The Dark Side to the Battery Revolution

As the World Economic Forum states; the next energy revolution is upon us. With solar energy continuing to decrease in cost and predictions that in the near future it could become less expensive to produce than coal, the outlook for a sustainable energy future looks promising.

A major roadblock in mass adoption of solar energy for years has been the inability to store the energy produced at peak sun light hours for use when needed. Batteries represent the median through which the storage of this energy can occur. But until now batteries have been too expensive and too limited in their storage capacity meaning they make little economic sense.

This is where the battery revolution and companies like Tesla with their Gigafactories fit in. An arms race of sorts has emerged between companies like Samsung, Panasonic, BYD and Tesla to create a battery that is both cheap to produce and with a bigger storage capacity. This would make grid-scale energy solutions cheap and efficient and make the switch to renewable energy more feasible. Additionally these “super batteries” would have would have substantial effects outside energy sector as they would double the range of a Tesla and be able to power an IPhone for up to 2 days without recharging (a near miracle).

Model of the Tesla Supercharger Station, announced in 2013 | Werner Bayer

For some time, the target for electric vehicle manufactures has been to create a battery that costs $100 Kw/h. This would make the cost of running an electric car equal to that of its petrol counterparts. Tesla’s latest claim, given the planned economies of scale achieved with their new gigafactory model of production, is that they can achieve a battery with a $125 Kw/h tag. This is significant given that consultant McKinsey reported that as recently as 2010 the cost was around $1000 Kw/h.

The battery revolution therefore, has huge and potentially game changing consequences for a number of industries. Nonetheless it also has a dirty secret, which has the potential to grind its progress to a halt if left unresolved. This secret comes in the form of the mineral cobalt. The lithium-ion batteries in question rely on cobalt and with the Economist reporting that demand for the mineral doubled in the last five years and the Business Insider reporting that the battery will grow to be worth in excess of $93.1 billion by 2025 demand for this mineral looks set to keep increasing. According to the World Economic Forum the lithium-battery market already accounts for over 40% of the worlds mined cobalt and this proportion is set to rise to 55% by 2019.

The issue with cobalt as a mineral is that 65% of the worlds supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC is renowned for violence, corruption, the use of child labour and environmental degradation. A Sky News exposé revealed that children as young as 4 were working in thousands of unofficial cobalt mines in the DRC for less then 8p a day, in slave like conditions. According to the WHO, exposure to the mineral and the fumes associated with the mining and refining process can cause long term health problems. Despite this, no form of protective masks or gloves are used at these mines. A report by RCS Global into the supply chain risks associated with cobalt found that the likelihood of the following being present in the supply chain were certain:

  • Human rights abuses in artisanal mines.
  • Child labour in artisanal mines.
  • Provenance from conflict-affected/ high-risk countries; political insecurity.
  • Poor community relations and disrespect for human rights around industrial mines.

With global demand only set to increase these problems look set to be exacerbated. RCS Global reports that public scrutiny for the use of cobalt has increased since 2016 with a number of notable events:

  1. Jan 2016 Amnesty International release Cobalt Report.
  2. Oct 2016 Apple reclassifies cobalt as conflict mineral.
  3. Jan 2017 Launch of Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI). Including companies such as Apple, Samsung SDI and Sony Corporation.
  4. March 2017 Apple temporarily stops buying cobalt from ASM (artisanal onoononono   and small-scale mining) sites in the DRC.

    Demorcratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Colton/Tantalum Mine | Responsible Sourcing Network

However, in its latest report Amnesty International says that large companies are still not doing enough to resolve this black hole in their supply chains. Although companies like Apple and Samsung SDI are reported to have taken adequate action, Apple being the first company to publish a list of its cobalt suppliers, Amnesty argues that these companies are still not doing enough to vet their suppliers. Worse still, companies like Sony, GM and Volkswagen have taken minimal action while Microsoft, Dell and BYD (who supplies 20% of the worlds lithium-ion batteries) have taken no action at all.

This technology has the potential to have a tremendous effect on the way we live and usher in a new green energy age. During the industrial revolution, human rights and the environment were left as collateral damage in the pursuit of profit and progress. With the availability of information we enjoy today we can no longer remain naïve to the facts. Therefore, we should be demanding transparency from companies. With the upside potential of this new technology, increased public pressure is needed to prevent this black hole in the supply chain from engulfing the clean energy revolution before it has even begun.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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