A couple of months ago you may have heard of an announcement from a company called Tesla; the ‘Powerwall’! It’s a good name, it sounds like something Donald Trump would build his mansions out of. But in actuality, it is very large battery you can install in your own home.
Your instant reaction may be one of bewilderment, but really, this is precisely the type of innovation we need. We need to advance the cause of renewable energy through installing solar panels and wind turbines (and any other future renewable energy source yet to be developed) but the times of optimum sunlight do not align with the times of high power consumption; the morning and evening. The wind is not always blowing at these times either. So, by capturing this abundant energy in the middle of the day and storing it for the evening, Tesla are providing another important step in the proliferation of sustainable energy. In fact, this issue could be argued to be the largest problem with renewable energy; it must be used immediately as we have no efficient way to store it. By contrast, fossil fuels are so brilliant because of their portability – they are energy on demand. It is all stored in their chemical bonds, waiting patiently to give us heat and movement and light at our whim. All we have to do is burn it. At present, the cheapest way of storing non-fossil fuel energy for small-scale personal use is in lithium ion batteries. Electric cars are crammed with them (adding considerable weight), laptops have them, smartphones have them, and now with Tesla’s launching of the ‘Powerwall’, homes are about to have them too. If you have ever owned a laptop or a smartphone then I can safely assume you have complained at some point about your battery life. In doing so you are hitting on arguably the most pertinent issue surrounding renewable energy – storage.
The next logical question to ask for those interested in sustainability must be: how sustainable are lithium ion batteries? First of all, we should look at the theoretical answer. Unlike fossil fuels, it is possible to use lithium in a sustainable way. The Earth’s crust is full of lithium, and given that it is a metal, we can recycle it. This means that once we have enough lithium in production to meet the world’s demand, we would not have to extract any more, just recycle what we already have. And lithium is not the only metal we can make batteries out of, but it does appear to be the best. Reports on the present life-cycle of lithium ion batteries do appear to have some discrepancies in their findings, and I would encourage you to look this up for yourself – Just google “sustainability of lithium ion batteries”. There are plenty of papers that investigate this topic. But there is little doubt that it is possible to have a sustainable life-cycle for lithium and this makes lithium infinitely better than fossil fuels for energy use and a sustainable option in their own right.
The next issue to look at is then the sustainability of solar panels. And wind turbines. And everything! You get the idea. To be sustainable you must investigate the sustainability of every new alternative to see if it is an improvement on the status quo. And in a world where the status quo remains to be fossil fuels, it almost always is. But let me help by providing links to a few articles for your own perusal. This one from the National Geographic has a good overview of the sustainability of solar panels as production of them increases at exponential rates. And how about one more from The Guardian on the current state of lithium ion batteries. That should be enough for now. This type of scrutiny may make you pessimistic, but it should have the opposite effect! The fact that we are so stringently analysing all the new technologies that offer alternatives to fossil fuels is a cause for hope. We are constantly improving our technologies, refining them, making them as sustainable as we possibly can. The cause for pessimism is to be found in the governmental support still so readily given to the fossil fuel industry and the lack of investment in research and development by comparison. But if we inform ourselves and demand better from our governments they will respond!
Personally, I believe the largest problem is how to displace fossil fuels from our vast network of travel. Planes, trucks, and cars dominate our transportation system. With much of our national grid’s energy supply coming from reasonably environmentally sound sources such as hydroelectric dams (over 70% of energy is from this in New Zealand) and nuclear power stations, I believe the reason for becoming more self-sufficient in our energy production lies not in displacing our national grid from fossil fuel reliance, but in freeing up our national grid to supply the energy needed for transportation. We need to replace our fleet of combustion and jet engines with something more sustainable. Whether that is through batteries, hydrogen powered cars, maglev trains, solar powered planes, or any other option, we will need power stations to charge batteries, energy to scrape hydrogen from whatever it has attached itself too, electricity to power the electromagnets used to levitate trains. We will need the vast amounts of energy provided by the national grid to power the future of transport that we so desperately need to usher in now.
The exciting thing about all this is that research is still taking place and new technologies are still being developed. There is much to be cautious about with this new announcement from Tesla, but at least it opens up new possibilities. The concept can be improved upon if the exciting developments in battery research come to fruition. We could have tiny batteries that take 12 minutes to recharge and can be recharged thousands of times instead of large lithium batteries with their limited life-span of less than a decade. We could be travelling on maglev trains that levitate above the ground to minimise friction and allow for super-economical travel at eye-watering speeds. We could have solar powered planes using the abundant power of the sun above the clouds flying us across the world. We literally have a world of opportunities but we must value science and technology in order for them to become a reality. Investors are not so interested if they see no profits for decades, but we as a society must realise that we have no option. We must realise the urgency of peak oil and climate change, embrace the logic of sustainable lifestyles, and realise the excitement of travelling on levitating trains and solar powered planes!