Elon Musk (innovator, inventor, engineer; formerly of Paypal, now of Tesla car company) is asking us to breathe a sigh of relief because soon every home will be running off of a battery – a “Powerpack.” It’s a sleek, iPod, Apple brand-inspired device that can push electrons through your house or business. “Green” energy supporters can breathe a sigh of relief. But I want to ask you to please pause to follow the ‘chain of possession’ or construction.
Ask the questions:
Batteries will run a home. But how? Do batteries generate energy? No – they store some energy. Where do they get the energy? And what are they made of? How many can we build? Are they really “green?” What are they replacing?
Batteries have been made of cadmium, mercury, lead, nickel, silver and other metals. Batteries are formed of rare metals, heavy metals that can hold a charge. These tend to be dangerous, toxic metals. Note one: batteries are toxic. They are formed from toxic materials.
The new batteries are formed from a lighter metal – Lithium.
Is lithium safe and green? It’s better than mercury and cadmium, but it’s not something you can recycle by putting it in a compost pile. It is a toxic metal. [Lithium toxicity]
Lithium takes energy to mine from foreign countries, some of which are not in love with us. (China is third on the list, but has recently bought mines in Australia – the first.) Its supply is, like all rare metals, limited.
Lithium isn’t the only metal in these products. There are other metals – even rarer and more contentious than lithium – that are needed to make batteries – and all modern “tech” devices work. iPods, cell phones, video games, monitors, hard drives, car batteries – all are swimming in toxic rare earth metals.
From the pro-Wall Street site, Motley Fool:
“Do you want cancer with that battery? Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy undertook a study to look at the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries for EVs. The study showed that batteries that use cathodes with nickel and cobalt, as well as solvent-based electrode processing, have the highest potential for environmental impacts, including resource depletion, global warming, ecological toxicity, and human health. The largest contributing processes include those associated with the production, processing, and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds, which may cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary, and neurological effects in those exposed.
In other words, li-ion batteries that contain nickel and cobalt have a significant effect on health and the environment. More specifically, this includes Panasonic‘s automotive grade li-ion batteries, which contain lithium, nickel, cobalt , and aluminum, and a proprietary cathode geometry developed jointly by Panasonic and Tesla — and are currently used in the Model S.” [Motley Fool]
What’s new? Our batteries are just like everything in the American marketplace…toxic. (They could do the same thing for every other thing machined and sold…iPods, iPhones, computers, etc. They’re just nicking the EV industry because they don’t have a blind spot for it.)
For Elon’s batteries, you need more cobalt, graphite (carbon) and copper, and that’s hitting a wall, too. [Limited Copper]
Of course, the “market” will offer new sources:
“The New York Times recently reported the discovery of deposits of gold, silver, copper, cobalt, lead and zinc in the sulfurous mounds that gush hot water from fissures near active volcanic areas on the ocean floor. Seabed mining, however, could cause great damage to fisheries and marine ecosystems, so environmentalists are pushing for more research and mitigation planning before it begins.” [LINK]
With normal results: environmental degradation, poisoning, and political pay-offs.
We also get to destroy Bolivia for having a lot of the stuff:
“Bolivia is primarily known for two things: being the poorest country in South America, and having a president with a terrible haircut. However, it might soon be known for a third thing: lithium. Turns out Bolivia has the world’s largest reserves of the light metal, and according to Foreign Policy, that positions Bolivia as the Saudi Arabia of our carbon-less, battery-powered future.”
I don’t think anyone knows what they mean when they write “carbon-less.” They do know that all life is carbon? That we exhale carbon? That in order to MINE LITHIUM, you have to use GASOLINE, COAL and NATURAL GAS? (No, they probably don’t.)
“In Bolivia, most of the lithium sits in the Uyuni salt flats. Located in the southwest of the country, the Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, and it contains between 50 and 70 percent of the world’s lithium.
These mineral riches and increasing demand have already set off confrontations between Western corporations that want to mine the precious mineral, and Bolivia’s Socialist president, Evo Morales, who prefers nationalized companies. However, that’s just the beginning of the problems. The Foreign Policy article also warns that while lithium replacing oil as the main fuel source will help the environment, there’s no evidence that changing the place and resource will reduce the conflict between those who have the power, and those who want it.” [Popular Science]
And hold onto your pencils – graphite is about to get more expensive.
