As the renewable energy sector grows, high-capacity long-life battery storage is fundamental to its success. How these batteries are designed and made will define their environmental impact for generations to come. Creating a circular economy for batteries is crucial to prevent one of the solutions to the current environmental crisis becoming the cause of another.
The renewable energy sector is growing at an exponential rate. In 2020, for the first time, renewables have generated more electricity in the UK than fossil fuels and according to the International Energy Agency solar energy is now the “cheapest electricity in history”. Yet while the capacity of the renewable energyEnergy derived from resources that are not depleted on timescales relevant to the economy, i.e. not geological timescales. sector is strengthening, renewables still only account for 11% of the world’s primary energy. This is just twice the proportion provided by renewables more than 50 years ago, and with the UN expecting an overshoot of the Paris Agreement 2030 targets — nearing 32 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions — the pace of the transition to renewables needs to be accelerated.
Overcoming barriers to renewable energy
There have been many barriers to the renewable energy transition. Over the years, economic obstacles have included subsidies for non-renewable energy, low oil prices that have limited investment in renewables, and the cost of infrastructure development. Social barriers have also limited progress, including public reservations about changes to local landscapes and disruptions to established ways of life. While these barriers are persistent, international pressure and awareness of the negative impacts of fossil fuel-based energy are catalysing government action to decarbonise the energy sector. The EU’s European Green Deal, for example, sets out a plan for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and China is taking steps to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
With policymakers setting a course for change, renewables are receiving new investment. In October 2020, the Financial Times reported that stocks in hydrogen energy equipment manufacturer ITM Power had risen by 220% while Dutch energy storage company Alfen jumped more than 230%. Meanwhile, multinational oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil, which once had the world’s biggest equity value, has been overtaken by Florida-based ‘clean energy’ provider NextEra Energy in terms of stock market value.
Investments in renewables are also being made by some of the Big Oil companies. Total has committed to a significant solar project in Qatar while ENI SpA has pledged to lower its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Swiss commodity trader Mercuria is also investing USD 1.5 billion into renewable energy projects in North America with private equity partners. And BP’s decision to write down around USD 17.5 billion worth of assets on the basis that they are “no longer economic” could be a game changer in the energy sector.
However, despite these big steps forward, a fundamental technical barrier remains: energy storage. As Dr Amrit Chandan, CEO of lithium-ion battery technology company Aceleron, notes: “Renewables are intermittent, meaning that they need the support of batteries to store clean energy for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Battery storage is vital.”
High-capacity long-life battery development is particularly important for the utility and transport sectors. A key enabler of their success is likely to be the lithium-ion battery — most commonly used for small-scale applications like phone chargers but increasingly being developed for larger-scale applications. Seven European countries have already committed EUR 3.2 billion to support research into lithium-ion batteries, and both Tesla and General Motors are investing billions of dollars in manufacturing facilities for the technology.
However, with these developments comes a fresh challenge for the energy sector. As Chandan comments: