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The Many Problems With Batteries

May 30, 2024

As a source of energy information for many global and U.S. policymakers, International Energy Agency (IEA) reports speak with great authority. In its report released in April, Batteries and Secure Energy Transitions, the agency charts out a path for massive growth in battery energy storage consistent with the goal of ‘Net Zero’ by 2050. 

Batteries provide an essential lynchpin in plans to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions in the Net Zero vision. The dramatic global expansion of in-battery energy storage over the coming decades is deemed necessary to facilitate the growth of wind and solar power and electrified transportation, all essential elements in the ‘Energy Transition.’

The fact that batteries are critical to the energy system of the future is treated as a given. Data from the past decade showing rising investments and lower costs for batteries are commonly offered as proof of past market success and future market viability. Projections anticipate sharp and sustained increases in global battery energy storage capacity over the next decades. It is an open question whether transforming the global market for battery energy storage by 2050 will influence other parts of the energy system. Nonetheless, in line with the zeitgeist, the authors answer this question with confidence. 

The starting point is 2050 and policies must work backwards from there. The argument assumes that rapidly eliminating the internal combustion engine will leave society with no choice but to use battery powered vehicles. Similarly, the unpredictable timing of sun and wind will force humanity to reckon with the need for batteries to compensate for the intermittent renewable energy resources of the future. 

A little background: Despite the advances in battery technology and the decline in their costs, some scientific and engineering realities distinguish batteries from other forms of energy storage. Like fuels, batteries store their energy chemically. In practice, however, batteries store energy less efficiently than hydrocarbon fuels and release that energy far more slowly than fuels do during combustion. Absent major breakthroughs, the technologies for storing energy and providing power using electrochemical batteries require far more mass and volume than technologies that do the same using fuels.  The energy density of a storage technology is defined by its ability to store energy in a given volume or with a given mass. It is relevant and more than ironic that the energy density of biomass fuels like straw and animal dung is twenty times greater than the today‘s best lithium-ion batteries, and gasoline has an energy density over 50 times greater. 

In addition, the slower release of energy from batteries is evident in the long charging times of electric vehicles and the need for ultra-high voltages to speed up charging. The mass and volume of battery energy storage only expands when one includes the power conditioning equipment, such as inverters and transformers, and the transmission lines required to integrate distributed energy resources with these facilities and with the grid. These system features will profoundly affect the technical performance, and the economics, of battery energy storage in the future.

The report addresses the challenge of supplying the many critical minerals necessary for enormous increases in battery manufacturing, including a chart showing a projected five to 30 times increase in demand for the different battery metals by 2050. However, the authors hasten to characterize this, and other daunting challenges, as “obstacles” to be managed. As in an earlier 2021 IEA publication, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, this report regards steep increases in demand for critical battery metals as inescapable and any difficulties arising from market pressures as manageable.  With the complacent tone of bureaucrats that have reached consensus, the authors assume policy mandates and technical fixes will solve the complex problem of securing batteries minerals. They call for policy fixes to “create secure, sustainable supply chains” in order to meet the prospective growth in mineral demand. The prospect of raging geopolitical tensions and the immense scale of the necessary industrial build out are met with confidence-boosting adjectives.

Other potential drawbacks of a rapidly expanding global battery market get short shrift. The Chinese dominance in manufacturing batteries, and processing the minerals used to make them, is acknowledged but its implications left unexplored. Any mention of waste from batteries comes in connection with downstream wastes and the need for future recycling with little attention paid to the upstream wastes generated prior to battery manufacture. Passing mention of High-Pressure Acid Leaching avoids noting the recent massive implementation of this Chinese-financed, highly polluting, coal-powered process to manufacture battery-grade Nickel in Indonesia. There are no allusions to the other waste streams that would accompany enormous increases in battery manufacturing. The flammability of lithium-ion batteries, already a safety factor in aviation and maritime trade and in crowded urban areas, only merits mention in the context of new battery chemistries - Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) and Sodium-ion - that pose reduced fire risks are also far less energy dense.

In fact, the inherent bulkiness of battery energy storage quickly shows itself in real world applications. Using current technologies, half of the power produced by the battery pack of an electric vehicle goes to moving the batteries themselves, a basic problem for a mobile power source. Nonetheless, because battery costs play such a dominant role in the price of electric vehicles, manufacturers are turning to less expensive battery chemistries, like LFP, that exclude rare metals but have lower energy densities than current Lithium-ion batteries. For residential power grids, the volume of batteries needed to keep a city going for a full day is staggering. Consider the greater Seattle area. Powering the Seattle grid for 24 hours using batteries would require a cylinder over sixty meters in diameter at the height of the Space Needle (184 meters), filled with manufactured battery packs. Today, at the Kapolei Energy Storage outside Honolulu, over 6,000 tons of LFP batteries (enough to fill a pole one meter in diameter and the height of Mauna Loa (4170 meters)) can supply the electricity demanded by a sixth of the million residents of Oahu for three to six hours.

The report neglects options for incremental changes to the energy system that might reduce emissions more effectively and have greater potential for implementation. Consider the fact that increasing power production from natural gas and nuclear energy could reduce carbon emissions more effectively than building and maintaining the elaborate physical infrastructure necessary for solar and wind and batteries. Or the fact that hybrid electric vehicles require much smaller battery packs, leverage consumer familiarity, and may offer more promise for reducing aggregate vehicular emissions than do fully electric vehicles in the long run. Instead, the authors show a preference for algorithms that seamlessly manage real world residential and industrial energy systems. Enthusiasm pours out for “smart charging” to improve the efficiency of massive vehicle charging, “variable tariffs” to balance daily electricity demand, and “AI for innovation and sustainability.” 

Climate ideology is now so pervasive that its assumptions are taken as global policy imperatives without reservation. The report ignores the sheer magnitude of industrial (and polluting) activity needed to support the market growth for battery technologies at the scale imagined, as well as the dis-economies of scale that result from the inherent limits of batteries as an energy storage technology. The lack of critical scrutiny is finally evident in the expectation that consumers and taxpayers will absorb the higher costs indefinitely through government subsidies. 

In a world awash in international tensions and wars, modernizing the global energy system such that people everywhere have increasing access to affordable energy is vital to ensuring future peace and prosperity. Providing that energy abundance with the least amount of impact on nature requires confronting the realities of physics and chemistry. Massive increases in battery electric storage may be essential to an energy future imagined by resolute Net Zero technocrats. But closer scrutiny reveals serious defects in the technical basis for implementing batteries as a comprehensive solution. There are easier ways for humanity to avoid the problems that batteries are intended to solve.


Iddo Wernick is at the National Center for Energy Analytics

This article was originally published by RealClearEnergy and made available via RealClearWire.
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