One of the great myths of the energy transition is the battery problem. There’s widespread concern about their cost, as well as the question of what we are going to do with ones that have to be replaced, which are often reported as potentially dangerous to the environment.

It’s true that batteries were once expensive and performed poorly. But as often happens with technology, the last decade has seen the price of lithium-ion batteries fall by an impressive 88%, a progression that is far from having bottomed out. In 2020 we managed to drop below the strategic $100/kWh threshold, down 13% from 2019, and that’s still counting on the technology of the future being lithium-ion, which doesn’t take into account the potential of other highly promising technologies.

A decade ago, many people believed that the problem with electric vehicles was the need to replace their batteries; but we now know from experience that batteries not only last much longer than we thought, but are set to far exceed the average life of the vehicles they power: there are now batteries that last up to sixteen years or two million kilometers. China’s CATL is ready to manufacture them, which would far exceed the warranty currently offered by other leaders in this field such as Tesla (eight years or 150,000 kilometers).

The second part of the great battery myth pertains to recycling. The origin of this is the need for lithium, which has typically been carried out by open-pit mining, which causes huge damage to the environment. The focus now is on obtaining it by more sustainable and, above all, cheaper methods.

Lithium is still largely obtained from open-pit mines, as in Australia, or from underground salt deposits beneath dry lake beds in countries such as Bolivia, Chile or Argentina. Open-pit mining requires the use of fossil fuels, is environmentally aggressive, requires huge amounts of water and releases about 15 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of lithium. In contrast, the extraction of lithium from geothermal waters, in places like Cornwall, Germany or the United States, has a much smaller environmental footprint, and very low carbon emissions.

In addition, there has been long-standing criticism that the lithium batteries we use in many devices were not recycled, but simply turned into electronic waste. This is because the small size of the batteries in a consumer electronics and the small amount of lithium they contain meant that it was not cost-effective to recycle them, but this is not the case with electric vehicle batteries.

Let’s be clear: lithium does not pollute and batteries can easily be recycled, and it is also in our interest to do so. Moreover, the technology to do so is evolving and becoming more and more efficient. Lithium is stable and unlike fossil fuels, does not involve any kind of combustion. When a car battery loses its storage capacity, it is simply put to other, usually stationary, uses, such as in industrial plants or power stations. When it finally no longer fulfills any function, usually after several years, it is crushed and converted into material to make new cathodes, in a process that reuses 95% of a battery’s weight.

Batteries, whether for powering electric vehicles, heating our homes, or storing the energy produced at renewable power plants, are fundamental to understanding the future of energy. The leadership of several companies related to technologies that enable cheaper and more efficient batteries is central to understanding from Elon Musk’s fortune, to the competitiveness of countries. The sooner we begin to demolish unfounded myths about batteries and understand the factors that determine their evolution in the future and the leadership required for its adoption, the better for everyone.

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