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What Goes Into Making a Solar Back Up Battery?

Lithium mine

The Human Rights Concerns You May Not Know About

Solar power batteries used to house excess electrical energy can be very beneficial to a homeowner. They store the extra energy you pull in from the sun via your solar panels so that you can use it later. Consumers often choose this route because they feel they are being “green” and doing their part to lower environmental impact. However, what many don’t consider when purchasing a solar system and solar back up power is how these batteries were manufactured. The process of producing solar batteries isn’t the most environmentally friendly. Lithium, the main component of batteries, and other raw materials that are also used in production are sourced in less than favorable ways. Here is a look at the practice of mining for these materials – information everyone should be aware of when considering a solar system and solar back up battery power.

When Consumers May Need A Back Up Battery

Solar is a hot (pun intended), green energy source right now. Solar panels are designed to use the sun’s energy to power homes, buildings, and cars. That all sounds great in theory, but, we all know that when the sun isn’t shining no electricity is produced. While solar paneled homes are hooked to a power grid that supplies power when the home isn’t producing enough, there are instances of public safety power shut offs and other unexpected power outages. In these cases, solar powered homes no longer have an electricity source.

Other homeowners may choose to completely disconnect from the power grid and live unhooked all the time. These consumers can use solar panels and propane to power their entire homes. Check out our blog post about Living Off the Grid for more information.

In both instances, some suggest that a battery to store extra energy produced by solar panels is necessary to ensure you have power when you need it

Raw Material Extraction for Solar Back Up Batteries

These back up batteries might not be as environmentally friendly as one might think. Lithium-ion batteries are available in utility-scale and residential energy storage systems to store excess solar power. The majority of the world’s lithium comes from the “Lithium Triangle” in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Though that area has supplied almost 12,000 tons of lithium, that’s still not enough to meet the demand for the chemical necessary to make the batteries.

In South America, the material is produced using brines. Salty water pools for months at a time, the sun evaporates the water, and the lithium becomes more concentrated. Then, it’s extracted to be processed into lithium chloride for use in batteries. In some cases, half a million gallons of water per ton of lithium is needed for these brines. The water use raises concerns for the people living in the areas where the brines are located because these areas experience drought often. Using the limited water sources for the brines could leave the residents without water to drink.

Though lithium is the major component of the solar battery, there are other components that go into making these storage devices: graphite, cobalt, and nickel. The mining practices that go along with obtaining the lithium and cobalt for EV batteries can be harmful to the people living in the countries that produce these materials. One major concern is how the mining of cobalt affects the local people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The miners don’t wear face masks or gloves and are often under the age of 18. Mine collapses are also common causing injury and death. It is estimated that 35,000 children work to extract cobalt from the ground in DRC.

Nickel is predominantly mined in Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Russia and the Philippines. This raw material also comes at an environmental and health cost with plumes of sulfur dioxide choking the skies, the ground covered in cancerous dust and more. While Tesla has claimed that the nickel used in its vehicles are 100 percent reusable at the end of life, it has not disclosed where the nickel is sourced from.

There is one lawsuit that was filed against Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft and Tesla in December 2019 for human rights violations on behalf of 14 parents and children from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Human rights activists don’t suggest that the companies that use cobalt or specifically exclude cobalt sourced from areas where child labor is used. Instead these activists fight for the requirement that the companies using cobalt work to change these conditions.

What Happens to Solar Back Up Batteries at The End of Their ‘Life’?

At the end of the battery’s life, less than five percent of the lithium-ion batteries are recycled. It is evident that recycling is possible because there are companies in Finland and Belgium successfully recycling the batteries already. Fortum, the Finnish company, claims to be able to reuse 80 percent of an old battery after material processing.

In the United States, Tesla announced that it developed a unique battery recycling system at its Nevada factory that can maximize the recovery of battery minerals such as lithium and cobalt. However, it is unclear how much of the raw materials will be salvaged and then reused in the manufacturing of new batteries. Tesla has not reported how many batteries have been successfully recycled, how much of the materials are being reused and how Tesla will mitigate human rights concerns for some of the minerals it gets from mines around the globe.

Solar batteries do harness energy to be used when the panels are not producing electricity, but they are not sustainable or environmentally friendly. One option for being ready for power outages is a standby propane generator. Learn more about standby generators in our blogs post titled, Don’t Be Left in The Dark During Power Outages and What Makes Propane The Best Choice For Standby Power.

 

Additional Sources:

https://energypost.eu/politically-charged-do-you-know-where-your-batteries-come-from/

https://www.solar.com/learn/how-green-are-home-batteries-the-environmental-impact-of-lithium-ion/

https://www.raconteur.net/business-innovation/cobalt-mining-human-rights

https://www.greenoptimistic.com/finland-battery-recycling-20190412/

https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/Has-Tesla-Solved-The-Worlds-Battery-Recycling-Problem.html

 

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