Is Lithium the weakest link in our green energy supply chain?

Energy and Power August 10, 2021

COP26 is rapidly approaching and there is widespread agreement that we must urgently transition to a low-carbon economy to meet the ambitious green energy targets that were set back in 2015, when governments signed the Paris Agreement.

As part of our RSK COP26: Green Dialogues webinar series, we are exploring the key challenges ahead for the green energy sector and setting out the actions needed to overcome these.

To make the transition to a zero-carbon economy, switching to renewables is critical.  But as these sectors expand to meet our energy demands, what are the wider implications and do they run the risk of creating further problems for society to tackle?

Renewable energy is a product of nature, so it is not always possible for it to be made when or where it is needed. This means that the energy or electricity generated by renewable sources must then be stored, as pumping it directly into the grid when there isn’t enough demand would simply waste it. Batteries are used to  store energy on site and transport it to where it is needed. This solves the wasted energy issue but unfortunately brings about other battery-related challenges. The metals used to make the anodes and cathodes on conventional batteries – lithium and nickel – are extremely rare. The scarcity of these metals that the mines from which they are extracted are likely to become global flashpoints for trade and the supply of these metals is likely to become unreliable, cutting off  future growth in the green energy sector.

So where is lithium found? More than half of the global reserves of lithium are in South America, particularly in Chile and Bolivia, where the largest mines for nickel are located as well. Eastern Europe also has large deposits of lithium, particularly in the Czech Republic where extraction is yet to begin, but it is hoped that a European battery industry may develop.

With such a limited supply of the lithium required to make batteries, there is concern that global competition could result in increasingly aggressive practices to gain control of these resources. There is already some evidence of certain states gaining control of mines in South America, as noted by the Institute of America report China Stakes Its Claim in Latin American Energy. This report highlights China’s commitment of billions of dollars to lithium projects in Latin America, with Chinese deals in Latin American energy reaching $7.7 billion in 2020.

To avoid these potential future global conflicts over resources, we need to urgently invest in developing alternatives to lithium batteries. There are some alternatives already being developed. One example is a cryogenic battery that uses low temperature liquids such as liquid air or liquid nitrogen to store energy. Another is a battery powered by gravity technology. But we cannot rely on a small number of innovative technology companies working on advances that might take a decade to come to fruition. Governments must step up and back the green energy sector financially to progress these potential alternatives into viable solutions that can be scaled up to meet energy needs and deliver against climate commitments.

Investing in hydrogen is another potential alternative. So called ‘green hydrogen’ fuel can be created from renewable energy at the site of production through a process known as electrolysis that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting hydrogen gas can then be stored in containers and transported as a fuel. This removes the need for batteries but there are also some downsides to consider with hydrogen. It takes a lot of hydrogen fuel to power a vehicle, this fuel is likely to be a more viable solution for larger transport modes such as trains, buses, ships and planes than for personal cars.

With these challenges ahead, it is vital that we do not become overly reliant on lithium batteries to store our green energy. Instead, we must focus on developing ethical, viable and geopolitically neutral alternatives to meet the increasing need for batteries. As governments commit to more ambitious green energy targets and the switch to renewable energy continues apace, we are likely to need to bring all these alternative energy storage options into play to meet the net-zero challenge, particularly within the urgent timescales required.