Globally, so much renewable energy is squandered for lack of storage that it could power a medium-sized country. Renewable energy is variable, and that means that we need energy storage media to even out the peaks and troughs. We also need mobile energy for transport. In theory, batteries could do most of this for us, but in practice, they have serious problems…

Wasted natural energy…

In countries with seasons, the summer months produce peaks of energy from solar panels. Strong winds produce situations in which wind generators must be shut down to avoid overloading the grid. Much electricity is – because it can’t be used or conveniently stored – switched of or even simply led to earth. In winter months, or longer periods of low renewable production, we desperately need the excess that we made at other times. And we need it in large quantities.

Ease of storage and distribution…

This is where a robust, and relatively simple storage and distribution infrastructure comes into its own. It is easy to scale up this system, and the substances that would fill it are carbon-based synthetic fuels. Why carbon? Because it’s so flexible and requires only basic technology: think of a gas canister or a tank of liquid fuel. From feeding big industry – in particular steel and cement manufacture – down to road transportation, synthetic fuels have some big advantages. Notably, they do not produce mining-associated environmental degradation in nearly the same measure; and they are not associated with the typical recycling problems of batteries.

Only detailed analysis reveals the truth…

Comparing whole economies, including all the chains from production, through use, to end-of-life, I conclude that: the battery-electric vehicle economy is several times as bad for the environment and global human health as an e-fuel-driven vehicle economy. Seen economically, in the freight sector, a battery-electric articulated lorry (semi) would sacrifice around 16% of its load to conform to the total overall weight norms compared with an equivalent diesel truck. And it would have to stop for charging, causing longer transport times: diesels can do pan-European distances without refuelling. E-diesel and other fuels can already be made with zero or near-zero CO2 emissions.

Click here for more details on the scale of the energy wastage problem, and the challenges of storage.

…the renewable energy revolution is underway: we are building ever more installations for producing „clean“ energy: photovoltaic (solar) panel arrays, wind turbines, hydroelectric, to name the principal players.

But in energy storage technology we are lagging far behind…

But we must also store energy in order to provide constant supplies and capture excess: that will reduce the installations to a minimum. This is important in order to minimize their environmental impact. In sensible and flexible storage we are lagging very far behind. In 2020 in the UK alone, around 3.6 TWh (terawatt hours) of renewable energy went to waste because it could not be stored: that’s enough to power around 1,000,000 households for one year — and, interestingly, more than double the amount of renewable electricity generation in China. In 2022, California alone squandered 1.9 TWh of renewable energy for lack of storage.

Alarming amounts of renewable energy are wasted globally, trend rising…

Globally we may well be talking about more than 200 TWh wasted renewable electricity generation each year. In many parts of the world, this would power almost 0.3 billion households for one year: they have much lower per capita consumption compared with the US or Europe, for example. This is electricity that is — in extreme cases — led to earth („dumped“) because the grid can’t handle it, or „switched off“ at source, e.g. feathering wind turbine blades to prevent the rotors turning, or switching off the „inverters“ of solar panels.

Alarmingly, as the capacity of renewable energy grows, many places are having to curtail this energy even more: it simply can’t be used in a timely way or stored. Wasted renewable energy that therefore doesn’t replace fossil energy is connected with an unnecessary CO2 emission. This also has costs, both environmental and financial. We could already be ramping up the synthesis of renewable fuel using this energy. And we could use very simple and cheap — existing — infrastructures to do so.

No energy storage medium gives us back all that we put in: We lose much, even via battery storage…

A „problem“ with this idea might have occurred to you: yes, we can fairly accurately estimate the amount of „lost“ energy. But if we were able to store it, and then re-use it, we definitely wouldn’t get the same amount of energy out as we put in. Indeed, that’s unavoidable with any system involving energy conversions. Imagine we converted excess electricity into stored methane and then used it to drive gas-powered power plants. How much energy would we „lose“? We have, say, 50% efficiency of electricity conversion to methane, and then 65% efficiency of re-conversion to electricity (gas-powered electricity generation can be relatively very efficient). Multiplied, these give only 33% efficiency.

