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The Uyuni Salt Flat, home to an estimated 17% of the world's lithium

Piers Corfield: What price the green technology revolution?

Peter Evans
Originally authored by: Piers Corfield Published by: Peter Evans
Posted: Wednesday, August 18, 2021 - 16:01

These days it is all but impossible to avoid being bombarded with news related to climate change or the consequences of global warming. The debate as to the extent to which this has been caused by mankind has raged for decades, but the scientific community has coalesced around a clear consensus: It is happening and it is accelerating.

To slow down or even reverse climate change, it is therefore critical to dramatically change traditional models of consumption-led economic activity, accelerating ‘the circular economy’ (recycling) and reducing carbon generation in every possible way including energy generation. This is why we see the quantum shift away from traditional hydrocarbon-based generation/consumption such as oil and gas and the internal combustion engine.

Across the world, industries are springing up to leverage new technologies to capture ‘green energy’ and enable a more sustainable future. But what do we mean by green? And, before we abandon the traditional models of generation (and consumption), how do we guarantee that there is a quantifiable improvement in sustainability and that we are not merely pursuing a fashionable trend which runs the risk of creating a new wave of pollution for future generations, even if it is with the best of intentions?

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher, in 1986 and whilst there have been huge strides made, many initiatives simply do not stand up to close scrutiny in their current form. Those arguing for accountability across every industry (on an objective basis) are often seen as apologists for the legacy industries and branded as climate deniers. This, however, is far too simplistic and there is equal bias in many ‘green’ initiatives.

Many new industries are immature and, in the flight from conventional energy and traditional modes of transportation, many of the unpalatable consequences of the recycling and supply chains of these (often ground-breaking) sectors and technologies, are swept under the carpet.

The release of the IPCC Report (characterised as a code red warning for humanity by the Secretary General of the UN) presented the overwhelming evidence of climate change, The environmental and social consequences outlined in the report is merely the latest milestone in the escalating prioritisation of environmental issues ahead of the COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow between 31st October and 12th November.

Governments across the world have rushed to establish their green credentials by embracing/bandying about terms such as decarbonisation, net-zero and sustainability. Many sat on the fence for years despite the long-standing warnings about global warming from influential figures such as Al Gore in the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth:

Humanity is sitting on a time bomb. If the vast majority of the world's scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet's climate system into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced- a catastrophe of our own making.

Sound familiar? 15 years on mankind is still struggling to build a consensus for how disaster might yet be avoided with the warnings seemingly becoming very real. (In 2021 alone storm Filomena saw record snowfall in Madrid, storm Christophe deluged the UK and Cyclone Ana devastated Fiji in January alone whilst, as I write, devastating wildfires rage across Europe).

The EV Revolution?

Is there a solution? Spearheaded by Tesla every motor manufacturer in the world has embraced the EV (Electric Vehicle) revolution whilst the energy which powers our homes, factories and offices is increasingly generated from renewable energy. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Tyres for one thing. Whilst 80% of the 55 million used tires generated annually in the UK are processed via the Responsible Recycler Scheme, that leaves an astonishing 11m tires. The fire at the Sulaibiya tire graveyard in Kuwait where millions of tires are dumped is exceptional; sadly burning tires is not.

The Tyre Collective, who have created a car mounted device to capture microplastic emissions from tires which account for more than half of all particulate emissions, have just been awarded this year’ UK national James Dyson Award.

Burning tires is only the start. What is the impact of resourcing the supply chain required to build hundreds of millions of electric vehicles? Will those vehicles, once obsolete, be recyclable? Recent pictires from China appear to shows hundreds of abandoned electric vehicles from a ride sharing/rental company.  Cheap, mass-produced (imported) vehicles could create a huge issue for the UK.

The complexity of recycling used EV batteries is, as yet, something that the UK and European economies are yet to contend with. Meanwhile in China, following legislation in 2018 to make manufacturers responsible for recycling, the country now recycles more lithium-ion batteries than the rest of the world combined (largely due to the Blade Battery design).

What is the impact of resourcing the supply chain required to build hundreds of millions of electric vehicles? Will those vehicles, once obsolete, be recyclable? And where will the power come from which will power these vehicles and what is the impact of the power generation required?

Mining Problems

Perhaps the ultimate pinch point for electric vehicles is the battery technology needed to power those cars. One of the critical mineral elements is lithium (the Tesla Model S battery for instance contains 12kgs of lithium), which is fueling a growing environmental impact due to the exponential growth in demand for the element (estimated to be a 8-10 fold increase between 2017 and 2027).

Half of the world’s lithium is contained within ‘the Lithium Triangle’ in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, which happens to be one of the driest places on earth. The process of extraction (which takes 12-18 months) requires 500,000 gallons of water per tonne of lithium. In Chile’s Atacama region, mining took 65% of the region’s water. Agriculture has been crippled as a result.

Another critical element is cobalt. Some 40% of the world’s deposits reside in one of the world’s least developed countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is “uniquely terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies (source: Wired).

Because of the abundance of cobalt in the DRC, the country is home to thousands of artisanal mines in which the poor and in many cases child labour in appalling conditions (with attendant health implications) is used to mine this essential element for ‘green’ cars.

