The Environmental Harm of Big Batteries

By H. Sterling Burnett

I recently wrote about the impossibility of relying on giant storage batteries to enable the nation to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. Physics tells us batteries can store only a minuscule amount of the power we would need for backup.

A recent Heartland Institute study by Paul Driessen gives us another reason to be skeptical of talk about big batteries as a tool of renewable energy. If you care about the environment you wouldn’t want to run a power system on batteries even if it were possible and cost-effective to do so.

The materials for batteries have to be mined, and due to strict environmental and labor regulations in the United States, the vast majority (100 percent of most of the elements and minerals) come from countries overseas where labor and environmental regulations are laxer. Cobalt is used in modern batteries, for example, and the single largest source of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Child labor, often forced, is used to mine much of the cobalt from the DRC. Russia and China are the next largest sources of cobalt.

Other rare earths and other critical minerals are similarly sourced from overseas, with China being the largest source for most of these minerals. That is one reason why China manufactures 73 percent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, and approximately half of the world’s solar panels.

As detailed by Driessen, among others, the environmental harm from the mining, refining, manufacturing, waste elimination, and, when possible, recycling of these minerals takes a terrible toll on the health, and life spans of those people involved or living near or downstream from the mines and facilities.

 

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