BayBuzz reader Bob Anderson sent along the following ‘presentation’ he had received.

Styled as a talk delivered by a EV battery named NM, it’s sure to provoke!  

Are batteries really “Green”? 

The packed auditorium was abuzz with questions about the address; nobody seemed to know what to expect. The only hint was a large aluminum block sitting on a sturdy table on the stage.

When the crowd settled down, a scholarly-looking man walked out and put his hand on the shiny block, “Good evening,” he said, “I am here to introduce NMC532-X,” and he patted the block, “we call him NM for short,” and the man smiled proudly. “NM is a typical electric vehicle (EV) car battery in every way except one; we programmed him to send signals of the internal movements of his electrons when charging, discharging, and in several other conditions. We wanted to know what it feels like to be a battery. We don’t know how it happened, but NM began to talk after we downloaded the program.

Despite this ability, we put him in a car for a year and then asked him if he’d like to do presentations about batteries. He readily agreed on the condition he could say whatever he wanted. We thought that was fine, and so, without further ado, I’ll turn the floor over to NM,” the man turned and walked off the stage.

“Good evening,” NM said. He had a slightly affected accent, and when he spoke, he lit up in different colors. 

“Three days ago, at the start of my last lecture, three people walked out. I suppose they were disappointed there would be no dancing girls. But here is what I noticed about them. One was wearing a battery-powered hearing aid, one tapped on his battery-powered cell phone as he left, and a third got into his car, which would not start without a battery. So, I’d like you to think about your day for a moment; how many batteries do you rely on?”

He paused for a full minute which gave us time to count our batteries.  Then he went on, “Now, it is not elementary to ask, ‘what is a battery?’ I think Tesla said it best when they called us Energy Storage Systems. That’s important. We do not make electricity – we store electricity produced elsewhere, primarily by coal, uranium, natural gas-powered plants, or diesel-fueled generators. So to say an EV is a zero-emission vehicle is not at all valid. Also, since forty percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. is from coal-fired plants, it follows that forty percent of the EVs on the road are coal-powered, do you see?”

He flashed blue again. “Einstein’s formula, E=MC2, tells us it takes the same amount of energy to move a five-thousand-pound gasoline-driven automobile a mile as it does an electric one. The only question again is what produces the power? To reiterate, it does not come from the battery; the battery is only the storage device, like a gas tank in a car.”

He lit up red when he said that, and I sensed he was smiling. Then he continued in blue and orange. “Mr. Elkay introduced me as NMC532. If I were the battery from your computer mouse, Elkay would introduce me as double-A, if from your cell phone as CR2032, and so on. We batteries all have the same name depending on our design. By the way, the ‘X’ in my name stands for ‘experimental.’ 

There are two orders of batteries, rechargeable, and single-use. The most common single-use batteries are A, AA, AAA, C, D. 9V, and lantern types. Those dry-cell species use zinc, manganese, lithium, silver oxide, or zinc and carbon to store electricity chemically. Please note they all contain toxic, heavy metals.

Rechargeable batteries only differ in their internal materials, usually lithium-ion, nickel-metal oxide, and nickel-cadmium.

The United States uses three billion of these two battery types a year, and most are not recycled; they end up in landfills. California is the only state which requires all batteries be recycled. If you throw your small, used batteries in the trash, here is what happens to them.

All batteries are self-discharging.  That means even when not in use, they leak tiny amounts of energy. You have likely ruined a flashlight or two from an old ruptured battery. When a battery runs down and can no longer power a toy or light, you think of it as dead; well, it is not. It continues to leak small amounts of electricity. As the chemicals inside it run out, pressure builds inside the battery’s metal casing, and eventually, it cracks. The metals left inside then ooze out. The ooze in your ruined flashlight is toxic, and so is the ooze that will inevitably leak from every battery in a landfill. All batteries eventually rupture; it just takes rechargeable batteries longer to end up in the landfill.

In addition to dry cell batteries, there are also wet cell ones used in automobiles, boats, and motorcycles. The good thing about those is, ninety percent of them are recycled. Unfortunately, we do not yet know how to recycle batteries like me or care to dispose of single-use ones properly.

But that is not half of it.  For those of you excited about electric cars and a green revolution, I want you to take a closer look at batteries and also windmills and solar panels. These three technologies share what we call environmentally destructive embedded costs.”

NM got redder as he spoke. “Everything manufactured has two costs associated with it, embedded costs and operating costs. I will explain embedded costs using a can of baked beans as my subject.

In this scenario, baked beans are on sale, so you jump in your car and head for the grocery store. Sure enough, there they are on the shelf for $1.75 a can. As you head to the checkout, you begin to think about the embedded costs in the can of beans.

