Are batteries alone capable of meeting the world’s climate goals?

A new World Economic Forum report finds that, in the right conditions, battery technologies could reduce emissions in the transport and power sectors by 30% - enough to hit the 2°C Paris Agreement target. Just how could battery deployment create carbon savings at this scale? Scarlett Evans finds out.

Finding and popularising low-carbon energy sources has rapidly become a global priority, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) report (published in September this year) was created with this mission in mind. Presenting a case for battery investment, the report identifies the industry as possibly ‘the most significant’ intervention in meeting the Paris temperature targets and even, if coupled with other technologies, capable of setting a course to achieve the 1.5C goal.

Commissioned by the Global Battery Alliance (GBA), the report proposes a ten year plan to achieve this potential - primarily advocating for increased investment and efforts towards ‘circular’ and ‘just’ value chains, as well as regulations to ensure labour practices remain ethical amidst increased demand.

The stage is set for batteries to see widespread adoption, and it seems the industry is at a tipping point in ensuring the benefits of this green energy alternative are reaped.

/ Once it’s driven by cost rather than just environment, the whole drive for change becomes much stronger. /

What role can batteries play in a low-carbon future?

The report’s findings show that batteries, if implemented across the power and transport sectors, could cause a 30% reduction in emissions. Considering the fact that these industries currently contribute to 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, such savings are significant. GBA co-chair Benedikt Sobotka says that, in particular, integrating lithium-ion batteries into the transport sector could be instrumental in bringing down emissions.

“Batteries are key to decarbonising road transportation and supporting the transition to a renewable power system,” he says. “They can also ensure more value is generated out of them while in use, and harvested at the end of their life.”

According to Sobotka, the deployment of batteries in the transport sector could enable a reduction in the GHG intensity of the value chain by 34 megatons, while creating an additional economic value of around $35bn. This, he says, could be supported by smart charging, refurbishment and repair, the repurposing of electric vehicle (EV) batteries after use, and recycling.

/Once it’s driven by cost rather than just environment, the whole drive for change becomes much stronger. /

Speaking with Dr Matt Stocks, a research fellow at the Australian National University School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering, he says transport’s transition to batteries is already being seen.

“We’re starting to see more and more car manufacturers talking about having EV’s in the next few years,” he says. “Battery technology is the key to unlocking that.”

Currently, the price of batteries is the main obstacle to wide-spread adoption, yet Stocks says as our understanding and development of the technology continues, this price will come down and begin to open up the market.

“EV’s are cheaper than traditional vehicles, they require less maintenance and have lower running costs,” says Stocks. “The main barrier is the additional capital cost of the batteries themselves. As that technology improves, we’re going to see a real tipping point where it will just make sense to go from a combustion engine to an EV engine. Once it’s driven by cost rather than just environment, the whole drive for change becomes much stronger.”

/ A significant scale-up is required to create a much more sustainable, responsible value chain. /

What needs to change?

While lower costs are anticipated to be achieved in the next few years, there have been some questions as to whether any changes are needed in infrastructure before we will see widespread battery deployment. According to WEF’s report, achieving the scale of battery use needed to achieve the Paris targets, ‘considerable change’ will be required.

Figures from the report say the global battery value chain will need to expand 19-fold, costing an estimated $550m in investments over the next decade. While Sobotka notes that significant steps in infrastructure have already been seen over the last few years, he stressed that its expansion is not yet complete.

“Left to its own devices, the current battery value chain could not create these important benefits,” he says. “A significant scale-up is required to create a much more sustainable, responsible value chain.”

/ A significant scale-up is required to create a much more sustainable, responsible value chain. /

Speaking with Stocks, he says the industry’s adaption to batteries will likely be smoother than that seen with other technologies, as the uptake of this low-carbon alternative is more easily predicted. Nevertheless, preparing for potential challenges will be important in ensuring the technology in fact enables, rather than hinders, economic benefits.

“One thing we have to think about is when people charge,” he says. “We don’t want a situation where everyone is charging at the same time and it leads to increased demand early in the evening. If we can use this technology sensibly then it can reduce costs in the system. If we can’t, then it will cause costs to go up. We just need to work out the business model - that’s as much a part of the story as the technology.”

/ Unless appropriate action is taken, our collective ‘carbon budget’ may be used up by 2035 and decarbonisation may come too late. /

An ethical question?

With demand over battery materials predicted to spike in the coming years, there is rising concern over the ability to maintain ethical mining practice. Child or forced labour, unfit working conditions, and pollution from the extraction process are all factors to consider when ensuring the scale-up does not allow malpractice to fall under the radar.

Cobalt is a particular point of concern for some industry members. A necessary material for the green energy transition, it is also problematic given that it is primarily sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a place where the report estimates around one million children are implicated in mining activities.

/ Unless appropriate action is taken, our collective ‘carbon budget’ may be used up by 2035 and decarbonisation may come too late. /

“There is a growing pressure to safeguard the global energy transition and sustainably source key metals,” says Sobotka. “To facilitate a just energy transition, it is important to ensure that responsible production of cobalt is ramped up. According to forecasts, demand growth for the metal will increase by 25% in the EV segment alone from 2020.”

In response to this increase, he says efforts to target poor working conditions and human rights issues should be simultaneously emphasised until 2030. In this way, while the future of batteries may look bright, it is reliant on an industry-wide commitment.

“A strong momentum is in motion,” Sobotka says. “However, unless appropriate action is taken, our collective ‘carbon budget’ may be used up by 2035 and decarbonisation may come too late. Collaboration among a plethora of sectors including businesses, governments, academia, NGOs and civil society is needed in order to unlock batteries’ significant socioeconomic potential.”

Playing catch-up in the US

“In Europe, offshore wind has been there for a number of years, but I think in the United States we're a little bit behind that,” said Karustis.

Should it be successful, Halo’s approach could lead to a surge in US onshore wind, which has historically lagged behind other regions in terms of wind installation and production. Since 2016, according to the International Energy Agency, the US has installed just 22.6GW of new onshore wind capacity, compared to 30.7GW in the EU, and 50.3GW in China, struggles that Karustis hopes to address.

Last December, the Chinese Government approved a number of new offshore wind projects, totalling 13GW of production and costing around $13.3bn, as the country continues to invest in utility-scale power. Karustis hopes projects like Halo’s distributed turbine can contribute to a more balanced wind sector in the US, with both large- and small-scale operations expanding renewable power.

“The large-scale wind turbines wouldn't be phased out, it's kind of an ‘all of the above’ thing,” he said. “The large wind farms play a very important role for us in reducing the carbon footprint globally, and hopefully the micro wind market is going to augment that by producing energy where energy is being used. It's a good two-pronged approach.”

This two-pronged approach also includes other renewable power sources, including solar and utility-scale wind; Halo is not trying to replace all clean energy with its turbines, but offer another option for people eager to engage in renewable power, who may have been historically sidelined due to the high costs of building utility-scale facilities or the unsuitable geographical characteristics of the places they live.

“When you look at that market we're very excited because just as megawatt-scale wind is a large market, I think distributed wind can be as big of a market or bigger over time,” said Karustis.

“When you have incentives and improvements in the technology, the costs go down, so you can be more competitive and compete, and that's certainly the case with megawatt-scale wind,” he continued. “Just 15/20 years ago, it wasn't competitive with natural gas [and] coal, but it is now. So those government policies have helped and they've driven the technology improvements, so it's all bundled together.”