“Should Tesla choose to use natural flake graphite, the demand for battery-grade material could go up 154%.” [LINK]
But we’re already making millions of small rechargeable batteries per year. So, now, Elon’s company is going to build a few thousand, or a hundred thousand, or several million big ones. Or maybe 2 billion (that’s one of his postulated goals.)
So, you buy one and put it in your home. What now? Where do you plug it in?
How do you overcome your “gridded” house? or, do you just run wires everywhere from Elon’s battery? And plug his directly into the grid to be charged?
That means that Elon’s new batteries are going to be charged by the existing electrical supply. Unless you living under a windmill or are one of the rarest houses with a solar panel array strapped to your roof (which cost you tens of thousands of dollars) – you’re getting your electrons from “the grid.” That is, from the power plants and transmission lines already in existence. The kind that went out all over the Northeast in 2003 when a tree knocked down a wire. [Fragile Grid]
Yes, THAT grid. The one that is in such disrepair that it’s a series of total disasters away from a very effective population reduction scheme. (Just knock out power in any northern skyscraper city in mid summer or mid winter for a week – and voila – you’ve significantly reduced the population. Now call the buzzards and rodents and bacterial plagues.)
Yes, our grid is a disaster – and we’re now going to use it to charge our homes? To run off of a battery?
Okay. Well. A dreamer can dream, I guess.
Old King Coal
But were do we get the majority of our electrical energy from? [Electricity, US]
One: Coal. At 39%, we use burnable carbon rock. Yes, black, heavy, polluting coal provides the largest volume of United States (and probably world) electricity. You can’t replace that in a week or even two decades with windmills. And you don’t have to. If we conserved – we’d have a century or two (or more) of electricity from coal, and could build a steady supply of windmills to boost it. But we don’t conserve, and we don’t plan. (Here’s to Elon Musk for at least THINKING ahead to a better degree – if not an especially realistic degree.)
Second runner up: At 27%, we keep the lights on by burning natural gas. Natural gas is set to peak and run out in this half and perhaps to probably within this quarter century.
And we’ll get less warning. Gas peaks and disappears faster than oil, because it gives LITTLE warning at the well and mine that it’s about to fizzle out. Oil seeps – it’s a slow-moving liquid. Gas penetrates and flows out in an instant. It’s a gas and doesn’t creep into pores in rock – it evaporates upward and is either caught or lost. In fact, through most of oil drilling history, natural gas was simply BURNED – flamed at the well site or refinery.
Burned natural gas – used for cinematic excitement.
Third at 19 to 20% of our national electric power is? It’s radioactive, man!
Yes, nuclear. Safe! Clean! Green nuclear!
Or, not. A nuclear power plant is a city’s worth of concrete, electrical wiring and steel that you’ll throw down the hole, never to be used or recycled. The fuel is deadly and will be so for a quarter of a million years. The “new nuclear” that’s always promised is always just a “few years away.” It’s the world’s most expensive, dangerous way to boil water. Think Fukushima. Chernobyl. And the leaky spots all over the map where nuke plants sit on water.
And whoever is next – because soon we’ll have “floating” nuke plants to power the processing of heavy oil, shale and tar drilling and mining! Yes, we’ll use NUCLEAR to power OIL DRILLING. [Floating nukes]
I know! It’s a great idea. What could possibly go…wrong….(oh, bother.)
But the “market” will demand that “we” get “into nuclear” on an increasing basis as a “gap filler.” So, it shall. Say goodbye to more and more life on earth. Enjoy it while you can. And just so you know, this thing we call “the market” is mentally ill, narcissistic, psychotic and anti-social. It does terrible things in the name of its own glory. There’s nothing it can’t justify with a pen stroke.
Fourth: at 6% – Hydropower – that is, dams. But the big rivers are already dammed – and much of them damned for it, for the environmental and social problems they’ve created.
Then holding at a 4% and .4% respectively, Wind and Solar. Why so little? Because:
We haven’t invested, because they are not oil, coal or gas. IE, they are intermittent, expensive to build, expensive to upkeep, and non-transportable. You can’t take a “gallon of wind” and make your truck fleet run. You’ve got to build incredibly expensive batteries from toxic sources…(and I understand that Elon’s vision is to make them more affordable through mass production – but wait for the Lithium price hikes to shine some reality in its face).