Surprisingly to many, this is very similar to a battery-based storage solution (analysis published in The Decarbonization Delusion). The battery solution doesn’t reach higher efficiencies because of the following: one has to take into account the energy needed to create the battery, and that is very large. Furthermore, there are significant energy losses in charging and discharging; and also for supplying cooling facilities for the heat that the battery generates. A gas-fired power plant can easily last for 30 years; but most information sources converge on 10 years for battery-based energy storage at present.

Gas-powered electricity generation: The most efficient balance from carbon compounds

For a synthetic gas energy storage/re-generation system, the burden of material is small compared with batteries. And most of the gas-based system is very easy to recycle. Battery recycling is very energy-intensive, produces significant toxic collateral, and is not nearly as complete. The environmental dangers of a megabattery storage economy are already evident in the massive mineral mining associated with it: indeed, this impact would be much greater than that of the synthetic fuel storage system.

In sunny summers we could, with synthetic fuels, store massive amounts of energy for cloudy winters, when we need much more than the regenerative capacity can supply. To attempt such a plan with batteries would require unimaginable quantities of battery material. Additionally, because of the lower energy density of batteries, we would need extremely large installations.

Striking good compromises between practicability, losses and environmental sustainability…

We must distribute energy in convenient forms for the end-point users; and we must have mobile energy forms for transportation. All of this must be done with the same environmental consciousness as the energy generation. Yes, we will never be able to store and use the currently wasted renewable electricity to more than a certain percentage of its nominal value: all storage and re-mobilization of energy involves losses. Some technologies produce more losses than others. But we must see all in the context of full-chain/life-cycle analyses in the long term: we must focus on environmental impact (not just efficiency) as the major determinant.

This website is all about how I think that we can do all of this, largely by using insights from the biology that has enabled life to exist sustainably on Earth for more than 3.5 billion years.

Click here for more details on the challenges of batteries, and alternatives in the transport sector.

Batteries are very practical for small devices; but our massive demand for larger batteries will, over the next decades, ruin the environment via mineral mining.

The needs of a fast-growing battery economy…

We are currently producing the overwhelming majority of our battery needs via freshly-mined minerals/ores — trend increasing. Even if battery recycling were to increase greatly, it would not satisfy the growing demand. We would still need to mine more „ingredients“. For decades to come we would be churning up the Earth to get at what we need.

Even battery recycling is facing serious challenges, as a recent paper published by researchers in materials science and environmental sustainability in the peer-review journal Battery Energy, notes: „Even though the black mass (BM) industry is expected to expand with rapidly increasing sales of electric vehicle (EV) batteries, the most sustainable circular recycling strategies are still far from being marketable.“

Black mass, a variable mixture of recovered materials from end-of-life batteries, is not the largest problem; but rather developing processes for different kinds of black mass (different battery types, have different constituents), and extracting high percentages of metals economically and cleanly.

However, here’s the bottom line: even if recycling becomes much better, we will, for many decades to come, need freshly-mined metallic ingredients in massive quantities.

Batteries are practical for some applications, but not for others…

The challenges for batteries, in terms of practicability, also grow with the size of the object in which they are applied. So far, there are no serious attempts at making long-distance airliners with battery power and electric motors: the energy-density of batteries is still far too low to provide the necessary energy and low weight needed for take-off and long-distance travel. Large ships would also need to sacrifice a sizeable extra load-carrying capacity if they were battery-electric.

On land, battery-electric vehicles are easy to realize, but are they really better in all respects than their combustion engine counterparts? Here greater load-carrying also increases the challenges for battery power, particularly in long-haul trucks. A 44-tonne articulated lorry (semi), if battery-electric, would sacrifice around 2.7 tonnes of freight compared with its diesel counterpart: that’s 16% of its goods in weight.

