Clean Tech & Energy

Electric Vehicles Bring New Relevance to the Environmental Impact of Batteries

Batteries are booming, and that has big implications for transportation and electric utilities, the two biggest sources of carbon emissions in the US. But batteries aren’t guaranteed to be environmental saviors just yet—the environmental impact of batteries is still under consideration.

And with Bloomberg predicting investments in battery power to grow to $548 billion by 2050, it’s an industry worth paying attention to. Here’s a look at where batteries have been, where they could be going, and what impacts they might be having on the world.

Batteries on the Move—and on the Grid

Batteries have long been used in transportation, serving to increase the efficiency of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. Now there are dozens of battery-only electric vehicle (EV) models on the market, with new EV buses and semitrucks still emerging.

While lithium-ion batteries have mostly been used in portable electronic devices like cell phones, they’re scaling up to meet demand for EVs. Globally, over one million electric vehicles were sold in 2017, including 200,000 in the US, creating incredible demand for battery capacity. Some researchers expect the lithium-ion battery industry to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 17%, potentially hitting $93.1 billion by 2025. At a recent shareholder meeting, Tesla CEO Elon Musk predicted battery prices would fall below $100 per kilowatt hour within two years, far ahead of predictions by industry experts. With batteries currently accounting for roughly a third of the cost to produce EVs, such a drop could help the industry continue to scale.

And as EV growth drives down battery prices, batteries are being introduced to a new range of applications—some less mobile than others.

For utility applications, batteries have been described as the Swiss Army knives of energy technologies because they can provide so many different services. Utilities can use them to meet periods of peak power demand, to supply congested areas of the grid, and to provide grid services like voltage and frequency support. Customers can use them to cut demand charges, shift consumption from on-peak to off-peak periods, and provide emergency backup power.

Large-scale stationary battery capacity in the US grew to 708 megawatts in 2017, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland Interconnection, the power market stretching from Chicago to the mid-Atlantic, made up nearly 40% of that number, providing frequency regulation services to the grid. Most customer-sited storage is in California, which is also home to very large battery systems designed to replace gas-fired generators.

Whether mounted on the car or in the garage, batteries function in more or less the same way. And since cars spend 95% of their time parked, there is growing interest in using parked electric vehicles to provide grid services. This can be achieved in several ways. In one option, grid operators control the charging of EVs to reduce or increase demand as needed. In another, known as “vehicle to grid” (or V2G), the car also sends power from its batteries to the grid. Recent research suggests that EVs could provide up to $15 billion worth of value to California by displacing the need for building new storage infrastructure for stationary batteries.

Battery Life Cycles, from Supply Chain to Disposal

Batteries could be a core component of cleaning up the electricity system and powering transportation, but they’re not without their own impacts on the environment and the communities from which they’re sourced.

Over 50% of the world’s cobalt, a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children as young as 10 years old have been found working in so-called artisanal mining operations, pulling cobalt from the ground and rivers by hand. That said, while 90% of the stationary battery market uses lithium-ion batteries, electric car companies are beginning to shift away from cobalt to other combinations of chemicals, so long-term cobalt demand is still unsure.

At the same time, because of the many chemicals that make up batteries, proper disposal becomes complicated.

Over half of US states require battery recycling. While batteries from small consumer electronics have low recycling rates, automotive batteries are the most commonly recycled consumer product. According to the Argonne National Laboratory, 98% of lead-acid car batteries are recycled, a number sustained by bans on their disposal in most states.

After EV batteries degrade by about 30%, they are no longer suitable for cars—but they can still be converted to stationary applications. These second-life battery applications are being tested by BMW and others. Assuming a 10-year life-span for the automotive use of batteries, there may be a flood of second-life batteries hitting the grid by 2030.

When it comes to finding better sources of energy, there may not yet be an answer free of lingering questions—there’s still work to do in evaluating the economic, social, and environmental impact of batteries. Still, new innovations and imaginative applications of batteries offer the potential to counterbalance emissions caused by transportation and electric utilities.

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