Environmental Effects of Battery Storage

While environmental effects of battery storage differ based on technology and chemical properties, for lithium ion batteries and others, the primary effects of battery storage generation focus on emissions resulting from the primary source of energy charging the battery (for example, a wind plant or gas plant providing energy to be stored in the battery for discharge at a later time) and proper disposal of the battery components at the end of useful life. In addition, there are significant environmental - and even societal, ethical, and human rights- impacts that can result from the improper or extensive mining, extracting, and processing of the minerals used in a lithium-ion battery. Responsible sourcing of these minerals is key if battery storage is set to play a large role in decarbonizing the electricity grid (and in electrifying transportation).

Lithium ion batteries contain cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which are all considered toxic heavy metals that if accumulated in large enough concentrations (through direct contact when working in both extraction and disposal methods) can cause human health hazards. These raw materials are also considered critical minerals, in that they are economically and strategically important and do not have readily available substitutes if/when sources are depleted. Finally, lithium ion batteries are considered hazardous waste due to both their chemistries and combustibility. This all makes the proper disposal of the batteries at the end of their lifecycle very important. If batteries are disposed of in landfills, we not only risk toxic leaching or fire hazards if disposed of improperly (risks vary depending on technology and manufacturer), but we also risk losing the critical minerals. Since the cost of batteries has declined significantly, there are minimal incentives to salvage and resell components of the batteries. In order to minimize and avoid the waste accumulated through direct disposal in landfills, lithium ion recycling initiatives have been launched – including the US Department of Energy’s ReCell, an advanced battery recycling R&D center aimed at reducing the nation’s reliance on foreign sources of minerals needed for battery development.