Generating Energy

A SEEMINGLY UNSLAKABLE thirst for power comes at a high financial, environmental and social cost – both to generate and store energy.

In spite of energy reductions in parts of the more developed world, largely due to efficiency, global demand is set to escalate from 2014 to 2040 by 37%, from 7.4 to 9bn of energy, according to the International Energy Agency.  [See IEA graphic.]  The anticipated decrease across the whole of Europe, USA and Japan represents just 15% of the increase across India and China alone.  But only 40% of this global energy will come from green energy.  That hardly makes electric cars low carbon, let alone sustainable.  According to a UN report, renewable energy needs to supply between half and two-thirds by 2050 in order to limit global warming to the critical 1.5 degrees centigrade target pursued by the Paris climate agreement.

Furthermore, national power grids are unlikely to be able  to support a large and rapid increase in EVs. Based on predicted vehicle numbers for 2035, if 5% of electric vehicles in the UK plugged in at the same time, the pressure on the National Grid could increase to a critical 40GW, according to a report by Wood Mackenzie.  At peak hours, this increased demand could cause power cuts.  It’s another matter entirely to generate enough green electricity to keep up with future demand.

Storing Energy

Tesla is building enormous battery plants, known as Gigafactories, around the world, rooved with acres of solar panels to support another of the CEO’s pet innovations. [See panel, Lithium Alternatives]. Nevada, the gambling capital of America, played a high-stakes game by using huge tax subsidies to attract the first behemoth, now turning out some 3,000 battery packs each week for the company’s Model 3 saloon.  It’s brought high-paid tech jobs to the US state but is soaking up huge tax breaks that critics say have seriously depleted public services, resulting in pot-holed roads, overcrowded schools and insufficient affordable housing.  The influx of tech workers has sent rents rocketing, boosting the local service economy, while those on fixed incomes claim to be suffering.  A second Gigafactory is producing photovoltaic (PV) cells in Buffalo, New York.  Two more gigantic sites are planned for China and Europe.

The business opportunity for the automotive sector goes beyond meeting consumer expectations and demand: it is about de-risking the entire value chain, including removing carbon and minimising impact on communities all around the world.  For example, electric vehicles have the potential to reduce hearing loss and stress associated with noise levels above 85 decibels.  Conventional trucks can typically create a 90 to 100 decibel racket.

It’s the growing focus on the health and wellbeing of communities that sparked the latest attack on diesel. With climate change climbing up the news agenda towards the start of the millennium, lower-carbon diesel became the responsible choice for those who couldn’t afford a hybrid car.  Messages about air pollution and toxic particulates have been driving action in the automotive industry.  Pressure for change reached a high point when some of the most-trusted global brands admitted they had been massaging the data from emissions tests. 

A company’s reputation is what gives it its licence to operate.   Many in the automotive industry are now fighting to retain it.

Technology's social dark side

Another headache comes in the production of rechargeable batteries that are small and powerful enough. Lithium-ion batteries are seen as 'greener' than traditional lead-acid technology. Despite being the go-to metal for smart devices, there are stark environmental and human consequences linked to their supply chain and manufacturing.

Cobalt is primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where dangerous working conditions and child labour are commonplace, according to Amnesty International. Friends of the Earth claims that extraction of lithium and cobalt can jeopardise local communities' water supplies and names it as a cause of conflict, while processing involves additional toxic chemicals.

At the other end of the value chain, only 5% of lithium batteries are recycled in the EU, with little incentive despite a potential 11m tonnes waste mountain by 2030, according to recycling start-up Li-Cycle.

Car manufacturers are slowly beginning to respond and demonstrate responsibility. Tesla's Gigafactory in the USA will produce a supply of lithium-ion batteries that matches today’s worldwide supply to meet their expected demand. The site will also include an on-site battery recycling facilities to reprocess every type of battery cells, modules and packs for reuse as well as partnering with recycling companies, such as Umicore, to use smelting etc. to reclaim precious metals in spent batteries.

Alternatives to Lithium

As our power needs grow, the search is on for better ways to store solar and wind energy, keep smart devices charged, and run electric cars.  Lithium production is dominated by a handful of companies and may threaten climate change agreements. Safer or more abundant alternatives under investigation include fuel cells, solid state technologies, solar, aluminium graphite, sodium-ion, photosynthesis, foam, sand and even human skin. [See panel.]  Many however are not yet commercial and stuck in the lab.

  1. Hydrogen. Invented in the 1830s and exceptionally efficient, but held back by high material costs, these fuel cells require electricity or genetically-modified algae to generate. Hydrogen and oxygen mix with only heat; water emitted as waste. Japan is leading the way with Toyota and Honda both pushing to develop the technology. UK-based Intelligent Energy created a tiny prototype hydrogen-powered fuel cell for the iPhone 6, which it said keeps the power-hungry handset running for a week without recharging.
  2. Redox flow batteries. Well-suited to large-scale energy storage, they could propel a car up to 1000 miles on a single charge and make them much faster, but flow batteries are very expensive. Highview Power announced (July 2018) a small (15 MWh) grid-scale liquid air energy storage plant near Manchester, UK. This technology may be a cost-effective long-duration energy storage resource. Vanadium ions are an alternative to Lithium ones, mined in South Africa, Russia, China and USA. Numerous companies and organizations are involved in funding and developing them.
  3. Sulphur. Sony, which pioneered the Li-ion battery, expects to sell a Lithium-Sulphur ‘superbattery’ in 2020, with 40% more capacity. But it’s still Lithium. Huawei has one that will charge a phone to 50% in five minutes.  Other applications are expected to follow.   Sony is also working on a magnesium-sulphur battery, an element most commonly found in Russia, North Korea & China.
  4. Solar panels. Very inefficient, but receiving the attention of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who’s covered his enormous Gigafactories with them. Using nanotechnology, they could cover cars and feed energy into the grid.
  5. Powered roads. In Sweden, trucks hook onto overhead power lines (like trolley-buses). In the Netherlands, a bicycle path supplies energy to power headlights. A one-mile, zero-emission highway demonstrator near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, is run by Siemens and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, with three trucks hauling freight. The system also allows for truck operation outside of the electrified sections.
  6. Graphene supercapacitors charge and discharge much more efficiently than a battery but are not yet stable enough. Researchers at the University of Manchester have used graphene-oxide to create an ink-like substance that can be printed on to fabrics and acts as a solid-state flexible supercapacitor. Samsung, which has invested heavily in research since its infamous exploding battery, has developed a technology based on a ball of graphene that could boost battery capacity by 45% and decrease charging times by a fifth. Aluminium-graphite batteries could charge a smartphone in 60 seconds and a car in minutes.  Safe and lightweight, Stanford University has created one but the output of 1.5v just isn’t enough.
  7. Salt. The Dutch AquaBattery has used brackish water flowing through a stack of membranes to convert electrical energy and store it as chemical energy.
  8. Bioelectrochemical batteries. Using anaerobic bacteria to help release electrons. Researchers in the Netherlands created a prototype and achieved 15 recharging cycles.
  9. Thin film batteries. This technology just makes existing technologies smaller by laying a microscopically-thin film of metal oxide onto a base, eliminating components and packing more power into a given area. (Not to be confused with thin-film solar cells, made by depositing photovoltaic material on a base.) When we’ve mastered thin-film, we may as well look at solid state batteries.
  10. Solid state batteries. Just as solid-state drives have taken laptop storage to a new level, they won’t be affected by the weather, should last a lifetime and the risk of fire is nearly zero. Not yet commercially viable.