Tuesday, May 17, 2022, 00:00 – The batteries of the future will store energy from 100% renewable energies.
As the world moves forward in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, a major hurdle looms.
It is true that in recent years, renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaic and wind turbines – already the cleanest – have become among the cheapest sources of energy worldwide.
But how will solar and wind power provide an uninterrupted flow of power even on calm, cloudy days or during long calm nights?
Solar and wind energy have seen a dramatic increase from negligible in recent decades to become an integral part of the global energy grid. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the boom in renewable energy is just beginning, as it is expected to account for 95% of the increase in global energy capacity by 2026.
This growth is fueled by a steep drop in the cost of renewable energy. Analysis by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that the cost of onshore wind projects fell by 13% in the decade to 2020, while the cost of “utility-scale solar PV audiences” had fallen by 85%.
Solar photovoltaic, which will provide at least half of the expected new power, has been dubbed by the IEA in 2020 “the cheapest electricity in history”, providing energy at a lower cost than even coal in most countries.
Yet, as renewables continue to grow, the costs will drive not only the production of energy but also, increasingly, its storage.
Producing a constant flow of energy is the goal of all power grids, regardless of the source of that energy. And it’s not just a matter of avoiding inconvenience but, in some cases – like the Texas ice storm last February that left millions without power and more than 200 dead – a matter of life or of death.
This reliability has been a challenge for solar PV in particular, as the peak demand for electricity occurs after sunset in most places, requiring storage capacity so that the energy produced during periods of low demand can be released during peak hours.
Currently, the shortfall caused by the “intermittency” of solar PV and wind power is made up by supplements from other sources, often energy derived from fossil fuels. In a net-zero world, renewables should provide reliability without this carbon-intensive backup through a combination of large-scale power generation and efficient energy storage.
This model is already in place with the use of batteries. Many types of batteries are used in the renewable energy sector, but the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery is preferred due to its high energy density and longevity.
Already the battery of choice for electric vehicles – and common in cell phones, appliances, toys and power tools – Li-ion batteries offer many advantages.
A stack of small Li-ion batteries. (flubydust/E+/Getty Images)
According to the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Institute, Li-ion batteries have “one of the highest energy densities of any battery technology today” and can deliver three times the voltage of most common batteries.
Rechargeable Li-ion batteries are also preferred for their safety and long life. Li-ion batteries used in electric vehicles have a lifespan of three to seven years, but new research – and claims from auto giant Tesla – suggest a 25-year lifespan is coming .
And although Li-ion batteries are still more expensive than some battery types, their cost has dropped 90% since 2010.
This technology is so promising that the three chemists whose research led to the development and improvement of Li-ion batteries won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019.
Already, Li-ion batteries are storing energy produced by renewables in both small and mega projects.
In Moss Landing, California, “the world’s largest battery energy storage facility” stores enough energy to power approximately 563,000 homes; The world’s ‘largest’ Li-ion battery at Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia responds ‘quickly and precisely’ to avoid power outages when the area is isolated from the rest of the grid.
But there are still some drawbacks to Li-ion batteries. On the one hand, these giant batteries can melt, as happened at the Moss Landing site and in South Korea where a fire destroyed an energy storage system in Jecheon, North Chungcheong.
The Lukushi artisanal cassiterite mine site in Manono. The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in lithium, an essential mineral for electric car batteries, which nests in the remains of the former mining town of Manono town in the southeastern province of Tanganyika. To get out of poverty, the inhabitants of Manono, most of whom are artisanal diggers, place their hope in the investment of the Australian company AVZ minerals, which plans to invest 600 million dollars in the extraction of lithium. (Junior Kannah/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images)
And because Li-ion batteries require materials other than lithium from volatile regions struggling with human rights abuses – like cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo – there are concerns that the very stability that these batteries are expected to provide is not compromised by supply chain interruptions and shortages.
Part of that could be solved here in Canada, as this year’s federal budget provided $3.8 billion for a Critical Minerals Strategy, which would fund mining companies for minerals critical to Li-ion batteries, including lithium. , cobalt and nickel.
But the concern was enough to trigger a study of the supply chain issue by researchers from MIT, Berkeley and the Rochester Institute of Technology. The supply chain problem – and the polluting impacts of mining lithium, which largely comes from South America – could also be alleviated by recycling Li-ion batteries.
Yet research earlier this year revealed that less than 1% of Li-ion batteries are recycled, for a variety of reasons, some as simple as inconsistency in their design.
But that is starting to change. Mississauga-based Li-Cycle has developed a “two-step process to recycle all types of lithium-ion batteries,” Li-Cycle Chief Strategy Officer Kunal Phalpher told The Weather Network (TWN).
The process, which is “capable of recovering up to 95% of all materials contained in lithium-ion batteries,” also has financial and environmental advantages over traditional recycling methods, according to Phalpher, and produces “a minimum waste water and low emissions”.
He added: “No mine in the world contains all the metals contained in a battery – recycling can be a very efficient method of sourcing these critical materials.”
Swedish Li-ion battery designer Northvolt also plans to start battery recycling at its Upper North plant in 2023, hoping to process some 125,000 tonnes of batteries a year.
These developments are timely. Phalpher expects a “tsunami” of lithium batteries to reach the end of their life cycle in the coming decades.
“It is expected that there will be over four million tonnes of lithium-ion battery material available for recycling per year by 2030,” he said. “Recycling lithium-ion batteries will play a crucial role in ensuring that nearly all of the valuable materials they contain can be returned to the lithium-ion battery supply chain.”
Phalpher views Li-ion recycling as a “fundamental element to fostering sustainable global electrification and facilitating the transition to a renewable energy system.
“The clean industrial revolution is already well advanced.”
Thumbnail image: This photo taken on March 12, 2021 shows a worker with car batteries at a factory of Xinwangda Electric Vehicle Battery Co. Ltd, which manufactures lithium batteries for electric cars and other uses in Nanjing, north China. eastern province of Jiangsu in China. (STR/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images)