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All About Batteries

Today in our climate news section, "This Week In Climate", we look at progress on alternatives to lithium-ion batteries.
Julian Moore
Feb 6, 2023 8 min read
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Iron Air on a Roll

Midwestern utility Xcel announced they will install two massive 10-megawatt iron-air batteries alongside retiring coal plants in Minnesota and Colorado.

The iron-air batteries will allow Xcel to accelerate the closure of its coal facilities by providing up to four days’ worth of renewable energy to even out low production periods. That’s vastly more storage than lithium-ion batteries of the same size can offer, and at much lower cost.

Climate advocates and readers of this newsletter have known for some time about the thorny environmental trade-offs that come with lithium-ion batteries. Scaling up LI batteries will require tons of lithium, cobalt, copper and nickel— rare metals that are found primarily in parts of the world with weak environmental and human rights protections.

Unregulated cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo routinely employ child labor, and the country’s precious remaining rainforest are being clear cut to reach valuable reserves.

Then there are the fossil fuels required to ship these metals to processing facilities, most of which are in China.

The mining industry’s emissions from shipping are 26 times higher than its combined Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions from normal business operations. When you take shipping into account, the mining sector makes up a whopping 28% of global emissions each year. Data gaps make it difficult to pinpoint what portion of those are attributable to lithium battery inputs, but that number is sure to rise alongside demand.

Many of these issues came to public attention recently thanks to several episodes of the Joe Rogan podcast, putting a dent in the “clean energy” branding of lithium batteries right when most of the world is being introduced to them as a climate solution.

On each front, iron-air batteries are the most promising alternative to lithium for long-term storage. Iron is the most abundant metal on earth, and it’s the only mined material necessary for energy storage. Iron is currently mined on every continent except Antarctica (for now), cutting out the complex supply chains and fossil fuels to transport rare metals.

They also vastly outperform lithium batteries for utility-scale storage. Iron air batteries can provide 100 hours of electricity, giving utilities up to four days of renewable power during production gaps and blackouts.

Xcel-ing Towards 2030

The Xcel project is the latest partnership for Massachusetts startup Form Energy (now hiring for 112 jobs on Climatebase!), which secured $450 million in funding in October of last year to produce iron air batteries at its new West Virginia plant.

Xcel is pursuing an aggressive decarbonization plan to cut carbon emissions. CEO Bob Frenzel said projects like the Minnesota and Colorado batteries have put Xcel on track to cut electricity generation emissions 80% by 2030 before zeroing out in 2050.

At this point, ‘net-zero by 2050’ is the standard among American utilities, but Xcel’s 2030 objective goes far beyond other plans.

Regional power giants Southern Company and Dominion Energy’s net-zero commitments are considered among the most ambitious. But Dominion only expects 30% of its power to come from renewable sources by 2030 while Southern hopes it can cut its emission in half by that time.

Part of the reason other utilities are backloading their reductions past 2030 is because they haven’t been as willing to invest in cutting-edge technologies. A report released in 2021 highlighted how many power companies are still banking on tacking on carbon capture to their existing generators and buying carbon credits to clean up the rest.

Still Others

Iron-air batteries may do wonders for utility electricity, but they are far too big to fit into electric vehicles. Fortunately, alternative batteries for smaller applications have made strides recently.

This week, Nissan announced it would start producing solid-state batteries for its vehicles by 2028. Solid-state batteries offer twice the energy density of current lithium technology and triple the charging speed. And while solid-state requires 35% more lithium than conventional batteries, they need far less cobalt, or even none.

In January, researchers in South Korea made a breakthrough in sodium-ion batteries. Sodium batteries have until now been too large and sluggish to displace lithium, but researchers greatly improved storage by adding pigments to sodium anodes.

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The Author

Julian Moore