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The Dirty Side of Clean Energy Storage

Mariah Baerend
Aug 31, 2018

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Environmentalists and entrepreneurs are cheering the rise of new long-duration battery storage technology. However, they are potentially charging ahead at the expense of another glaring environmental issue, battery waste. Developers and manufacturers are pushing to innovate and implement new energy storage options, but little has been done to consider the waste these “environmental” options will create. If companies and consumers do not consider disposal methods now, the rise of the lithium ion (Li-ion) battery may solve one problem only to create another.

The Race for New Storage

Regardless of US politics, the world is moving forward with increased renewables integration to the point that some places have more energy than they can store. This imbalance has caused a race to develop and produce large-capacity, long-duration energy storage options. In its recent report, Market Data: Energy Storage for the Grid and Ancillary Services, Navigant Research found that Li-ion batteries are currently the fastest-growing and lowest-cost storage option. The number of EVs is also on the rise and they primarily run on Li-ion batteries. In its Market Data: EV Market Forecasts report, Navigant Research estimates that 17.6 million new EVs will be sold in the next 5 years. According to the Los Angeles Times, today only 3% of Li-ion batteries around the world are recycled, meaning 17 million batteries could be added to landfills. While some companies like Tesla may claim a closed-loop battery recycling program, it is unlikely that every large Li-ion manufacturer will feel inclined to do the same.

Chemical Alternatives and Recycling Programs Offer Clean Solutions

Two arguments often come up in support of batteries: chemical alternatives and recycling programs. For chemical alternatives, environmentalists and manufacturers argue that there are various other battery chemistries being researched that use longer lasting, environmentally friendly chemistries. One such company, ZyncNyx, uses zinc as an anode in a flow battery. The ZyncNyx battery uses elements found in abundance and easily sourced. Such chemistry avoids the social issues around lithium sourcing and reduces disposal concerns. However, batteries like this are currently being designed primarily for large-scale, long-duration storage on the grid, and there are limited alternatives for EVs.

Another argument in support of batteries is that recycling programs will limit the environmental effect of battery use. However, this solution has its limitations. Recycling programs would curb almost the entire waste issue with Li-ion battery disposal, but the challenge is creating those programs and encouraging people to use them. As battery chemistry moves toward cheap, abundant elements, and away from more lucrative ones like nickel, there is less economic incentive to recycle batteries. If the cost of recycling a battery for metals is higher than sourcing them, few companies will take on recycling programs. For a more detailed breakdown of the future of recycling, look for Navigant Research’s upcoming report on advanced battery recycling strategies.

Proper Systems and Economic Incentives Essential for Truly Clean Energy

The future of Li-ion waste will ultimately depend on the energy storage market and what those who drive it prioritize. Low costs and long-duration technology have made Li-ion batteries the front-runner of advancing storage options. Navigant Research estimates prices of Li-ion bulk storage systems dropped as much as 48% in the last 3 years. As lower costs increase demand, manufactures will be pressured to ramp up production, which could outpace recycling accommodations. And if Li-ion costs drop, there is less incentive to recycle batteries or work on advancements of alternative battery types. However, if the proper systems and economic incentives are put in place to support the influx of battery waste, Li-ion batteries can still become a large-scale sustainable energy storage solution. If manufactures and innovators consider the lifespan of their products and revenue, Li-ion batteries may expand truly clean energy.