On batteries, minerals, the circular economy, and finite supply

By Shelley Robbins, Clean Energy Group

As the fossil fuel industry rages against the dying of the gas light, they continue to work to plant doubt about an economy centered around solar and wind paired with battery storage. Since it is hard to cast doubt on the abundance of sun and wind, they instead target battery storage and the components that make up much of today’s lithium-ion batteries.

The fossil industry rhetoric – that there isn’t enough lithium and cobalt available to supply a dramatic increase in battery production for electric vehicles and stationary battery storage – simply isn’t accurate. Energy strategist Kingsmill Bond with Carbon Tracker has blown up the myth that minerals are constrained by simply running the numbers. His projections are even conservative in that they assume battery components won’t change, when of course they will. Battery developers are actively and effectively working to replace challenging raw materials such as cobalt in batteries while simultaneously working to improve the safety and business ethics of the supply chain.

But the news gets better. EV batteries can be repurposed as stationary batteries. An EV battery is designed and sized to dispatch a lot of power, very quickly, and we are all grateful for that when we hit the accelerator to merge into traffic on a highway. When these batteries reach 80 percent capacity and begin to lose their ability to do this, they can be repurposed for less demanding stationary uses, such as being paired with solar PV in both residential settings and at grid scale. This is already happening in California, and several start-ups, including ReJoule and B2U are leading the way. There is even a solar+storage microgrid that utilizes used Toyota Camry Hybrid batteries powering a remote station in Yellowstone National Park. McKinsey estimates that repurposed EV batteries could supply 200 gigawatt-hours of grid storage by 2030 and will cost 30 percent to 70 percent less than new batteries by 2025.

Once a battery has done all it can do, minerals and valuable components can be recovered and recycled. There are now approximately 100 companies worldwide that are recycling lithium-ion batteries, including Li-Cycle in New York and Redwood Materials in Nevada. American car manufacturers Tesla, Ford, and GM all have contracts and commitments with battery recycling companies. A battery and its valuable mineral components are not single-use. They keep going and going and going.

Both natural gas and battery mineral components are finite. Natural gas is not only finite but in decline. Even without the current supply constraints that are sending prices skyrocketing, natural gas production in northern Europe has peaked and is declining, and other areas will follow. Mineral exploration, on the other hand, is in relative infancy.

But there is an even more important distinction: batteries and minerals can be repurposed and recycled again and again. When you burn natural gas – that’s it. It’s gone. It has no second or third life. The finite amount left underground gets one use only.

The simple physics of the materials is undeniable:

Fossil fuels are finite
Energy from the sun and wind is infinite

Batteries can be repurposed
Minerals such as lithium and cobalt used in today’s battery technology are abundant and can also be reclaimed and recycled

The fossil fuel industry will continue to rage on, but in the end, physics wins.

Many thanks to David Roberts of Volts podcast and Amy Simpkins of Power Flow podcast for sparking this column. Pun intended.

About the author:

Shelley Hudson Robbins is a Project Director at Clean Energy Group. Her work focuses on the Phase Out Peakers Project and the Resilient Power Project. Shelley joined Clean Energy Group after working for Upstate Forever in South Carolina for more than 13 years. At UF, she created the organization’s energy program, fought natural gas pipeline expansion, supported clean energy in both the statehouse and at the Public Service Commission, and worked on energy burden and just transition issues.