Addressing the sustainability of crucial energy storage infrastructure

Energy storage is a crucial component of the energy transition journey, allowing for the adoption of electric vehicles, mitigating the intermittency of renewable energy generation, and allowing for the development of smart grids. Michael Nelson examines how the battery production process should also transition towards more sustainable methods.

According to the most recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, battery storage capacity additions in 2020 rose to a record-high 5 GW, up 50 per cent after a mediocre 2019, when installations failed to rise for the first time in a decade. Utility-scale installations continue to dominate the market, accounting for around two-thirds of total added capacity.

Utility- or grid-scale energy storage is an essential failsafe against the intermittent power sources that renewable energies such as wind and solar are notorious for providing. Electrical energy is stored during times when electricity is plentiful and inexpensive, or when demand is low, and later returned to the grid when demand is high, and electricity prices tend to be higher.

Whilst the application of grid-scale battery energy storage is widely discussed, batteries can also provide significant benefits behind the meter, combined with the electrical infrastructure of any given site. Peter Rawson, head of projects division at Briar, Zenergi Group‘s technical division, points out that when deployed behind the meter, batteries still remain connected to the energy grid through a metered connection. 

Battery energy storage systems can allow for greater control and flexibility of electrical usage, and some sophisticated versions of this technology are capable of enabling a variety of functions to operate in parallel. This includes things such as power resilience through Uninterruptable Power Supply; accessing grid services to sell electricity back to the National Grid and generate revenue; and saving money by managing the times when energy is imported from the grid compared to using stored energy. 

Crucially, they also have the capacity to maximise on-site generation, including from renewables, by storing energy for use at different times, and buffer large loads – such as electric vehicle (EV) charging – from the grid so that they can be more easily and inexpensively connected, combining all of these to turn a site into a smart microgrid.  

“Battery energy storage technology is most impressive when it is deployed to manage a combination of these activities simultaneously,” says Rawson. “This provides an integrated energy management and microgrid solution capable of revolutionising the way an organisation uses energy and can support an entire site should they experience a power disruption.” 

The carbon cost of Lithium 

Of course, mining for lithium – the main mineral component of the high-performance batteries needed to support the energy transition – is not without its own environmental costs.  

In 2020, research, consultancy, and data analytics specialist, Roskill, produced a new Sustainability Monitor to analyse the energy consumption and CO2 emissions of the lithium supply chain. The subsequent White Paper examined all Scope 1 and 2 emissions and found that, on average, lithium sourced from hard rock spodumene sources resulted in an average of nine tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of refined lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) produced. That is equivalent to driving 22619 miles in an average passenger vehicle or heating an average family home for an entire year. 

The analysis also highlighted a number of individual segments with high-emission intensity throughout the production chain, including in the transportation of Australian spodumene to China for refining, and the refining process itself, in part driven by China’s power grid mix and reliance on coal. 

With demand for lithium set to increase sharply over the next decade, and with Environment, Social, & Governance (ESG) factors becoming a more crucial determinant in a company or project’s investment appeal, scrutiny of the lithium sectors sustainability is set to grow. 

Making batteries that are easier to recycle 

Given the challenge ahead, many people are looking towards recycling technology to take the pressure off mining and refining for the important minerals required to successfully transition to sustainable energy infrastructure. 

Carlton Cummins co-founded clean technology firm Aceleron with Dr. Amrit Chandan in 2016 after agreeing that battery waste would become a very serious problem as demand for energy storage continued to rise. Their mission was to enable the battery industry to extract more value before batteries reach the material recovery stage, which led to the discovery that most lithium-ion cells were assembled using permanent assembly methods such as spot welding and adhesives. This makes recycling a challenge and reuse of viable components uneconomical. 

“From this insight, we developed our own battery assembly technology and technique which provides the same performance as welding, but with the crucial difference that our batteries can be disassembled for repair, reuse, and recycling,” says Cummins. “Where this technology comes to life, from a sustainability point of view, is unlocking reuse and repurposing. The additional extraction value before the recycling process is where Aceleron’s technology adds value to the circular economy.” 

All battery systems are expensive, adds Cummins, but users can go some way to recouping their costs by selling renewably sourced power back onto the grid. Government incentives are also going to be crucial in encouraging people to invest in the storage of renewable energy – in the same way that there used to be financial incentives for installing solar panels 15 years ago, it is essential that there be incentives in the form of grants, tax rebates, and cashback schemes to encourage the adoption of energy storage. 

“The bottom line is that we are all aware that we have deadlines to hit out net-zero goals, and the only way for us to meet them is to find a way to store clean energy,” concludes Cummins. “The wind does not blow all the time, the sun does not shine at night, and that will never change.” 

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