As it goes, wind is a far better energy producer than solar – but the metals that make the giant magnets in the rotors that make electricity also come from rare earth metals. Yes, those same rare metals imported from poisoned mines in countries which do not love us. The largest such mine in inner China should make all worshipers of “An Inconvenient Truth” cry and beg for a return to coal, so grisly is the offense against nature and life from these rare earth “tailings” lakes.
Solar is so dogged by problems at this point, that it’s looking like a nice way to invest a few ten thousand dollars that you hope will one day be paid off by a reduced electric bill. Spain – Europe’s sunniest country – made a headlong dive into solar, and is now is suffering a cost and return issue that it didn’t anticipate. [Spain’s Solar Issues]
The technology is touchy and expensive -and it doesn’t fit well with the long-haul system of coal and gas burning to make steam to spin a wheel – yes – that’s how we make electricity. Burn something, boil water, make steam, create pressure, turn a turbine – hit a donkey in the rear – it pulls a wire through a magnet – and voila! Electricity. More or less (minus the donkey – but you get the idea. This is a physical process, not Harry Potter magic).
They’ll keep jiggering the technology – using concentrated solar reflectors to heat water to make electricity. This model – a solar water boiler – is a much better idea than photovoltaic cells – more straightforward, and much less to go wrong. Plus it fits with the current grid better.
But it’s still off and on. And we’re still be talking about the country’s Sun Belt versus the American Northeast. But with water decline as it is across the Southwest, building big solar installations may be a genuine waste of time – if we take a forty or fifty year view.
So, what’s clean and clear about batteries? The hooting crowd at Elon’s talk seem to imagine that we’ll be able to continue to live an iPhone existence when we’re scrambling to keep the lights on. They’ve got a hard reality facing them – as do we all. Because we can’t all run on batteries now.
Batteries are a good idea – but they will remain a boutique market – just like electric cars. They will be used – perhaps town halls, Whole Foods, Apple Stores and other upmarket buyers will showcase their nifty battery packs. And some of the wealthier, loopier or more independent home-owners will try it. But in the end, we’re still draining the same coal, oil and gas system to make it work.
One more time: In the end, we’re still draining the same coal, oil and gas system to make it work.
And while I know batteries and solar will be a target for new investment, it’ll also be a place for people to fight wars – for the rare metals: either in trade wars, sanctions, embargoes, or other dirty dealings…or plain wars of acquisition of areas rich in the rare metals.
You can see that we’re hardly “saved” by a battery-powered world. So, why bother?
The Hidden Message
The presence of this “new” technology (it’s not new, it’s just a new deployment of batteries) is a stand in for something else: It’s just another way of saying: THE CHEAP OIL that built the 20th Century (drum roll)….
One more time.
What we’re going to be left with in this very quarter century are the dregs; sulfuric, toxic sludge that we’ll eek out of Canada and Venezuela. The incipient (within 10 years, if we’re lucky) loss of MOST natural gas – which is, again, the MAJORITY of electricity in much of our world – should be foremost on our minds.
“The reality is, there is only one true gas formation in the U.S. that is increasing production, and that’s the Marcellus. Every other single shale gas play is now in decline.” [Oilprice.com]
What are we going to REPLACE electrical PRODUCTION with?
Batteries are storage – make no mistake – THEY ARE NOT AN ENERGY SOURCE. People have a hard time grasping this essential reality. They are a storage device.
It will be argued that they can fit, hand in glove, with a “new solar economy.” But solar is not coal. It is HARD to attach expensive, touchy, sensitive glass and metal panels by long, long wires to an existing grid that’s used to carrying electricity from generators that spin from steam produced by burning coal or gas. [Solar Woes]
Because we can ship and deliver coal and oil – by truck, train or pipeline – and burn it on an even schedule. Solar is a sometimes; it’s on and off again, as is wind. Coal is an always. Gas is good in some locations, but is hard – very hard – to ship. Coal rolls by train. Sunlight comes and goes daily.
What we have to be prepared for is a world that goes DARK at night and CONSERVES energy all day long. The market will want you to believe that we can avoid the cycles of nature – if we just INNOVATE enough. But reality begs the question…follow the chain of custody. Where do we get the batteries. The energy for them. The delivery of energy along a grid. The production of solar for a hundred MILLION homes? Somehow operating smoothly?
Better to think this way:
We should be investing in LOCAL electrical systems that have some INDEPENDENCE from the national GRID but connection to a NEIGHBORHOOD.
