Mining has always drawn controversy for its effect on the planet. With lithium’s use as a battery type, it has become one of the most sought after materials globally. The batteries have been in commercial production since 1991. But, since powering our portable devices to powering our electric vehicles, it has drawn a stigma. Many are criticising the process of obtaining lithium as dirty, but is this actually the case?

Metal extraction and production is a source of pollution. As a growing population, our demand is causing global consumerism to proliferate. Processes such as mining to expand and collect materials faster than ever before. However, when analysing a metal’s carbon footprint, it is important to look at its entire lifespan rather than just its beginning.

And ultimately, we need to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. Much more needs achieving to prevent global warming and climate change. Issues such as extreme weather events are causing devastation as reported in our daily news headlines. Battery storage is one way of tackling this issue head-on. We can become more efficient by powering our vehicles and balancing the use of renewable energy for our grids.  

The transport sector now accounts for 26% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Energy supplies account for 25%. By using lithium, we can reduce our carbon footprint and mitigate the effects of climate change.

  

The process of lithium mining

 

There are an estimated 39 million tonnes of lithium on earth, but only about a third of this is in the form that we can mine. About 87% of this mineable lithium is found in brine waters whilst the remaining percentage is in hard rock mineral deposits. The production process for brine waters is lengthy but only requires natural evaporation. Eventually, lithium carbonate is ready to be extracted from these evaporation pools.

If lithium mining was the same as most traditional metals, it would cause similar landscape damage and pollution. But, it isn’t. According to a 2010 US Geological Survey report, lithium isn’t “likely to cause serious environmental concerns”.

Mining through brine waters may be natural but it does have some consequences. The largest reserves of lithium are found in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. These countries are some of the driest places on earth. The countries’ salt flats are mined and pumped with water so mineral-rich brine surges to the surface. Water scarcity will be one of the biggest issues we face in the future.

Conservation efforts are being made for lithium and all mined materials globally. For example, geothermal power plants are being developed to help make the process faster and cheaper. Materials collected by the plants can help generate energy for the process too.   The water used for the process can even be returned to the land after the extraction finishes.

With improvements in efficiency, local communities and ecosystems can actually benefit from investment. By reducing the need for energy, water and other natural resources, the negative impact of the process is removed.

Transportation of the material is another concern. As mentioned, the largest reserves of lithium are only located in several countries. This means for longer transport distances to markets across the world. With growing demand, there may be an increase in hard rock mining to meet supply targets. But it’s likely that government regulation will prevent any real environmental impact. We are sourcing new days of extracting lithium. For example, oilfield brines are being utilised to also extract lithium. We can source the metal from existing hard rock deposits too. This means for a more diverse range of sources to extract the metal, which would limit long-distance transportation.

 

How we use lithium in battery storage 

 

The use of lithium batteries means for a reduction in air pollution caused by traditional vehicles, as electric vehicles replace them. It also means we can store renewable energy and use it when we most need it – reducing energy waste. As well as balancing a country’s grid, we can actually decentralise national grids. This means localising sources of energy and limiting the distance energy needs to travel to properties. For example, currently, the UK wastes half of its energy


By producing our own energy, as over a million homeowners with solar PV already do, or provide areas with communal renewable energy sources, we can store free and clean energy to power areas 24/7. Ideas such as grid sharing are already in place, meaning batteries with shared software can share energy between neighbours.

We offer a range of different battery storage systems, with most having 10 year manufacturer warranties. Usually, the warranty will mean that a certain percentage of the battery’s capacity will be retained (e.g. Minimum of 80%). With features to charge from the grid but also operate during a power outage, battery owners can take control of their energy consumption. This will help prevent waste of energy but also decrease our dependence on the oligopoly of the UK energy market.

There are a number of energy suppliers, who only use renewable energy, which offers innovative tariffs. For example, Octopus Energy and Green Energy UK offer time-of-use tariffs which offer cheap electricity at different points of the day. This allows people with batteries to charge any remaining capacity of their units.

As the energy market evolves, from smart meter rollouts to electric vehicles, consumers and corporations will need to adapt.

 

What the future holds for lithium batteries

 

But, what comes of a lithium-ion battery at the end of its life? At present, lithium recycling is niche and limited. There is a large opportunity in the market and the UK government is aware of this. The government is encouraging research into technologies such as battery storage to support the electrified economy. For example, a part of the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is the Faraday Challenge. This is a £246m commitment over the next four years on battery development for the automotive electrification market.

At the University of Birmingham, they are using robotic technologies to remove lithium-ion cells from electric vehicles. There are also biological methods which can help recover other materials like graphite, cobalt and plastics. Manufacturers are also making their own attempts with ideas such as reusing batteries in electric vehicles for homes.

The need for constant improvement across the whole process is required because of the expansion of the battery market. The lithium-ion battery market is predicted to be worth £50 billion across Europe by 2025, and over £70 billion in North America. The market is forecasted to grow at a CAGR of 17% with energy storage systems leading the way, growing at a CAGR of 21% to 2025, owing to the developments of solar PV and wind energy.

Industry research means for longer battery lifespans; improved performance, safety and reliance; lighter battery development, and improved battery density. The last point means that manufacturers are increasing the capacities of batteries without having to increase the volume. For example, the difference between the Renault Zoe’s first and second generation battery is astronomical:

 

  First Generation Second Generation
Total Weight 290 kg 305 kg
Total Capacity 2592 kWh 4561 kWh

 

There is very little difference in the weights but the capacity has almost doubled. Both generations have 192 cells each. This means the vehicle has an increased range and a lower cost per kWh.

With advancements in AI and digital technologies, the green sector is benefiting from smarter technology. Automation is helping to increase productivity and safety across industries. Self-driving cars are one example.

By making the process of lithium mining more sustainable, we can mitigate the effects of climate change. Be it cleaner air in cities or reducing natural disasters near island coasts. We can protect ecosystems and their inhabitants by substituting fossil fuels for renewable energy and battery storage.

  

The benefits of battery storage for solar PV owners

 

For property owners with solar PV, the adoption of battery storage will be a huge benefit to their setups. By storing any surplus energy produced, they can become more self-sufficient. With less reliance on the grid, they are saving money too. With energy price rises, individuals are looking to future-proof their homes. With the ability to charge from the grid and operate during a power outage, batteries allow people to take control of their energy usage.

For people with solar PV, when battery storage is installed alongside a solar system, the battery VAT reduces from 20% to 5%. The Feed-In Tariff scheme is still available until March/April 2019, which entitles you to quarterly earnings for 20 years. This is in addition to the savings.

Solar PV, battery storage, electric vehicles and smarter tariffs will help change society for the better. 

However, homeowners and others need to adapt in preparation for the future. For example, as electric vehicles become more popular, energy suppliers may increase tariffs to meet the demand for energy. With the ability to charge your vehicle, day or night, with free electricity protects you

As other technologies, such as heat pumps, grow in popularity, solar PV can work in combination so all of your energy needs are covered.

Changes in energy infrastructure, such as smart meters, even mean for fluctuating electricity prices in real-time. A battery is intelligent enough to charge with the cheapest electricity available, without you having to do anything.

Economically, it is making more sense to protect yourself with both solar PV and battery storage as prices rise and savings don’t bring a real return. And eventually, as pressure mounts on society to be greener, we will all have some sort of renewable energy source each at our homes. California will require solar PV on all new builds as of 2020.

With constant advancement in green industries, homeowners can financially benefit as well as helping save the planet.