up at the turn of the millennium when road tax was lowered, charges for toll roads and public ferries were removed, with free parking being offered in some municipal car parks. In 2001, Norway’s high 25% sales tax was removed from new EV purchases, and from 2005, drivers were permitted to use bus lanes. The country’s extensive charging infrastructure was also kick-started by government money, although private companies are now taking over operations. Uptake was driven by practicalities – could the cars do the job? – and economics – were they cheaper?
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