Our efforts with this column are primarily aimed at keeping a perspective on the issues surrounding consumer and voter choices when it comes to Energy. “Energy” in the sense of “How to address and move forward from the obsolete fossil fuel society that now imperils the planet.” How do we as consumers and voters screen out industry propaganda and parse scientific data so we can help with reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?

There are countless topics illustrating the mortal struggle between the energy Forces of Change and the Powers That Be. This struggle is characterized by the maligning of renewables and all technology associated with them.

You’ve doubtless noticed this, and you don’t want to believe all the bad news about the “dark side” of renewable energy technologies and products. But if something is repeated in your face 10 times a day, a little bit of it infiltrates the brain crevices, followed closely by a little more; soon the channels are flooded and your resistance is just simply flushed out. You say, “OK, so much for electric cars, I’ll just keep my diesel pick-up.” (See previous Energy Matters column)

One of the more popular campaigns involves the “Lithium Batteries Are Worse Than Anything for the Environment” trope. Let’s examine it as a small but illustrative piece of this cosmic battle for atmospheric rescue.

Life Cycle Analysis: Suddenly, life cycle analysis has been discovered by the fossil fuel trolls. The unimaginable “cradle-to-grave” cost of lithium ion batteries is in the spotlight. This Life Cycle Analysis can and should be applied to ALL consumer goods, of course. But fine, let’s look at batteries for now.

LCA examines all the costs (energy and money) of manufacturing, using, and disposing of something. A number of researchers have done such analyses for lithium batteries (citations in our blog). To spare you a jungle of details we’ll just look at some of the results:

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Manufacture: If one accounts for all of the sourcing, (including mining the lithium with coal power in China or the Congo) the total energy it takes to manufacture 1 kWh of EV battery is about 300 kWh (IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute). This will produce between 60 and 100 kg of atmospheric CO2. A typical long range EV battery has a capacity of around 70 kWh and so requires 21,000 kWh of energy (yielding 7 tons of atmospheric CO2).

This battery will get charged between 2000 and 2500 times before degradation becomes significant. This amounts to a total of about 160,000 kWh for around 500,000 miles of driving. This produces about 29 tons of CO2 with Maine’s current electricity mix. If it were charged from all renewables that would be less than 10 tons.

A gasoline vehicle getting 24 MPG would produce around 200 tons of CO2 over that distance from fuel alone. So, 29 tons of CO2 vs. 200 tons CO2.

As the battery manufacturing process evolves and recycling of components increases, this CO2 figure will go down. It’s also possible the fuel economy of the average gas powered car will have increased as well, which would be just dandy, but the proportions in this comparison will probably at least hold.

Degradation: Over time battery capacity decreases. Estimates are that with normal use a battery loses 1 or 2 percent per year of use. So, after 10 years the range will only be 80 to 90% of its original value; battery technology will have improved by then, so new, longer-range batteries will be installed. Meanwhile the original battery can be repurposed for stationary storage, and ultimately be recycled.

Recycling: The specter of huge piles of waste batteries haunts certain corners of the internet these days. Why is this scary? A used EV battery has higher concentrations of cobalt and lithium than what is typically dug out of a mine or found in lithium rich brines. With the right technology it makes sense to recycle virtually all the metals in the batteries.

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Some are easy, such as steel, aluminum and copper, as they don’t need to be chemically separated. Others like lithium, cobalt, and nickel are harder. At present, yes, it is costlier to recycle these metals than to mine them, but over time as the value of the metals goes up with demand, and as more used batteries are taken into the recycle stream, recycling them will become increasingly cost effective. Northvolt, a Swedish company, claims to be able to extract more than 95% of the metals from a used EV battery. A Finnish company, Fortum, is constructing a plant which they claim will be able to recycle the majority of EV batteries reaching their end-of-life in Europe.

Of course, at this point it is not possible to recycle enough metals from used batteries to make all the new ones we need. (Please see our article “Materials and the Energy Transition” from last January). There simply are not enough used batteries in the recycle stream yet. Over the next couple of decades EV production will level off as the market gets saturated. At that point it is possible that most of the metals for new batteries will come from used ones.

In short, don’t let them scare you: the CO2 benefits of shifting to renewable electricity-fueled means of transportation far outweigh the CO2 costs of batteries!

Paul Stancioff, PhD., is professor emeritus of physics at UMF. Cynthia Stancioff re-words everything he writes. Email: [email protected] or [email protected] Previous columns can be found at https://paulandcynthiaenergymatters.blogspot.com/.

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