The dark side of green energy: Why we need alternatives to lithium batteries

July 01, 2021

As we move towards renewable energy sources and increase our use of wind and solar farms for electricity generation, there will also be an increased use of large batteries to store this energy. In most cases, rather than being fed directly into the national grid, electricity generated by turbines and solar panels is stored in physical batteries. In a recent article for Reaction, Jordi Bruno, Business Development Director at Amphos 21, an RSK group company, discussed why an increased dependence on batteries for energy storage poses challenges for the future.

Batteries are used to store generated energy for later use when there is demand, in order to avoid the waste that would be incurred if electricity were pumped directly into the grid. Like the conventional batteries we use at home, they use anodes and cathodes made from nickel and lithium. Jordi highlights that this is the point on which a reliance on batteries will present significant challenges for green energy generation in the future. Nickel and lithium, metals that are essential components of the batteries, are scarce. Increased demand to cater for growing production has the potential to turn the mines that source these materials into “trade battlegrounds”.

The largest nickel and lithium mines are in South America, predominantly in Chile and Bolivia, and it is possible that these countries will “become global battlegrounds for the resources”. As these materials are finite, scarce metals, competition for nickel and lithium will increase to serve the growing green energy industry. An increase in energy generation through wind and solar farms will in turn increase the requirement for large batteries for storage.

Jordi continues to emphasise the need to avoid a reliance on lithium batteries in the transition towards green energy becoming the predominant method of energy generation. Instead, Jordi argues, it is vital that alternatives are developed, and urgently. Changes need to be made now to ensure lithium and nickel do not become the centres of conflict. One way to achieve this would be developing new battery technology that does not rely on scarce resources: alternatives such as cryogenic or gravity-based solutions. Jordi also points to the potential offered by hydrogen as a major fuel source. Rather than storing generated electricity, turbines and solar energy could instead be used to power electrolysis for the generation of hydrogen fuel. Effectively working as a “green battery” in this way, hydrogen production will mitigate the increased demand for lithium batteries at solar and wind farms.

Read Jordi’s article in full here.