Batteries are a key part of the energy transition. Here’s why

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Writer, Formative Content

  • Demand for battery storage has seen exponential growth in recent years.
  • But the battery technical revolution is just beginning, explains Simon Engelke, founder and chair of Battery Associates.
  • Investment has poured into the battery industry to develop sustainable storage solutions that support the energy transition.

As the world increasingly swaps fossil fuel power for emissions-free electrification, batteries are becoming a vital storage tool to facilitate the energy transition.

Lithium-Ion batteries first appeared commercially in the early 1990s and are now the go-to choice to power everything from mobile phones to electric vehicles and drones.

lithium-ion battery electric vehicles transport energy storage technology sustainable solutions transition
Lithium-Ion battery demand could reach 9,300 gigawatt-hours by the end of the decade. Image: Statista

Demand for Lithium-Ion batteries to power electric vehicles and energy storage has seen exponential growth, increasing from just 0.5 gigawatt-hours in 2010 to around 526 gigawatt hours a decade later. Demand is projected to increase 17-fold by 2030, bringing the cost of battery storage down, according to Bloomberg.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Dr Simon Engelke is founder and chair of Battery Associates, an organization working to accelerate sustainable battery solutions and innovations. Here, he gives expert insights into the world of batteries.

Q. What are the main types of battery in use today and how are they different?

There are two main kinds of batteries you’ll probably be familiar with. Lithium-ion batteries power things like our phones and electric or hybrid vehicles, and lead acid batteries that are used to start cars with internal combustion engines and store power for the car’s lights, radio and other devices.

The main difference is the energy density. You can put more energy into a lithium-Ion battery than lead acid batteries, and they last much longer. That’s why lithium-Ion batteries are used in so many applications and are replacing lead acid batteries for things like transport and grid applications.

Q. What are batteries made from and how do they work?

Batteries are made from a variety of different materials. As the name of the most-common type of battery in use today implies, lithium-ion batteries are made of lithium ions but also contain other materials, such as nickel, manganese and cobalt. They work by converting electrical energy into chemical energy, which allows us to store electricity in a very dense form.

Q. Are batteries a safe means of storing electricity?

I would say safety is priority number one for the industry. New technologies and better monitoring are making batteries a very safe way to store electricity. In an electric vehicle one battery cell might stop working, for example, but if it is designed safely it won’t affect the whole vehicle.

The key safety aspects with lithium-Ion batteries are how they are put together and monitored. The worst outcome involves thermal runaway, or an explosion. This would be a major concern for big battery installations like the ones used to store renewable energy, but they operate in a very controlled environment.

Q. What happens to battery waste? Can used batteries be recycled to form part of the circular economy?

Recycling battery components is extremely important, both from a materials standpoint and an environmental one. Not only do we use and reuse the battery itself by charging and discharging it, at the end of its life it can be taken apart and the components recycled to make new batteries.

We have created a circular economy throughout the battery industry, which is both unique and exciting. It’s really about optimizing the recycling process for each battery type to guarantee the circular economy is cost effective from every different standpoint. But circularity shouldn’t be limited to batteries, it can apply to everything from steel to plastic and you really want to create a circular loop for the future.

Q. How can batteries help to electrify sectors like transport and energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Transport today generates about 30% of global emissions, so reducing this is very important. In most countries, although upfront costs are higher it is cheaper to run an electric vehicle than a fossil fuel car, which encourages consumers to make the switch and help decarbonize road transport.

Advances in battery technology have made batteries a key component for the sustainable travel of the future. The energy stored in these batteries on wheels can be used to actually power your home and to help stabilise the grid. Batteries are one of these platform technologies that can be used to improve the state of the world and combat climate change.

Q. Will growing demand for battery storage as we shift towards renewable energy put pressure on resources like lithium

The resource question is an important one. Although lithium-Ion batteries contain a very small amount of lithium, the predicted growth of demand for these batteries could put pressure on supply chains for materials like lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite. And it’s essential that supply chains operate in an ethical way.

Initiatives like the Global Battery Alliance, a partnership of more than 60 member organizations initiated by the World Economic Forum in 2017, bring together all the stakeholders from around the world to ensure battery supply chains are ethical, green and managed properly. It’s important that traceability exists and that the industry scales-up in the right way, to safeguard labour, protect the environment and avoid exploitation in mining operations and other parts of the supply chain.

Q. What new developments in battery technology can we expect to see?

Near-term, we should see existing processes being optimized, small tweaks that can actually have a big impact on battery costs and energy density. Looking further forward, there are new technologies anticipated, such as Solid State batteries, which people have been working on for some time. We should also see new chemistries, such as sodium ion batteries that some major producers are exploring.

A lot of resources and investment is moving into this industry. This not only impacts batteries themselves, but allows other industries connected to batteries to be optimized, such as new mining technologies, battery cycling innovation, integration, charging infrastructure and vehicle-to-grid applications.

Alongside this, if you have been following the news you will see headlines announcing bigger and bigger capacity battery installations to store surplus renewable energy. I think this trend will continue into the future.

Q. What excites you most about the future opportunities for battery technologies?

I see battery technologies as a really strong vehicle to decarbonize transport and energy, to help combat climate change. The battery industry is still in its early development stages, although it might seem big there is a great deal more to come.

Think about when personal computing came around, when smartphones came around; batteries have the same potential to bring about a technology revolution. That’s why this is an exciting time for the battery industry.

Solutions to global challenges will be the focus of the World Economic Forum’s upcoming Sustainable Development Impact Summit. The virtual four-day event is hosted alongside the United Nations General Assembly and brings together global leaders from business, government, and civil society.

It will focus on new technologies, policies and partnerships to advance cooperation and accelerate progress.

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