Technical Corner

The Ethical Questions of the Environmental Impact of Battery Technology

March 2022

The race for the best battery technology is being driven by the demand to shift away from fossil fuels. For all electric powered vehicles to be truly green, the raw materials required for construction need to be sourced and disposed of in a sustainable fashion.

Between 2011 and 2020, the total number of EVs sold in Canada jumped from 460 a year to over 53,000. According to StatsCan, new zero-emission vehicle registrations (which include plug-in hybrids and battery EVs) increased to 4.9 per cent of total vehicle registrations in the second quarter of 2021, an 89.2 per cent increase over the previous period in 2020. That number is expected to balloon as gas prices are spiking again; the Trudeau government has mandated that all new car sales must be electric by 2035; and the price of EVs is gradually dropping, thanks to improved technology, increased demand, and various hefty government incentives. There is also automakers vowing to only build electric cars by 2030 or 2035.

The unknown is the ability of Ontario’s existing power grid’s ability to meet the increased demand of vehicle charging and what environmental impact these electrical generation tools will follow. “The answer is like a good lawyer’s answer…It depends” on the amount and types of investments made now to meet the future needs of this change.

Source:  Macleans - No charging spots and a strained electrical grid. Welcome to the electric vehicle boom. By Jason McBride

Batteries will play an important role in our collective efforts for earth’s low-carbon future. It’s in everyone’s interests to make sure they are clean, safe, and sustainable. There is no doubt that the optics of a final product that has no emissions from burning fossil fuels with reduced maintenance costs, and significantly reduced noise levels makes all stakeholders feel comfortable with their choice. The market for lithium-ion batteries is projected by the industry to grow from US$30 billion in 2017 to $100 billion in 2025. What must form part of the conversation is the fact that extracting the raw materials, mainly lithium and cobalt, requires large quantities of energy and water. In addition, the countries often supplying the raw materials do not always embrace ethical labour or safety practices. Lithium batteries for many reasons, including efficient charging capabilities, higher energy density and leading recycling and disposal programs are currently the solution for makers of products that use battery power.

Rare earth metals are not actually rare, but are rather considered the most critical of raw materials for battery construction because of their combined importance and supply risk. Rare earth metals (plural noun) are described as “any of a group of chemically similar metallic elements comprising the lanthanide series and (usually) scandium and yttrium. They tend to occur together in nature and are difficult to separate from one another.” Source: Rare-earth element - Wikipedia

As batteries improve, they are expected to have an increased lifecycle. However, in this early stage of their evolution to bring battery technology to the marketplace has not always included a focus on battery reuse instead of, or in addition to, recycling or disposing of them in landfills. North America has passed laws to control battery disposal to help ensure that as batteries corrode their chemicals do not soak into soil and contaminate groundwater and/or surface water so that the ecosystems, which contain thousands of aquatic plants and animals, are not compromised with leached battery chemicals.

There are three proven paths of environmental impact reduction: reuse materials where possible; recycle them into secondary raw materials when they reach the end of their useful life, and ensure any primary raw materials are sourced in a fair and sustainable way. Currently, recycling is not always economically profitable. Often, the collected recycled materials must be shipped off-shore to be repurposed. At times to countries that do not have strong environmental laws in place.

Governments are investing in better understanding how solar and wind recharging options can be utilized to assist in these challenges, but they are far away from having any real programs in place. One-day having on site green recharging availability is the ultimate goal. Initiatives like bidirectional charging capabilities allow some vehicles to discharge power from their batteries, feeding it back into structures or other infrastructure and/or the grid when plugged in. Helpful during power outages at home but limited value in large scale operations like a recreation facility.

As fossil fuel prices fluctuate there will be increased interest in electric vehicle power options. Those tasked with researching how their operations might benefit from battery technology must not only look at the immediate solution but also the end-of-life impact to the environment when the equipment has reached the end of its lifecycle. In addition, investing in the training of all who will use the equipment to ensure that manufacturing recommendations to maximize battery life is followed is an important part of the planning process. Today’s facility manager will be tasked with understanding battery options in all forms of operational responsibilities.

Source: Nature Editorial -Lithium-ion batteries need to be greener and more ethical

Comments and/or Questions may be directed to Terry Piche, CRFP, CIT and Technical Director, Ontario Recreation Facilities Association

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