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Beyond Lithium-Ion Batteries

Everyone with any interest in renewable energy solution as part of the solution to the energy-climate crisis is probably sick of hearing it — the renewables-basher’s sneer that “The sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow all the time” (as if everyone didn’t already know that!).

They are likely sicker still of the renewables-bashers’ inflicting on them the conclusion derive from this — namely that renewables cannot and will never supply more than a fraction of our energy. So it’s fossil fuels yesterday, fossil fuels today, fossil fuels tomorrow, fossil fuels forever! Sorry/not sorry, hippies! We wash our Sport Utility Vehicles with your tears!

Of course, this argument is a weak one that has been getting weaker all the time. After all, renewables have been getting cheaper — so much cheaper that even equipped with battery storage (also getting cheaper) they are becoming competitive with natural gas, even without special government favors being shown to renewables (even as natural gas, along with the rest of the fossil fuels sector, enjoys past, accumulated largesse, and continued favors, on an immense scale conveniently overlooked by those who whine endlessly about tax credits for solar and wind and the like). Indeed, the RethinkX think tank has made a fascinating case for, assuming that these price drops continue a little longer, it will be the cost-effective thing to build renewable up to the level of “Clean Energy Super Power,” with local surpluses of SWB (Solar-Wind-Battery)-based energy making electricity as cheap as bandwidth.

In fairness, battery storage is not without is difficulties. The lithium ion batteries that remain the go-to type, after all, rely on rare minerals concentrated in a handful of conflict-ridden regions (like the lithium of Bolivia and Afghanistan, the cobalt of the Congo) where they are mined in conditions which are brutal for the workers and damaging to the local environment, while there is the additional ecological problem of what to do with the batteries at the end of their useful lives. And the renewables-bashers, of course, make the most of this, too (applying the same double-standard they do to environmental effects and working conditions that they do to such matters as tax credits; after all, they forget just how many products the same can be said of, the fossil fuels to which they are so loyal included). However, besides being sanctimonious in the extreme, they are also wrong about these evils being necessary costs of any attempt to shift the world’s energy base. It is far from being the case that lithium-ion constitutes the only option for electrochemical batteries. Quite a number of alternatives based on abundant, low-cost materials, capable of delivering the requisite power and energy density, are in development — with the obstacles falling away regularly enough (cobalt-free batteries not only exist but comprise a growing share of Tesla’s output, and Samsung and Panasonic are moving beyond the stuff as well) that, in contrast with so many areas where tech writers hawk baseless optimism, there seem grounds here for the expectation of working technical solutions.

Meanwhile, electrochemical batteries are far from being the sole electricity storage option in every area. Notable here is gravitic storage, which entails raising a weight to a given height using some of the electricity amassed, and then dropping it, releasing its potential energy. Pumped hydroelectric is a well-established type of such storage, used since the nineteenth century in hydroelectric power operations — and in fact its usability as a storage method in connection with solar and other non-hydro forms is likewise well-established. More novel, we are seeing increased interest in the use of towers like those being built by the Swiss Energy Storage firm (which utilize concrete blocks in similar fashion) — a method which is already becoming economically competitive. Such forms of storage may not get a car from A to B — but even in a world where the present hopes set on more sustainably sourced batteries fall short of the present expectations, their enhancement of the viability of renewables-powered electric grid will in itself greatly reduce the problem of supplying the batteries keeping an electrified transport system running.

Originally published at



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