There Are Human Rights Concerns Regarding How Some Raw Materials Are Mined
In this blog post we delve into the materials used to produce solar back up batteries. We will look at the practices at are used to extract the materials used to manufacture these products and what may happen when these batteries expire. Read more below.
When Consumers May Need A Back Up Battery
Solar is the hot, green energy source right now. Solar panels are designed to use the sun’s energy to power homes, buildings, and cars. But, 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, if the power goes out or is shut off there’s no source of electricity. 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 in which salty water pools for months at a time. The lithium will become more concentrated as the sun evaporates the water 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 part of the battery, there are other components that go into making the battery: 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 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The process in which cobalt is mined puts many locals at risk. 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, exclude cobalt from areas where child labor is used, but rather that the companies 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.