[Issue] Why Battery Storage is Currently Unsustainable

As part of my Masters dissertation project, I completed some research into Tesla and their solar ventures. However, parts of the discussion ended up turning towards their batteries rather than their solar panels as they are not the sustainable product that Tesla once promised. Battery storage is often considered the downfall of renewable energy, as these products are the only way in which it can be stored. It is worth understanding how these batteries are produced and the global environmental impact they have when considering buying electric cars or a new solar roof. For much of this post, I will be referring directly to Tesla’s methods since that is what I did my research on.

Tesla uses Lithium-Ion batteries for their cars and their power walls. These batteries are made from a large quantity of Lithium, up to 63kg in their newer cars. Importantly, you don’t get Lithium the same way you might get coal or other ores, as mining Lithium is far too expensive. However, recent spikes in demand have led to more mining opportunities. Lithium is extracted mainly from brines. To put it simply, the process requires the evaporation of the brine itself, using large quantities of water, which then concentrates the remaining Lithium. For Tesla, this process has taken in the ‘Lithium Triangle’ located on the borders of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. A place where water scarcity is already a major problem, using such an intense supply of water is having a major knock-on effect towards small local communities. Furthermore, the waste produced as a result of the evaporation process can also be toxic, resulting in major pollution problems for surrounding ecosystems.

Now onto another primary element, Cobalt. While Tesla has begun to phase out Cobalt from their batteries, many other companies still depend on this element. 65% of global Cobalt resources are found in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). While there are environmental issues attached to mining Cobalt, the main issues are politically based. Political unrest and corruption dominate the headlines associated with Cobalt and most recently, issues of child labour crimes and deaths. The DRC is cursed by natural wealth, ultimately leading to large scale corruption and exploitation from large corporations.

Finally, recycling these batteries is a major roadblock towards a sustainable future. A recent study in Australia stated that roughly 2% of their Lithium-ion waste is recycled. Currently, recycling methods involve shredding the cell completely to recover specific elements and metals, however, this is extremely inefficient, energy-consuming and time-consuming. In Tesla’s electric cars, it is recommended to replace the battery when it is performing at around 70% of its original capacity, which could be within 10 years after purchase. Much of the research in this area is up for debate, and little exists on what these major companies decide to do with the batteries once they are replaced.

Renewable energy has improved leaps and bounds in recent years, becoming accessible and affordable for many families across the world. However, the solution to energy storage is one that is stuck on these Lithium-ion batteries. New companies and research teams are working towards new forms of energy storage, including the development of solid-state and aluminium batteries which in theory would be exponentially better for the environment. We are left in a difficult decision now.

-Does this process put the global north back into a colonial mindset, exploiting the global south and areas of terra nullius for natural resources?

-Is this trade acceptable for clean energy storage?

-Should these organisations be held responsible for the environmental damage that they create, despite the good things they provide in relation to renewable energy solutions?

Please share your own experience with different forms of energy storage, from cars to homes. It is important to debate the need for storage devices against the production of such batteries.

How depressing. It shows how we need to reduce our energy use. Do you really need a car? If yours is rarely used it can be quite liberating not to have one and usually cheaper. When you can’t use public transport cabs are widely available at short notice and car clubs mean hiring a car is very easy. You will also get more exercise.

Definitely. If we fail to properly manage the extraction of resources and processing of waste then we are just shifting the environmental cost of one activity onto another.

Oil has led to huge advancements at the cost of increasing greenhouse gases. We can’t fall into a similar situation with batteries or any other green technology.

We must move towards a Circular economy if we’re to have any chance of living sustainably. By ‘closing the loop’ we can address both waste and resource extraction issues.

Precisely. We should not repeat history, or fall back into a form of colonial mentality. Have we not learnt anything from our past?

Have you read @Tom’s piece on the circular economy? He goes into more detail on that! I believe that it would be increasingly beneficial when talking about sustainability.

I completely agree. I make another post about this soon, but I am currently 23 and have no desire to get my own car at this stage of my life. Living in a city should mean that an individual does not need a private vehicle in order to get across the city.

Hi Jono, I assume you have seen this document from Tesla about their responsible sources of products etc in regard to cobalt and trying to limit their environmental impact across their whole operation?
https://www.tesla.com/ns_videos/tesla-impact-report-2019.pdf I’m not defending them but we are often asked about the battery chemistry and this is what we give to people. Tesla’s mission statement is ‘to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy’ so hopefully they are doing what they can to limit any damage they cause to the environment? Thank, Jonny

I used this article a lot in my research! They absolutely say that they are trying to become more sustainable and have ambitious plans for the future. I had some big problems with their section on battery recycling. The process is extremely difficult and energy-intensive. The Gigafactory 1 recycling scheme sounds amazing! But I can’t find any updates since the announcement that they would try to make a sustainable closed-loop system. A great idea but apparently something that is more difficult than they thought.

With their cobalt, I understand that they have phased this out of their batteries now which is great! Did you notice how they had a huge section expressing their pride in phasing out Cobalt but nothing about their main component Lithium? Elon Musk said in a press release that Tesla would move Lithium extraction to the U.S, but the demand massively outweighs the U.S supply so the idea fell through.

They are making huge strides to becoming more sustainable and I do appreciate that. However, their press releases like this are often shrouded in ideas, covering up other aspects. I’m no expert though.

As a global leader and popular culture trend, there should be no corner-cutting to sustainability.