In a recent debate with a Kommitted Klimatista, my interlocutor remarked proudly on a hotel he had invested in whose energy is completely supplied by solar power. Knowing that the sun actually goes down and stops supplying electrons, I asked the obvious question:
“So, is the hotel disconnected from the grid?”
You don’t need to guess what the answer was, and why the claim that any building is “100 percent powered by renewables” (like Apple) is the epitome of fake news. Whereupon this Klimatista explained that before long we’ll have these terrific batteries that we can charge up during the daytime to supply our electricity over night. Problem solved! The planet is saved!
Although electricity is indeed the best and most efficient form of power in the abstract, I’m always amazed that no one bothers to ask a simple question: assuming we can get the cost of better batteries down, and increase their functionality (charging time, etc), has anyone‚ Bueller? Bueller?—bothered to do the materials calculations of increasing our battery production at least 1000-fold (just for the United States)? Ever seen what a lithium mine looks like, let alone all of the other materials required for batteries? How many new lithium, cobalt, and copper mines are we going to need to scale up 1,000x? Anyone bothered to take into account the carbon footprint of the materials supply chain and energy-intensive manufacturing process for this much new battery capacity? It is a non-trivial amount. (This is why some life-cycle studies conclude that a Tesla has a larger total carbon footprint than a gasoline-powered car depending on the electricity mix where it is operated.)
But the battery story gets even worse when you take in the recent findings of two scientists at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University that expanded battery use may actually increase emissions. The technical journal article that explains this, “Bulk Energy Storage Increases United States Electricity Systems Emissions” in Environmental Science & Technology, is unfortunately behind a paywall, but Dave Roberts—a deep greenie (the founder of what he calls “Climate Hawks”) summarizes the study in plain English for us in “Batteries Have a Dirty Secret” at Vox:
[E]nergy storage has a dirty secret. The way it’s typically used in the US today, it enables more fossil-fueled energy and higher carbon emissions. Emissions are higher today than they would have been if no storage had ever been deployed in the US . . .
Modeling energy mixes and energy prices across the country, Hittinger and Azevedo determine that the deployment of energy storage increases emissions almost everywhere in the US today. Yikes. . .
A 2017 study of storage paired with solar panels at the residential level found much the same result: All things being equal, residential storage increases net energy consumption and net carbon emissions.
Way to go, gang. But by all means keep up the happy talk about how renewables and batteries will save the planet.
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
– Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman.