Features Australia

Hidden eco-cost of batteries not included

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

The climate is changing – by how much and by what cause is still up in the air. But, that’s not the debate we need to be having.

We need to be talking about what comes next. How do we look after the environment, without spending billions of dollars subsidising unproven power sources and pushing household and business power bills through the roof?

This question presents a great opportunity for Australia. We have the potential to be a world leader in clean technology, including clean coal, as we transition to new ways of powering our country.

But there are a few myths that need busting first. And a few realities that the Left, led by the Greens and Labor, need to be upfront about. Because until the hidden environmental cost of renewables like wind and solar power and electric cars are understood, we can’t make sensible and sustainable decisions about Australia’s energy future.

It’s important to have all the scientific facts, reported without bias.

For example, let’s take the coverage last week of the United Kingdom’s first week without using coal to generate power. In the small print you find that renewables comprised just over 20 per cent of the country’s total power generation.

And nuclear power is part of the electricity mix in the UK. So, although the headlines read ‘Death to fossil fuel burning power’, the reality is that gas and coal-fired power imported from Europe were in there too. It was hardly the end of fossil fuels that the Left was proclaiming.

There is no doubt that power generation is changing. But before we rush headlong into intermittent sources like solar and wind power, we need to carefully consider the environmental impact of the materials that make storing such energy possible. Without storage, renewable sources like the sun and wind are not a sustainable, reliable alternative – unless we go nuclear.

As we increasingly use portable power for products like laptops, mobile phones and other electronic devices, global demand for batteries is soaring. Now people want ‘big batteries’ to be part of the mix.

No climate change zealot will ever admit it, but batteries are having a lethal impost on the environment right now – let alone in 2030.

Lithium-ion (‘Li-ion’) batteries are the most commonly used battery in electric cars, home and small business settings and on-grid scale projects. The world’s largest Li-ion battery, paired with a windfarm, was recently installed in South Australia dispatching power to the State’s grid, but it’s backed up by diesel generators.

Li-ion batteries are made of heavy metals like cobalt, copper and nickel and light metals like lithium and aluminium; which automatically means increased mining in less-developed nations where substantial environmental and social costs are unearthed.

Shh… don’t tell the climate zealots! The stark reality is that the push for wind and solar farms in Victoria is having a devastating impact in Africa and other developing countries around the world.

The head of human rights group, Amnesty International, is so concerned about the hunt for clean green power, he calls it a ‘false choice’.

Amnesty’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo said, ‘Companies who overlook human rights concerns as they clean up their energy sources are presenting their customers with a false choice; people or planet. This approach is gravely flawed.’

Li-ion batteries have been linked to human rights abuses including child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and environmental risks.

Cobalt supply is also concentrated in a few countries, and it is the most expensive raw material inside Li-ion batteries. 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt is sourced from the Katanga Copper Belt, in the DRC.

By 2025 the demand for cobalt is likely to double. Amnesty International and America’s CBS News have documented the human rights violations linked to the cobalt mines including serious health risks for the children working there.

Mr Naidoo said, ‘Without radical changes, the batteries which power green vehicles will continue to be tainted by human rights abuses.’

Lithium has a similarly controversial back story.

The world’s cheapest lithium is extracted from salt flats in South America, but local communities there fear threats to freshwater availability and increases in pollution. Extracting lithium from brines involves miners drilling holes in the salt flats, pumping salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface and then storing it in PVC-lined shallow pools.

The sun evaporates the brine, over many months, leaving a sludge. Then sodium carbonate is added to make lithium carbonate, which is exported around the world to chemical plants that make the lithium.

So, next time a climate change zealot is organising a school protest on their mobile phone, they have made the problem worse. The alternative is expensive mining of hard ore deposits in Australia and China – a remarkably energy-intensive process – but still mining.

And then there’s the question of what to do with the used batteries. The volume of spent Li-ion batteries is likely to reach 25 billion tons in 2020, with less than 3 per cent being recycled.

Incineration and landfill are the most common methods of disposal, not to mention the solar panel graveyards which litters industrial estates across Australia, as first-generation panels wear out and are being replaced.

Scientists are concerned about the leaching of chemicals and other pollutants into the soil and water, and in the case of incineration, into the air.

There’s also the risk of fire – as Li-ion batteries have been recorded as having thermal runaway which means they ignite spontaneously. Millions of batteries have been recalled because of this risk.

The clean energy movement envisions a world where reliance on fossils fuels is extinguished – but presently that comes at great environmental cost.

We hear nothing from the Left about the environmental damage, increased mining and third world destruction, only their self-comforting virtue-signalling.

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