The UK funded Faraday Challenge sought to enhance battery technologies for EVs and, significantly, design batteries optimised for the recycling process for lithium-based batteries, however the recycling of lithium-based batteries is far from straightforward as lithium cathodes degrade over time (those being recycled having degraded beyond their operational envelope).

Evil Diesel?

So what can be absolutely sure of? Diesel is bad right? Certainly the emissions scandal which began with VW did little to reassure the public of the environmental credentials of the latest diesels (after a pan-European political drive towards diesel). However, it seems that we might well have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by bracketing all diesel vehicles as the same.

The latest diesel engines, validated by a report from scientists at the University of Montreal, are vastly cleaner not merely in terms of air quality but specifically in relation to particulates. Some of the latest diesel engines are extraordinarily efficient and, with adequate particulate filters, represent a relatively benign power train option (particularly for cars) in stark contrast to older diesel lorries, vans and cars.

This does not take away from the necessity of diesel refinement from crude oil, nor a national chain of petrol stations. But the sudden collapse of the market (and the abandonment of all diesel engine research) ahead of the perfection of alternatives, might be objectively viewed as unseemly haste in the face of other ‘green’ alternatives for which the environmental impact is only now starting to emerge.

Electric vehicles require grid power to be charged, so where does that power come from? In July 2020, BEIS released its Digest of Energy Statistics which demonstrated that for 2019 energy generation included gas (40.6%) wind (19.8% and nuclear (17.3%) with biofuels coming in at 11.5% and solar at 4%. Renewable energy is continuing to grow (wind generating more energy in 2020 than ever before) but the equation is not as simple as it appears.

Theoretically 90% of a wind turbine can be recycled, however 90% of what? The process of recycling steel, cabling systems and concrete in itself creates CO2 and the complete circular lifestyle assessment for wind turbines is still evolving. Most wind turbines have a huge concrete base (for offshore turbines this can be as much as 1,500 tons) but it is the blades themselves (made from composite bonded material for which the two ‘best’ options are landfill and shredding/burning (which creates some significant gas pollution). Current estimates are that without significant improvements in recycling processes, 720,000 tons of wind turbines blades will end up in US landfill sites.

To be fair every major operator in the industry is striving for improvement, Vestas aiming to produce ‘zero waste’ turbines by 2040 and GE (the world’s largest turbine manufacturer) partnering with cement giant Lafarge but this remains work in progress.

What about solar?

25 years continuous energy generation from the sun, surely this has to be the ultimate in environmentally sustainable generation? The catch is that solar panels are a combination of (contaminated) glass (low value) small amounts of high value minerals such as silver and a mix of toxic chemicals rendering panels 10-30 times more expensive to recycle than to send to landfill. The Harvard Business Review estimates that a requirement to process the waste generated by the industry would make solar energy four times as expensive whilst the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects 78 million tonnes of waste could be generated by 2050 if not mitigated as a generation of solar farms is decommissioned.

To be clear, this is not an article which argues for the status quo. Instead, it is a plea for an objective and rational debate, free from bias and shorn of the self-interest (commercial, political and even intellectual) which is distorting discussion and skewing the strategic decisions which mankind will be forced to live with for decades if not centuries.

A useful way to illustrate this in shorthand is hydrogen. Hydrogen represents a potentially transformational opportunity to sidestep the potentially unsustainable environmental impact of electric battery production for localised storage by marrying a hydrogen fuel cell (for generation) with a much smaller battery. The question arises where/how is the hydrogen generated?

In the industry there are actually two main forms of hydrogen production; blue hydrogen and green hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced by using methane in natural gas and yet, according to research published in the journal Energy Science and Engineering the carbon footprint for blue hydrogen is more than 20% than either natural gas or coal for direct heat.

In contrast, green hydrogen utilises power derived from renewable energy sources such as wind energy to drive the process of electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and water. We therefore have to be careful when talking about the ‘green’ hydrogen market (which includes grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen and green hydrogen, each of which has a distinct CO2 impact) rather than simply grouping all hydrogen together.

Many are eager to see all trains converted to hydrogen rather than diesel (which would not comply with modern emissions standards) but we need to consider the source of the hydrogen in the same way that the sustainability of the electricity generation is crucial when discussing electrification.

None of these technologies are inherently bad, however greenwashing is obscuring the genuine environmental/social impact of much of the renewable energy ‘revolution’ and many consumers would be shocked at the cost of the advanced technologies which we take for granted if the full extent of the CO2 generation and supply chain impacts were exposed.

There is a growing trend of environmental sustainability being a bandwagon and those seeking to promote a genuinely even-handed debate being intimidated as pro the status quo. The world needs to transition to genuinely sustainable energy as fast as safely possible, but this does not condone sweeping any ‘inconvenient truths’ under the carpet to appear green and, in the process, merely obscure the problem.

The very idea of generating power from newly minted coal-fired power stations in Europe is now unthinkable. Nuclear fusion remains a dream and nuclear fission is fading as an economically viable/politically acceptable solution, hence the unquenchable appetite for viable alternatives to hydrocarbons to provide heat, light and power, supporting a revolution in mobility. But are all of these as green as they appear?

 

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About the author

Piers Corfield is founder and chief executive of Dashboard, a platform solution for industry that boosts insight through the smart use of data, based in Exeter Science Park. For the past 25 years, Piers has specialised in communications, cloud & enterprise, building commercial solutions from inception to realisation.
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