Another step towards a renewably sourced power grid was taken last week when it was reported that the UK had its first ever coal-free day. The vision is for all our energy to be supplied by renewable sources and stored using lithium-ion fuel cells, but the transition may not be as smooth as you think.
Government subsidies have been successful in making renewable technologies affordable while also stimulating development of the sector, but we still rely on fossil fuels to provide an on/off solution to spikes in demand that renewables cannot meet, and sadly the process for achieving a clean energy grid is not as spotless as many would hope. More needs to be said about the environmental and economic costs of delivering this new system.
Clean Energy Comes With A Catch
Like the lead-based technology that preceded it, the lithium-ion battery has been a game-changer. Arguably the biggest advances in the fields of personal computing and transport have been possible due to the provision of a smaller, lighter more efficient solution to energy storage.
The eventual adoption of fully renewable energy supply relies on a grid system able to collect energy that is generated during peak collection times (high winds, midday sun etc), then store it and later deliver it. Lithium-ion fuel cells are crucial in the success of this infrastructure, but the extraction of lithium is environmentally costly and the process to produce the fuel cells even more so, with the raw material being extracted and shipped to China, mainly from Chile, Bolivia and Argentina before being processed. It is then shipped to the USA for final assembly into fuel cells. The push towards clean energy is creating a very unclean commodities boom.
A second worrying factor is that there is no known means for recycling lithium-ion batteries. Envirolead are a UK company that recycle used car batteries to produce among other things, lead roofing products. They have provided architects with a way to support a resourceful, low carbon supply chain for the construction industry. A concern that we discussed during a CPD session with Envirolead was what will happen to all the lithium-ion fuel cells once they complete their life cycle? Any ideas...?
What About The Grid?
Renewables have increased their penetration but are not capable of meeting peak load, meaning that countries like the UK and Germany are firing up fossil fuel power stations to cope with high demand. The scarcity of power generation due to poor weather (low wind and sunlight) add to renewable energy's fragility. This is proving more costly to the grid as a whole and The Economist newspaper has called for governments and utility companies to react to the changing winds, as renewables gain a higher penetration but the pricing system remains based on fossil fuel supply.
The transition across to a renewable energy grid will take years and cuts to subsidies for renewables were necessary in order to stabilise a rapidly changing market, but more has to be done. Investment in renewables has to continue, but individual supply is not the wider goal. The goal is to create an energy grid that no longer relies on fossil fuels. We as citizens and Architects should understand that to achieve this will require redirection of subsidies away from end-users back to the grid, and that the transition will not be entirely clean.
Our Responsibility As Architects
Energy policy has direct implications for architecture and the built environment, we have to popularise this issue so that the government are forced to review their policies on energy efficiency and pricing. We should continue to specify and endorse renewable energy production and storage but stay aware of the larger steps necessary to complete the conversion to a fossil fuel free energy grid.
The Economist 25th Feb 2017 - Clean energy's dirty secret; A world turned upside down.
Linda Gaines, The future of automotive lithium-ion battery recycling: Charting a sustainable course, Sustainable Materials and Technologies Journal, Vol 1-2, Dec 2014, Pages 2-7
Envirolead manufacture products for the construction industry using old car batteries. They are an RIBA accredited CPD provider.