Renewable power advocates tout next-generation batteries as a path to making wind and solar power economically competitive with conventional power. The environmental impacts of battery production and disposal, however, are substantial and may overwhelm any environmental benefits of zero-emission wind and solar power.
Wind and solar power have a real-world capacity factor of approximately 30 percent, meaning vagaries in sunshine and wind speeds prevent these power sources from producing more than about 30 percent of their power capacity. For example, when a press release for a new solar project claims the project can provide ‘enough electricity to power a town of X,XXX people,’ divide that number by three to determine the power that will actually be produced. Also, because the power output varies and cannot be pre-planned with precision, wind and solar power rated at 10 units of power capacity is less valuable than conventional power rated at 3 units of power capacity. Moreover, enough conventional power must be built and ready to produce power for times when darkness, cloud cover, or insufficient winds keep wind and solar power to near zero production.
Advocates for wind and solar power often tell us that we should overlook these shortcomings because next-generation batteries, large enough and efficient enough to store wind and solar power for on-demand usage, are just around the corner. Such an assertion is highly questionable for many reasons. But even if significant breakthroughs for battery technology are imminent, is battery-dependent wind and solar power actually good for the environment?
The question is important because environmental impacts entail more than merely power plant emissions. Wind and solar advocates frequently cite the lack of emissions from wind and solar power and imply that zero emissions end the environmental inquiry. If that is the case, however, zero-emission nuclear and hydro power convey no more and no less environmental benefits than wind and solar power. In reality, we must examine all environmental harms and benefits of various power sources, of which emissions are merely one important factor.
The Energy Post published an article Friday documenting many of the environmental impacts of batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles. Many of these impacts would apply to batteries storing power generated by wind and solar facilities. The impacts are severe and sobering.
As an initial matter, the production of batteries requires the mining of many metals and minerals. Mining for lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel, and other materials create substantial environmental harm. For example, producing lithium from ore “requires land use changes – clearing land, digging mines and storing waste rock. Significant energy and chemical use are also needed to obtain to the final product,” Energy Post notes. The alternative means of producing lithium, from naturally occurring underground brine, requires pumping the brine from underground and creating large ponds for brine evaporation. This “can impact water supply in desert areas. It also uses some chemicals for purification,” Energy Post notes.
When batteries are exhausted, there are environmentally problematic disposal issues. Conventional landfills must deal with the batteries’ toxic waste. Recycling batteries can minimize toxic decay, but this adds to the cost of battery power. Moreover, recycling creates its own environmental problems.
Whether disposed or recycled, EPA has published a comprehensive report documenting the negative environmental impacts of battery production and usage.
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