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.