Revealing the CO2 emissions impact of battery-powered vehicles globally…

In environmental terms, battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are superior to combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) if they are driven relatively high yearly mileages. But even if we imagine comparing total CO2 emissions of comparable cars — BEVs with ICEVs using fossil fuel — the break-even point at present global energy mixes is way above what most people drive in a single car’s lifetime:

At zero km, only the DIFFERENCE in CO2 emissions between ICEV and BEV is used to start the plot: the BEV has much greater CO2 emissions in manufacture (values from global energy mixes). Up to a TOTAL travelled distance of around 570,000 km, the ICEV is responsible for less CO2 emissions than that BEV — on global energy mixes. The break-even point for a BEV running on European Union electricity mix would be somewhere around 130,000 km; on US electricity mix, in the region of 200,000 km. Below these break-even points, the ICEV running on fossil fuel produces less CO2 cumulatively across its chain of manufacture and use than the BEV.
Calculation methodology and ancillary values in The Decarbonization Delusion.

Revealing the environmental impact of battery-powered vehicles globally: worse than e-fuels…

Reductions in CO2 emissions from charging electricity for BEVs are happening, and we hope that we will reach zero fast. However, even then, the challenges are far from finished: we must see the environment as a whole, and not just the climate and greenhouse gas emissions.

At global average mileages, it is unlikely that BEVs beat conventional cars on the whole — because of their greatly higher environmental impact during production. Compared with conventional cars running on e-fuel, they perform even worse in environmental impact. This is measured as the rate at which species would be expected to go extinct (species*years) from the impact:

Here we are considering whole global economies of car manufacture and driving, using a one-year window moving through time. Vehicle numbers for 2030 are from the International Energy Agency: 140,000,000 BEVs on the roads; 35,000,000 produced in that year; thought experiment based on replacing those numbers of BEVs with either full-hybrids or ICEVs running of e-fuel. All energies (for manufacture and driving) for all cars are envisaged as CO2-neutral. Identities of the vehicles compared: BEV: 50 kWh battery of type Li-NMC; electricity consumption: 20 kWh / 100 km (including conservative estimates for all energy losses in production, distribution, charging, discharging of electricity); ICEV: gasoline consumption 5 L / 100 km WLTP e-gasoline, produced at 45% efficiency, synthesis plant->tank; Fyhb. (full-hybrid ICEV/EV) with gasoline ICE plus 1.6 kWh battery of type Li-NMC; gasoline consumption: 4.5 L / 100 km WLTP e-gasoline, produced at 45% efficiency, synthesis plant->tank. Up to 31,000 km per vehicle per year, the full-hybrid economy is less harmful to the environment than the BEV; up to 27,500 km per vehicle per year, the ICEV using e-fuel is less harmful to the environment than the BEV. For comparison, average global driving per year considered to be roughly 12,000 km. Fuel consuption values and e-fuel production efficiency from Audi AG (internal data, 2024) and from FVV Energy for a Moving Society (Study 2022). Calculation framework ReCiPe (Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and Environment). Scenario and modelling The Decarbonization Delusion.

The battery electric vehicle economy does not, on the whole, improve global human health…

The break-even points with respect to total human health impact throughout the global population are — according to my analyses — even larger than those for environmental impact. This is measured by the effect on human health in disease/disability-affected life years (DALY):

Data sources and methodology (i.e. model published in The Decarbonization Delusion, applying impact calculation framework ReCiPe) identical to previous plot. For reference, a current ICEV using fossil fuel is included to bring out the upper boundary of the likely break-even region: the human health impact of the fossil-burning ICEV rises much more steeply than that of the other vehicles because of the environmental and human-health impact of fossil fuel mining. The proportion of impact due to burning of the fuel in modern engines with catalytic converters and particle filters is considered very small in comparison. For that reasonn, the likely break-even points transpire as follows: Up to 170,000 km per vehicle per year, the full-hybrid (Fhyb.) vehicle is less harmful than the BEV; up to 157,000 km per year, the ICEV using e-fuel is less harmful than the BEV. For comparison, average global driving per year considered to be roughly 12,000 km.

