Batteries Not Included: The Challenges of a Low-Carbon Future

Net-zero carbon is harder than you think

November 2022

Script

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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.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

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.

Sources

Shownotes

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Footage | United States Department of State // MIT Review // Reuters // Columbia University // Cision // Metabolic // St. Louis Post-Dispatch // GTK Open File: Geological Survey of Finland // Imperial War Museum: Keystone Press Photographer // IMS Vintage Photo: Åhlen & Åkerlund  // Apple, Inc. // CCCP // Getty: Selensergen, Rarrarorro, Patrick T. Fallon / Contributor, Bloomberg / Contributor, Alexander Spatari, YvanDube, Thomas Northcut, Paul Taylor, Dashadima, Steven Puetzer, Pool / Pool, Drew Angerer / Staff, Sean Gallup / Staff, Alex Wong / Staff, Omer Messinger / Stringer, Lennart Preiss / Stringer, David McNew / Stringer, Morris MacMatzen / Stringer, Jens Schlueter / Stringer, Sinology, Yangna, Jose A. Bernat Bacete, Maestrovideo, David Becker / Stringer, Petmal, Aldo Pavan, John Scott, Olha Pashko, Kevin Frayer / Stringer, Aranga87, Justin Sullivan / Staff, Handout / Handout, Andrew Burton / Staff // Adobe Stock: NAMPIX, Meawstory15Studio, Dexdrax, Zack Frank, Chandlervid85, Roman Babakin, Kegfire, Aekkorn, Phatthanit, Tony Craddock, JT Jeeraphun, StockPhotoAstur, AAVA, Zhu Difeng, Ivan Kmit, Vector_v, Kostiantyn, Vector Tradition, Muhamad, Line-Art, Xiaoliangge, Atiger, https://stock.adobe.com/images/truck-tire-isolated-on-white-background/132291887, Zolotons, Caesart, Monkey Business, Photollurg, Noppadol, Karamysh // Unsplash: Guille Pozzi, Marcel Strauß, Kelly Sikkema, Abby Savage, Patrick Hendry, Claudio Schwarz, Sergei Wing, Gautam Krishnan, Dimitry Anikin, Yonghyun Lee, Alan Jones, Bernard Hermant, Erik Mclean, Matthew Henry, Raymond Kotewicz, Roberto H, Trac Vu, Wesley Tingey // Pexels: Abdul Ali, Johannes Plenio, Shuaizhi Tian, Vlad Chețan, Maryia Plashchynskaya, Lukas // Storyblocks: Mediablix, Eduard_M, A Luna Blue, Artfamily, Sergey Gribanov, Berkerdag, FootageFoundHere, New Age Cinema // Flickr: James St. John, // Pixabay: Scottslm, Dendoktoor// Vecteezy: Goff.brian, Khunkorn Laowisit, tanasut439770495, Em3asy // Geograph: Humphrey Bolton, Oast House Archive //  Dnn87 // Frank Vincentz // Jonathan Zander // JRC, European Commission // Materialscientist // Beuthen // Robby George // Sebastian Koppehel // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

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