The first cost is the diesel fuel the farmer used to plow the field, till the ground, harvest the beans, and transport them to the food processor. Not only is his diesel fuel an embedded cost, so are the costs to build the tractors, combines, and trucks. In addition, the farmer might use a nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas.

Next is the energy costs of cooking the beans, heating the building, transporting the  workers, and paying for the vast amounts of electricity used to run the plant. The steel can holding the beans is also an embedded cost. Making the steel can requires mining taconite, shipping it by boat, extracting the iron, placing it in a coal-fired blast furnace, and adding carbon. Then it’s back on another truck to take the beans to the grocery store. Finally, add in the cost of the gasoline for your car.

But wait – can you guess one of the highest but rarely acknowledged embedded costs?” NM said, then gave us about thirty seconds to make our guesses. Then he flashed his lights and said, “It’s the depreciation on the 5000 pound car you used to transport one pound of canned beans!”

NM took on a golden glow, and I thought he might have winked. He said, “But that  can of beans is nothing compared to me! I am hundreds of times more complicated. My embedded costs not only come in the form of energy use; they come as environmental destruction, pollution, disease, child labor, and the inability to be recycled.”

He paused, “I weigh one thousand pounds, and as you see, I am about the size of a travel trunk.” NM’s lights showed he was serious. “I contain twenty-five pounds of lithium, sixty pounds of nickel, 44 pounds of manganese, 30 pounds cobalt, 200 pounds of copper, and 400 pounds of aluminum, steel, and plastic. Inside me are 6,831 individual lithium-ion cells.

It should concern you that all those toxic components come from mining. For instance, to manufacture each auto battery like me, you must process 25,000 pounds of brine for the lithium, 30,000 pounds of ore for the cobalt, 5,000 pounds of ore for the nickel, and 25,000 pounds of ore for copper. All told, you dig up 500,000 pounds of the earth’s crust for just – one – battery.”

He let that one sink in, then added, “I mentioned disease and child labor a moment ago. Here’s why. Sixty-eight percent of the world’s cobalt, a significant part of a battery, comes from the Congo. Their mines have no pollution controls and they employ children who die from handling this toxic material. Should we factor in these diseased kids as part of the cost of driving an electric car?”

NM’s red and orange light made it look like he was on fire. “Finally,” he said, “I’d like to leave you with these thoughts. California is building the largest battery in the world near San Francisco, and they intend to power it from solar panels and windmills. They claim this is the ultimate in being ‘green,’ but it is not! This construction project is creating an environmental disaster. Let me tell you why.

The main problem with solar arrays is the chemicals needed to process silicate into the silicon used in the panels. To make pure enough silicon requires processing it with hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, trichloroethane, and acetone. In addition, they also need gallium, arsenide, copper-indium-gallium- diselenide, and cadmium-telluride, which also are highly toxic. Silicon dust is a hazard to the workers, and the panels cannot be recycled.

Windmills are the ultimate in embedded costs and environmental destruction. Each weighs 1688 tons (the equivalent of 23 houses) and contains 1300 tons of concrete, 295 tons of steel, 48 tons of iron, 24 tons of fiberglass, and the hard to extract rare earths neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. Each blade weighs 81,000 pounds and will last 15 to 20 years, at which time it must be replaced. We cannot recycle used blades. Sadly, both solar arrays and windmills kill birds, bats, sea life, and migratory insects.

NM lights dimmed, and he quietly said, “There may be a place for these technologies, but you must look beyond the myth of zero emissions. I predict EVs and windmills will be abandoned once the embedded environmental costs of making and replacing them become apparent.

I’m trying to do my part with these lectures.  As you can see, if I had entitled this talk “The Embedded Costs of Going Green,” who would have come?  But thank you for your attention, good night, and good luck.”

NM’s lights went out, and he was quiet, like a regular battery.

What do BayBuzz readers have to say to NM?! It’s not easy being green!

Join the Conversation

14 Comments

  1. I’d like to see a similar article to this thought-provoking one about the real costs involved in producing hydrogen, which is touted by some as the really green energy – which it is not.

  2. This kind of information has been around for a while but you have to dig for it. Have a look at a documentary, ‘The Dark Side if Green Energy ‘ which was screened on Al Jazeera a few weeks ago. Also Mike Moore’s film about so-called green energy initiatives in North America. The environmental and human costs of more recent energy industries would seem to be just as high as those from traditional fossil fuel industries.

    1. Christine Hardie: the production costs of oil/coal or solar may be similar, they may not, we don’t know. But one pumps carbon into the air with its use, the other doesn’t! Some difference! Your response is precisely what the authors of this one-sided story wanted. Let’s have useful comparative figures.

