Batteries Not Included: The Challenges of a Low-Carbon Future
Net-zero carbon is harder than you think
The year is 2050. After decades of work, America has now arrived at net zero carbon emissions.
Where does the power come from? Abundant wind and solar energy.
How do we get around? On highways filled with electric cars.
When most people think of a zero-carbon future, this is what they're envisioning. It's also the scenario around which our elected officials are planning.
And it's got one significant hitch: which is that we have no idea how to do it.
Ok, here's the scenario: You're worried about carbon emissions and what the consequences might be for the planet. So, what do you do?
The federal government's current plans call for the U.S. to get to net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050.i And, though the timeframes vary, more than 70 countries around the world have set themselves the same goal.ii
But … notice anything weird here? If the planet is hanging in the balance … why would we wait nearly 30 years to fix it? After all, Americans aren't exactly known for our patience. I mean, this is a country where 96 percent of people will burn their mouths rather than wait for their food to cool down. iii
(Those are actual numbers. Guys, we gotta take it easy, ok?)
Now, you might think that the reason a clean energy transition takes this long is because we have to give the economy time to adjust — and that's true — but there's a bigger issue too, which is that … we don't really know how to get the technology from here to there.
Here's what we mean: When you hear about this zero-carbon future you're usually hearing about wind power, solar power, and electric cars. But a lack of emissions isn’t the only thing those technologies have in common. It's also the case that none of them can power our modern society without the assistance … of batteries.
And we're not talking about these. We're talking about these.
Now, we all intuitively grasp the need for batteries in electric cars. It's where you store your power. But why do we need it for wind and solar? Well, for the same reason.
Wind and solar may be renewable forms of energy but they're also intermittent sources of energy, meaning they only give you power when the weather's cooperating. No wind, no sun, no juice.
So, the idea is that we capture the excess energy generated by wind and solar when the weather's cooperating so that we can store it and use it when the weather's not cooperating. Then you've got a sufficient supply of clean energy and you can safely kiss fossil fuels goodbye.
All of which seems pretty straightforward. And is, in reality, not at all straightforward. In fact, it's incredibly difficult. And maybe even impossible. At least at the scale we need.
Here's where the problem starts. Not only would you need to build a lot more wind and solar — Which, despite all our massive investments,iv only provided 12 percent of the country's electricity in 2021 v — you'd also have to deal with the fact that it would rarely be working at full power. Because, as these statistics from the Department of Energy show, wind only operates at its full capacity about 1/3 of the time — and solar only about 1/4 of the time — the lowest of all our energy sources.vi Which means … we're going to need a lot of batteries.
And there are at least three big complications with that.
First, there's the question of where we're going to get them. Remember what it was like to be dependent on Middle Eastern oil? Well, we may soon be in the exact same position with Chinese batteries.
Currently China produces 76 percent of the world's lithium-ion batteries … compared to eight percent for the U.S.vii And there are limits to our abilities to catch up. Because most of the minerals required for batteries aren't mined here. And 40 percent of the world's copper, 59 percent of its lithium, 68 percent of its nickel, and 73 percent of its cobalt … is refined in China.viii
Second, there's the cost. Not only is battery storage not cheap, it actually gets more expensive the more renewable energy you use. In fact, one analysis of California estimated that jumping from 50 percent renewable energy to 100 percent … would make electricity in the state nearly 33 times as expensive. ix And that was the number using the assumption that battery prices will actually decrease by 2/3.
But even putting those issues aside, the biggest problem will likely be just how many batteries we need. The amount of minerals required to produce the number of batteries it would take to entirely decarbonize the economy is enormous. A report sponsored by the Dutch government called it impossible with current technology.x Another, from Finland's government, suggested that the amount of minerals it would require may be more than the proven reserves on Earth.xi
The Finns said that. And when the people who warded off the Soviet army on skis tell you something's impossible … it's probably impossible.
But that doesn't mean that there's no hope. There are more efficient carbon-free energy sources like nuclear or geothermal power. There are ways to reduce our carbon emissions even if we don't entirely eliminate them, like switching to lower-emitting fuel sources like natural gas. And yes, there could still be a technology down the line that presents a solution. But if there isn't, betting everything on batteries could leave us stuck with more expensive, less reliable energy — without solving the carbon problem.
Which means in the meantime we've got to make meaningful changes where we can, invest in the next generation of scientific breakthroughs, and maybe even practice a little patience…
…not that that's something we Americans are great at.
- The Long-Term Strategy of the United States — Executive Office of the President
- For a Livable Climate: Net-Zero Commitments Must Be Backed by Credible Action — United Nations
- Ninety-Six Percent of Americans Are So Impatient They Knowingly Consume Hot Food or Beverages That Burn Their Mouths, Finds Fifth Third Bank Survey — Fifth Third Bank
- Value of Investments in Renewable Energy in the United States From 2004 to 2019 — Statista
- What Is U.S. Electricity Generation by Energy Source? – U.S. Energy Information Administration
- Nuclear Power Is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It’s Not Even Close — U.S. Department of Energy
- National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries — U.S. Department of Energy, pg. 13
- "China’s Role in Supplying Critical Minerals for the Global Energy Transition" (Rodrigo Castillo, Caitlin Purdy) — Brookings Institution
- "The $2.5 Trillion Reason We Can’t Rely on Batteries To Clean up the Grid" (James Temple) — MIT Technology Review
- "Metal Demand for Renewable Electricity Generation in the Netherlands" (Pieter van Exter, Sybren Bosch, Branco Schipper, Dr. Benjamin Sprecher, Dr. René Kleijn) — Metabolic
- "Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels" (Simon P. Michaux) — Geological Survey of Finland, pg. 5
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- Executive Office of the President
The Long-Term Strategy of the United States
- United Nations
For a Livable Climate: Net-Zero Commitments Must Be Backed by Credible Action
- Fifth Third Bank
Ninety-Six Percent of Americans Are So Impatient They Knowingly Consume Hot Food or Beverages That Burn Their Mouths, Finds Fifth Third Bank Survey
Value of Investments in Renewable Energy in the United States From 2004 to 2019
- U.S. Energy Information Administration
What Is U.S. Electricity Generation by Energy Source?
- U.S. Department of Energy
Nuclear Power Is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It’s Not Even Close
- U.S. Department of Energy
National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries
- Brookings Institution
"China’s Role in Supplying Critical Minerals for the Global Energy Transition" (Rodrigo Castillo, Caitlin Purdy)
- MIT Technology Review
"The $2.5 Trillion Reason We Can’t Rely on Batteries To Clean up the Grid" (James Temple)
"Metal Demand for Renewable Electricity Generation in the Netherlands" (Pieter van Exter, Sybren Bosch, Branco Schipper, Dr. Benjamin Sprecher, Dr. René Kleijn)
- Geological Survey of Finland
"Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels" (Simon P. Michaux)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- "The Hard Math of Minerals" (Issues in Science and Technology)
- "Grid Electricity Storage: Size Matters" (Vaclav Smil)
- "The $2.5 Trillion Reason We Can’t Rely on Batteries to Clean Up the Grid" (MIT Technology Review)
- "Why All Those EV-Battery ‘Breakthroughs’ You Hear About Aren’t Breaking Through" (Wall Street Journal)
- "It Is Surprisingly Hard to Store Energy" (GatesNotes)
- "The Renewable Energy Revolution Will Need Renewable Storage" (The New Yorker)