All around us we see signs of the United States beginning the long hard work of transforming its power consumption habits. Solar panels are popping up on your neighbor’s rooftops. Wind turbines reach for the breezy spaces above America’s amber waves of grain. Heck, even the tony Toyota Prius just got BAD press for being too OUTdated. I’m still driving an SUV and the Prius is already old news.
Newsweek’s Daniel Lyons (May 19, “TIME FOR A TRADE-IN”) recently wrote the story that Toyota’s hybrid technology (a gas engine and an electric engine sharing the work of powering the drive train) is old news. The new news is the “plug-in” hybrid, in which only the batteries power the drive train. The small combustion engine on board only serves to recharge the batteries. But alas, all that is new is somehow old again.
As it turns out—and there are scant few voices making this case (Simon Romero, NY Times, Feb 3, 2009, though is one of them)—the batteries that both of these hybrid technologies rely on, lithium ion, is only likely to shift an existing problem to a new part of the world. Part of America’s impetus to move away from the combustion engine is to decrease our reliance on foreign oil imports and all the attendant problems that come with it. But the hybrid engine needs lithium and, as it so happens, we here in the US don’t have much of it. Nevada once had vast resources but those have been tapped in the development of other lithium intensive operations over that last few decades. North Carolina closed its lithium mines when Chilean lithium was found to be cheaper, and these mines could be reopened, but the quantities are small compared to what exists in South America, and principally in Bolivia. The U.S. Geological Survey notes that 5.4 million tons of lithium could potentially be extracted in Bolivia, 3 million in Chile, 1.1 million in China and a sparse 410,000 in the United States.
In our rush to solve today’s problems immediately (oh, how very American of us—drive through problem solving) the public is likely to perceive that the development and deployment of cost effective hybrid vehicles based on the batteries in your iPod will be the end of our personal transportation dilemma.
Oh contraire, my friend.
It would appear that we will simply replace Iran with Bolivia; Ahmadinejad with Evo Morales, the far-left leaning, former coca growing president of Bolivia who recently opted out of America’s war on drugs in the region (TIME, Nov 4, 2008). If we’ve learned anything from Hugo Chavez it ought to be that making any South American country resource rich is not consistent in America’s best interests.
Neither I, nor Mr. Romero, are unique in our identification of this problem. As far back 1975, “the United States Geological Survey convened a symposium in Golden, Colorado, on lithium demand and resources prompted by the premise that lithium resources would be inadequate to meet future demand in fusion power generation (expected from the Year 2000 onward) and in load leveling storage batteries.” (http://lithiumabundance.blogspot.com/)
Industry, too, appears to see the writing on the wall. Our good friends at currently beleaguered GE are investing heavily in alternative technologies. GE announced on May 12 that they would invest $150 million and build a production plant for sodium battery technologies in Niskayuna, NY. (NY Times, http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/ge-announces-new-york-battery-factory/). This despite the fact they bought A123, the lithium battery maker that just recently inked a deal with Chrysler to provide them with LI batteries.
I have been saying for some time now that, as far as technology is concerned in the deployment of renewable technologies, we don’t have a technology problem. Wind, solar, geothermal and other technologies exist, they just need to advance. Except in the area of energy storage. The technology simply doesn’t yet exist to help us realize our goals. I attended The Energy Conversation in Washington, DC, last week (http://www.energyconversation.org/) and former CIA director Jim Woolsey spoke to the same point (thus demonstrating, once and for all, that I am indeed as smart as your average Stanford grad/Rhodes Scholar–or, more likely, that even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then). Notwithstanding my misplaced vanity, the point remains that battery storage is an emerging field and lithium isn’t the answer.
As consumers, we need to understand the limitations of the technologies being offered to us. A lithium-ion plug-in hybrid may make tremendous sense for the next decade or so. But be wary of making large capital purchases (and by that I mean “car buying”) that don’t anticipate the demise of lithium.
With any luck at all technology will develop quickly enough that Mid-East scale problems will not develop in South America and we won’t be fighting a “war for lithium” in the mountains of Bolivia in our lifetimes. With any luck at all our national leaders are working TODAY to mitigate those possibilities tomorrow, whether through investments by our national labs in alternative technologies or strong, proactive foreign policy in South America (or, dare I suggest it? “Both of the above.” Nah, our leaders aren’t THAT smart are they?)