Not an individual HOME – but a connected group of dwellings with a large, central heated, cooking and eating area.
And after a few (or a dozen) big emergencies – I suspect that pockets of people will.
In the meantime:
Diesel Generators can run on ALCOHOL that you can make AT HOME, in barns, in backyards or in the town hall. You can do it in collectives. You can brew it from corn, grasses – or better yet from HEMP.
Hemp is a better solution to local energy production than “batteries in every home.”
Shared group or neighborhood shared kitchens, food forests and gardens are a better solution to how we use the energy we have than trying to continue the notion that we’re all going to have the Leave it to Beaver house – powered by a battery storing a little bit of solar.
The Future Is Not Clean, Green And Independent. It Is Muddy, Dirty And Communal
We are going to be grungier. We’re going to be dirtier. We’re going to be growing food and producing materials locally to make our communities stay alive — if we’re going to have communities at all.
We can even use biomass, trash, and other cellulose products into alcohol, which work in many robust diesel engines to generate movement, which can generate electricity (if hooked up to a generator), or run a bus, small truck, car or tractor. But we’re not going to be doing it as a hobby after our 9 to 5 job and commute.
We’re going to be doing it as a function of staying alive in a community.
My bet is this:
The future is local food production.
The future is local alcohol production.
The future is diesel engines that will go for 300,000 to a million miles before giving out. (How many months – or couple of years will you get from a battery? A solar panel? A windmill?)
The future is LOCAL. I know it’s not what people WANT to hear. But the world of everyone riding the sky on jet planes for concerts and getaways is about to be over in this quarter century. As oil prices rise, you will see the return of the “jet set,” the privileged class who can pay anything for a jaunt – while the rest of us ride together, and lobby hard for our trains to be kept up and made more reliable.
It’s going to take everyone a long season – maybe a decade – to finally understand this concept.
But the idea of “business as usual” (but powered by batteries) in the image of the richest days of cheap, flowing oil – are OVER in this country. This part of the dream is coming to a close. No matter how much people want to hope, pray, clamor or proclaim that something that can, in a sweep of magic – SAVE US ALL.
“Batteries will save us! Solar will save us! It’ll be a difficult transition, but we’ll be living in a clean, high-tech world!!”
I’m not betting on it.
But, ask yourself – what are we being saved from?
From having to relocalize and GROW OUR OWN FOOD?
Do we really need to be SAVED from such a thing?
For you to consider:
A good diesel generator and the ability to produce fuel locally from plant materials – HEMP, HEMP, HEMP, LEGALIZE, LEGALIZE, LEGALIZE – would do as well or better for ALMOST EVERYONE on EARTH – than a battery that can hold a little expensively produced electricity from a distant solar, wind or NUKE plant.
“Hemp biodiesel is the name for a variety of ester based oxygenated fuels made from hemp oil. The concept of using vegetable oil as an engine fuel dates back to 1895 when Dr. Rudolf Diesel developed the first diesel engine to run on vegetable oil. Diesel demonstrated his engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 using peanut oil as fuel. Hemp biodiesel come from the pressing of the hemp seeds to extract the oil. Hemp biodiesel can be made from domestically produced, renewable oilseed crops such as hemp. With over 30 million successful U.S. road miles hemp biodiesel could be the answer to our cry for renewable fuel sources. Learning more about renewable fuels does not mean we should not cut back on consumption but does help address the environmental affects of our choices. There is more to hemp as a renewable fuel source than you know.” [Hemp Fuel – it’s limited, but it’s reliable, and it is truly renewable – no heavy metals required.]
The future is DIRTY, as in “Hands in the dirt.” The future is LOCAL.
Once you understand the basic economics of energy – follow the production line – this kind of “magical vision” announcement gets easier to analyze.
PS. Elon Musk says we can be free of … whatever he thinks we’ll be free of … in the United States, if we can install 160 Million of his new battery. Let the Lithium, copper and cobalt wars begin.
PPS. Elon’s factory isn’t scheduled to be in operation till 2017, and not in full production till 2020. Five years….that’s a lot of time in a volatile oil and metals market….
I’m writing the book now… GO GROW A GARDEN!! Happy May.
Liam Scheff is author of Official Stories, a reverse textbook to all the fibs you were taught in school; his current project and next book is “The Oil Alarm” all about the collapse we’re just beginning to soak up, coast to coast.