Home Monthly Mind The Battery Comes of Age

The Battery Comes of Age

by Kenneth Wallace-Mueller

Image source: David Marcu

Yesterday the renowned entrepreneur Elon Musk announced two spin-off products from his Tesla enterprise, the Powerwall and the Powerpack. The former is a domestic wall-mounted battery available in either 10 kWh or 7 kWh, designed as a redundancy system, yet may be used to take a house off-grid. The latter is a larger modular system available in 100 kWh units which may be used for businesses and industry, creating large-scale batteries of up to 10 MWh (10,000 kWh).

For context, an average European home consumes approximately 5,000 kWh (5 MWh) in one year; in effect, under optimal conditions a single domestic Powerwall could take a European home entirely off the grid for just under a day.

The most significant driver of battery technology development is the electric vehicle. With oil prices recently at an all-time high, a consistently volatile market for fossil-fuels, advancing technology, and reinvigorated marketplace competition, electric transport has never been so attractive.

Elon Musk has high stakes in the success of his electric car company Tesla, conventional car companies such as BMW, Nissan and Renault are expanding their ranges into electric cars, with others sure to follow, not to mention countless hybrids, and many governments have announced state aid schemes for investment in renewable energy generation and the purchase of electric vehicles. A future where vehicles run on renewable source energy is finally becoming tangible.

This move from Tesla has therefore created an opportunity. Whilst renewable energy generators have been in use for decades, a significant drawback has been the lack of effective electricity storage. Systems such as solar panels and wind turbines do have the potential to wean society off fossil-fuels, however without storage, most electricity generated is wasted. Each day, domestic electricity demand spikes in the morning and in the evening (phases known as peak load), whilst decreasing over midday and at night.

Electricity generated by solar panels however peaks at midday whilst supply from wind turbines is dependent on when the wind blows; renewable electricity supply from common sources does not match demand. Whilst not new, Teslas large-scale electricity storage is therefore a great step forward to its commercial adoption and in attracting competitors.

One must not forget, the future of battery technology will be dependent on the success of electric transportation. Commercial automotive companies will drive development through marketplace competition, whereas projects such as Alejandro Agag´s Formula E electric motorsports championship will drive development more aggressively through sport.

Factors such as the total life-span, charging speed and longevity in cold conditions as well as general safety issues will be improved through such competition, however two significant factors remain: the sustainable creation and disposal of batteries.

Batteries depend on the flow of electrons through a solution from a negative to a positive electrode. Various rechargeable batteries are available, each using different chemical elements for the electrodes and the solution, however currently electric cars use either nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) or lithium-ion batteries, which allow for high energy output.

In lithium-ion batteries, lead, chromium, thallium, cobalt, copper and nickel are present in high levels. If improperly disposed of, these elements are known to be environmentally toxic and have health effects on humans such as major neurological problems and cancer.

On the macroeconomic level, should society be driven towards greater acceptance of renewable source electricity instead of fossil-fuel sources, a reduction in demand for oil would provide opportunities for new companies and force existing companies into new markets: those for the extraction and refinement of the necessary chemical elements. Whilst lithium is not a rare element, over time, there will be concerns over extraction and resource depletion. In addition, the largest lithium sources include Bolivia, China and Afghanistan. Increased dependence on these elements may cause geopolitical issues comparable to those we currently face with oil. The same is true for all necessary elements.

Given the threat of climate change and society’s dependency on fossil-fuels, batteries for either transport or storage will provide great relief and will undoubtedly contribute to the increased acceptance of renewable source energy.

That being said, we must not forget to consider the environmental and health impact of battery creation and disposal.

Even today both research and legislation should be directed towards developing non-damaging disposal and recycling techniques, as well as finding ways to extract the necessary elements in a sustainable manner.

With these safeguards in place, society in the twenty-first century may make its first steps towards true energy security and even making the giant leap towards ending energy poverty.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

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