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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The Renewable Revolution Has A Lithium Problem

As the global middle class rapidly expands, so too does the worldwide demand for energy and its subsequent carbon footprint. Global climate change will be one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, challenges of this next century, and one of the few feasible solutions that is generally agreed upon by scientists and politicians alike is a wide-scale transition from the use of traditional fossil fuels to renewable energy resources.

Around the world, there is a race among researchers to more efficiently and cost-effectively implement renewable energy as a long-term solution to global climate change, and there is even a concerted effort to switch Europe’s energy consumption to 100 percent renewable energy as soon as the year 2050. However, even if Europe achieves this target and takes the lead as the rest of the world follows down a path toward 100 percent renewable energy, we still would not be living in a completely sustainable, green energy utopia--there is a considerable downside to this seemingly perfect plan.

Even renewable energy relies on certain decidedly non-renewable resources. Even the eco-friendliest solutions such as solar panels can’t be made without the use of finite rare earth elements. Batteries, too, are completely dependent on finite earth-sourced materials for their fabrication. What’s more, China currently has an overwhelming monopoly on a great number of these rare earth elements (although not all are as rare as this label implies). This means that in a renewable energy-based world, energy security could become a major issue. In addition to rare earth elements, there are myriad other non-renewable materials used in the production of renewable energy. Currently, the one that has everyone talking is lithium. Related: Washington Eyes Crackdown On OPEC

Lithium is an essential component to many kinds of batteries, thanks to its lightweight and highly reactive properties. This makes lithium an essential element in the renewable energy sector because, in order for renewable energy to work on a grand scale, massive amounts of energy storage potential are paramount. Even when the sun isn’t shining on solar panels and the wind isn’t turning turbines, energy demand stays constant. On top of being a key component of energy storage, lithium is also an essential ingredient in the batteries that power both hybrid and electric vehicles, another big part of the plan for a sustainable energy future.

If all the conventionally-fueled cars in the world were replaced with electric cars overnight, the global supply of lithium would be completely depleted in just approximately fifty years. Yes, this is purely hypothetical; about three million electric cars are currently in use globally--just a drop in the automotive ocean. That being said, that number is projected to skyrocket over the next decade, reaching a global fleet of approximately 125 million by 2030.

While both electric vehicles and renewable energy resources are still very far away from being widespread enough to threaten the world’s lithium stores in the near future, lithium itself is not really the point. It’s just one small problem that exemplifies a larger issue with renewable resources--they are not completely renewable, and we still haven’t discovered the technology to get around that fact.

This is not to say that renewable resources are a waste of research and development, or that riding fossil fuels into the ground is the answer. What it does mean is that there is no time like the present to start planning for how we will recycle and replenish elements like lithium, or--even better--search for energy alternatives that don’t depend on finite natural resources--before we arrive to a stage where we are dependent on a resource that’s vanishing in front of our eyes--sound familiar?

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Bill Simpson on February 12 2019 said:
    Don't worry about anything except crude oil. It provides virtually all liquid fuel. Liquid fuel moves virtually everything that moves, and grows all the food grown in developed countries, and much of the food grown and transported on the entire planet.
    Oil will be the first essential energy resource to begin to decline. That decline will force the global economy to shrink continually. That has never happened before in modern human history. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the economy has always expanded, except during the Great Depression. No recession has even been caused by a physical law, like insufficient energy supply to transport goods and people.
    Soon after the global supply of oil begins to shrink, the banking system will collapse because fractional banking isn't designed to exist in an economy which is getting smaller and smaller, due to less and less transport being available. The financial system will be overwhelmed by bad debts from the thousands of bankrupt businesses, and the unemployed millions.
    That will happen decades before lithium, cobalt, or nickel for batteries will run out. Oil is the critical transportation energy resource.
  • Jeff B on February 14 2019 said:
    "One of the few feasible solutions that is generally agreed upon by scientists and politicians alike is a wide-scale transition from the use of traditional fossil fuels to renewable energy resources."
    That's incorrect. It is universally agreed by climate scientists including IPCC that the transition to renewables is not nearly enough to prevent climate change. The most recent study by MIT found 3.7 degrees of q and timing will occur by year 2100 even if all current plans are achieved. The Paris organizers recognized it's not enough to achieve the stated goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees. James Hansen and other top climate scientists called the plan "a farce" and inadequate to prevent catastrophic warming.
  • Marcus Rönningås on February 14 2019 said:
    "It’s just one small problem that exemplifies a larger issue with renewable resources--they are not completely renewable, and we still haven’t discovered the technology to get around that fact."

    While the author is correct per se, Lithium is really not the best example. Todays there are 53 000 000 metric tons of known Lithium reserves.
    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/02/lithium-is-fueling-technology-today-at-what-cost/?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=crm-email::src=ngp::cmp=editorial::add=NGME_20190202::rid=1160505268

    Li-ion batteries uses about 0,16 kg Li/kWh, making it 9,6 kg Li/car if it is equipped with a 60 kWh battery. See page 15.
    https://www.researchgate.net/deref/http%3A%2F%2Fpublications.lib.chalmers.se%2Frecords%2Ffulltext%2F230991%2Flocal_230991.pdf

    For 2 Billion cars that would be in total 19 200 000 metric tons, i.e well within the present know Li resources. If the remainng Li were to be used for storage it would, at 0,16 kg/kWh only be enough for 211 TWh. Global energy consumtion is about 18,5 TWy/y as a comparison.

    So, we can easily replace ICE with EV's, but current Li resources will not be adequate for a large scale ramp up of FCR's built with current technology. But then again, with 2 Bn EV's on the road the world will already have a 120 TWh mobile battery. Just need to balance the leading during night times, which is exactly when we fuel our EV..
  • Roger Blomquist on February 19 2019 said:
    Energy storage is the achilles heel of intermittent energy sources. It's easy to compute the energy storage requirement for an average day in some region. Guaranteeing an adequately small rate of power outages is far more challenging -- what if an entire month is cloudy, rainy, or becalmed? The best energy is that which is stored in a fuel -- oil, gas, coal, uranium, and large hydropower dams. Uranium power emits nothing to the environment, runs 24/7, and is not resource-constrained due to land or materials. It's the ultimate energy storage medium -- about a million times denser than fossil fuels. Batteries merely turn a power system into an expensive, unreliable Rube-Goldberg.

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