Why do these results surprise many people? Largely because the massive impacts of the electric vehicle during production (full-chain analysis from ore-mining through to the finished driveable product) are neglected or greatly underestimated:

Breakdown of contributors to environmental and human health impact of the car manufacture and driving economy. Up to the point of the finished product, ready to drive, a typical battery-electric vehicle produced with global energy mixes and manufacturing practices has at least twice the energy-, environment- and human-health impact as a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV). Nickel as a percentage of a typical BEV battery is rising steeply, and nickel requires 4.5 times as much energy as aluminium per kg refined metal to produce. Open cast nickel mines in Indonesia are already destroying larger areas of primary forest. Furthermore, the recycling percentage by mass (weight in kg) of ICEVs is very high — up to 90% in most categories of metals used; however, that of BEVs is substantially lower on account of the battery material and increased mass of electronics. Battery recycling is relatively incomplete and very costly in comparison. Traditional vehicle recycling is described by a massive analytical literature; that of BEVs is lagging far behind the production rates both in theory and in practice.

Government policy is not necessarily in line with technology developments…

The irony of the situation is the following: in many industrial countries, governments are (supposed to be) encouraging people to use public transport more, and the car less. EVs would, in this scenario, only be advisable if they were pool cars that were driven much more of the time than at present. Hence they would cover — per vehicle — much higher distances than at present. But would the car industry „buy into“ such a scenario? After all, it would mean a large reduction in the production of new cars…

Might the sustainability of EVs improve in the near future?

Is it possible that the blue line in the plots above — representing the BEV — will move lower, indicating less environmental impact? That would allow the BEV to reach break-even with the ICEV using e-fuels at a lower distance driven. i.e. could the following happen?

This is unlikely in the foreseeable future because:
– 80% of the energy in the full-chain process of battery manufacture is thermal energy, currently from fossil fuels, and hard to de-fossilize;
– Mining is a relatively „mature“ industry, where few large improvements are likely to arise unless „revolutionary“ new methods are introduced;
– Even more lithium is being mined from rock-ore, requiring 2.5 times as much energy and fresh water than obtaining lithium from brines;
– Open-cast mining for nickel is growing, and has a much larger environmental impact than deep-rock mining;
– Nickel demand for batteries, as a proportion of their required material composition is growing;
– Deep sea mining threatens to start in the foreseeable future, accompanied by impacts on almost completely-unresearched ecosystems.

Intuitive problems of sustainability, and dangers of environmental hypocricy…

Why does the sustainability of the current BEV economy look so doubtful? The intuitive reason is:

And the concentration of ore/mineral mining, and its impacts, is mostly far-removed from the consumers, who believe that they are doing something good…

We must not fall into the trap of environmental hypocrisy… There’s a fitting idiom „driving out the devil(s) with beelzebub“; in this case, fossil reserve mining with mineral and ore mining. If we’re not the ones in contact with beelzebub, metaphorically-speaking, can we ethically support such action? Furthermore, the environments being destroyed are parts of global ecologies that sustain us all…

Hydrogen is talked about as the ideal solution to all of the above.

Click here to take an analytical look at the smallest molecule in the universe: H2

Further reading:

> World Economic Forum on the energy storage challenge
> Worldwide renewable energy wastage because of lack of suitable energy storage
> Progress in renewable electricity generation in China
> Reviving spent lithium-ion batteries: The advancements and challenges of sustainable black mass recovery
> Guardian newspaper article 2024 on UN report highlighting impacts of expanding raw material extraction
> On the environmental AND financial impact of deep sea mining
> On the destruction of primary forests via open cast nickel ore mining
> Analysis of break-even points between battery electric vehicles and fossil-fuel burning vehicles to discover the parts of the systems most sensitive to improvement

Copyright Andrew Moore 2024