  3. The same embedded cost logic can be applied to many situations that we take for granted today. An interesting example is . . . how much water does it take to produce 1 litre of milk. In NZ, and depending on the region, it might average 1000 litres. Is the embedded cost of that water recognised by the consumer, or the farmer, or whoever is responsible for allocating water resources?

  4. This sort of journalism really annoys me (Tom, looking at you!) because it is not comparative (and probably funded by big oil?). Without telling the whole story, it plays into the hands of the deniers and gives them fuel. The fact is that no one but no one in the developed world can ever be sustainable: not one of us will totally give up our fridges, our transport, our toys, our comfort. So the issue not about what is totally sustainable and guilt free, it is about what are the best choices we can make right now? Of course the solar panel has embedded energy and human cost in its manufacture. But so does the coal fired power station, which then burns coal. So , given our situation right now, what is the best choice until we have a better one? Responsible journalism will give us comparisons so that we can make these informed choices. Irresponsible journalism just throws fuel on the fire to improve its ratings or to satisfy its paymasters. The big question is, can we improve fast enough to keep ahead of the effects of all the damage we have done so far, and stem the burgeoning climate crisis?

  5. Tom I’m on the same page as David Truebridge with this, I believe spreading these type of articles is irresponsible journalism. Dissemination through ‘credible sources’ of this sort of negative bias inducing FUD (look up definition in Google if it’s new to you) is exactly what those who create it are seeking. They write it to catch attention, elicit clicks, to titalate and to ultimately brainwash consumers (people) that, maybe making informed choices that are more ecologically sound is really a waste time… we may as well just keep doing what we are doing.. etc.. It undermines peoples intuitive drive and efforts to make progress towards the collective goal of humanity and civilisation being sustainable, by reinforcing the malaise of… there’s only bad choices so what the heck.. Im wasting my time making sustainable choices as they really aren’t good, or the only way I can really make a difference is to go back to the Stone Age right now (triggering sub consciousness resistance) Now that sustainable energy and low or no emissions transport are entering into mainstream.. the PR machines of vested interests produce this type of negative ‘fact based’ material as a propaganda tool (FUD) to create an undercurrent that slows the change, by sowing doubt and discouragement, and that’s their goal – and they do it by sneaky means, it’s a totally made up article.. a fictional talking battery, spouting cherry picked facts to lead you towards a specious conclusion – btw a favorite divorce lawyer method for influencing jurors. Don’t get me wrong I actually agree with a lot of the content, it’s largely fact based and yes I believe we can and should reduce embodied energy in all the things we consume and reduce human population demands on what are finite resources – but aiming a hard to grapple with general truth specifically at technologies that are a step in the right direction is just intentionally manipulative – and it’s not obvious on first reading to most people, the ideas just slip in as factual and interesting, leading to bias which effects their opinions and life decisions… and that’s the point, anything targeted like this is highly highly suspect and editors who have the power to make choices about the information flow we are presented with need to be taking care, FUD that they get for free and then disseminate is not “free” there is a cost and its society and our planets ecosystems that pay the price.

  6. In the 50s and 60s car ownership was 200/1000 citizens. Kids cycled or walked to school dad caught the bus to work. In the 2000’s car ownership increased to 600/1000 and to the present day 800/1000. Average occupancy/car 1.3 persons; average utilisation 5% (95% parked somewhere). Doesn’t make too much difference whether it’s an ICE or BEV. The true costs that are being subsidised by the profligate consumption of fossil fuels are no longer sustainable.

  7. I stopped taking the article seriously when it mentioned “Einstein’s formula, E=MC2, tells us it takes the same amount of energy to move a five-thousand-pound gasoline-driven automobile a mile as it does an electric one.” Given reasonable assumptions comparing the two vehicles and journeys, the conclusion would be true, but these calculations come from Newtonian physics and have nothing to do with Einstein.

    1. Agree on the formula being irrelevant, and it’s worse than that…

      An EV with regenerative braking is up to 100% efficient at converting electricity into movement. A petrol car is only about 25-30% efficient at converting petrol into movement, since most of the energy from the petrol is lost as heat and noise.

      Inefficiency means a petrol car needs 3 or 4 times more energy to move than an EV.

      Aside from the errors, as others have said the article has no comparison to the costs of fossil fuels. With fossil fuels, those costs include the extraction (say, one ton of petrol per car per year), the health impacts of breathing polluted air, ocean acidification, and of the more frequent extreme weather that comes with climate instability.

  8. We’re pleased to see the comments this post has generated. However, our intent wasn’t to make a plea for hanging on to petrol/diesel-fueled cars or to denigrate EVs. Rather, simply to underscore that EVERY means of supporting our movement and consumption comes with human, environmental, social and economic costs. It’s useful to be aware of these costs. There are no free rides!

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