The State of Lithium in the New World of Batteries

by Anna Gretz
January 15, 2018
Home Battery

Amidst the excitement of the home battery revolution and the unprecedented growth of electric cars, there’s one element of the new age of li-ion batteries that we have taken a bit for granted. Lithium.

Lithium is the perfect foundational element for batteries because it has the best energy potential for it’s convenient light weight and impressive efficiency. The continued growth of battery penetration depends on the persistent decrease in prices, and so far, things have been moving along well. But if there was ever a lithium scarcity, products like electric cars and home batteries would become prohibitively expensive, stopping the battery revolution in its tracks.

So how can companies like Tesla, a leader in both EV and home battery technology, count on having an ample supply of lithium to continue making their products affordable? First of all, they are investing in more than just Gigafactories… they’re also investing in lithium mining.

Right now, the biggest lithium mines are at work in South America and Australia, but the recent growth in demand has pushed miners to turn their shovels to lithium deposits worldwide. Mines have now opened up on every continent except Antarctica, with major mining operations in the North American West, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, Spain, China, and Western Australia.

It’s hard to say exactly how much lithium lies below the earth’s surface. The latest estimates state that we have between 18-40 million tons left to mine (see, we told you it was hard.) Even though that’s a hugely imprecise number, even the low end yields a very big number.

Let’s put things into context.

The Tesla Model S battery pack contains around 63kg of lithium.

There are around 1.2 billion cars in the world.

Even if every single one of those cars contained a lithium-ion battery, we’d have years of lithium left.

An added complication comes when we consider not only the amount of lithium available, but the speed with which we need to mine it. Battery manufacturers are demanding that the earth’s lithium gets from underground to their factories faster than anyone anticipated. Billions of dollars are being thrown into opening new mining operations.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk doesn’t want customers to worry. He assured the public that lithium was only “the salt on the salad” when it comes to home battery and vehicle production. Most people would argue that the salad is pretty useless without the salt, and they would be partially right.

There are a few other metals that are also essential to batteries as they are currently made: nickel and cobalt. The price change of either of these other metals would yield a much bigger change in the overall price of batteries than a hike in lithium prices would, but this is especially true for cobalt. A 300% increase in lithium prices (due, perhaps, to a scarcity or inability to mine quickly) would only cause a 2% rise in overall battery prices. A similar increase in the prices of cobalt, however, would probably be responsible for a price hike of over 12%.

And speaking of other metals, battery researchers may come up with other elements that can be effectively used for battery production, or new energy resources all together before a lithium shortage catches up with manufacturers.

The very idea of a potential lithium shortage is debated among experts in the first place. Yes, lithium is a finite resource, but so is oil. Many people think that those invested in oil are latching on to the idea of a lithium shortage to continue making gasoline-powered cars a profitable endeavour. It will undoubtedly take the auto industry years to fully switch over to electric vehicles, but if there’s one resource we know is dwindling, it’s oil.

Even with the groundbreaking (and appropriate) rise in battery popularity and need for lithium, it seems that a shortage isn’t our biggest worry. The consequences of dirty energy, the continued rise in energy prices, and the antiquated power grid pose much bigger threats than a lithium shortage (if you can call the latter a threat at all.) Specifically, we need to take a good close look at the power grid.

Every area of modern life is touched by the electrical grid. Today in 2018, we quite literally cannot live without it. Without electricity, every system that is working together to keep our society going would break down, on both an individual and a structural level.

Without electricity, things get really dark, really fast. And not just because the lights go out.

When the electrical grid goes down, (which it does… a lot…), life as we know it grinds to a halt. Our battery-run phones and laptops stay afloat for a few hours, but without a power source to recharge them, we’re disconnected and unable to communicate with others before too long. The food in our fridges and freezers, as well as the refrigerated and frozen food in stores, slowly thaw and spoil, and we don’t have power to cook or microwave what we still have. Traffic signals cut out, causing hours of back-ups in urban areas. Those who who depend on elevators to descend 15 floors to the street are now stranded in their units, and anyone hooked up to life-essential medical equipment goes into panic mode.

Sounds like a nightmare scenario, doesn’t it? It absolutely is. Yet prolonged power outages are becoming more and more frequent across the United States.

Why are power outages on the rise?

Because our electrical grid is weak. Weaker than you might think.

You would think that a system as vital as the electrical grid would be well-protected, frequently strengthened, and updated along with technological progress. It’s not. In fact, almost the opposite is true. The power grid still runs on weak, outdated technology, and some grid transformers’ only protection is a chain-link fence. Things have gotten so bad, that a recently released security report named the Power Grid as our country’s biggest weakness.

America’s power grid is made up of a spiderweb of 160,000 miles of transmission lines, and 55,000 sub-stations. That’s a very bit, vulnerable system. And reports show that the grid is struck be either a physical or cyber attack, get this, once every four days.

Now, before you dismiss this for the sake of sleeping well tonight, let Janet Napolitano, Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary, have a word. According to this well-informed government official, a cyber attack worthy of taking down the power grid is not a matter of if… but when. Pretty much all of her colleagues agree.

“...the grid is a weakness for us. There can be adversaries that we know, there can be people that are just disgruntled… but the effect is going to be a shutdown of at least part of the grid.” - Air Force General Ronald Keys

“D+.” The grade the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a vital piece of the power grid infrastructure.

“A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration with a strong risk of failure.” - The ASCE Engineering Review

“Our country is a sitting duck for a terror attack that could completely destroy the power grid and take the lives of nine out of every ten Americans in the process.” - Former CIA analyst Dr. Peter Vincent Pry

Woah, woah, woah. Slow down. We know, it’s kind of a lot to take in. Most people living in the United States have no idea how weak the power grid is, and when you find out, yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

But we don’t want to focus on the scariness of the vulnerable power grid. We want to focus on how you can protect yourself from the next inevitable power outage, no matter how or why it happens.

You don’t have to rely on the unreliable power grid.

At Swell, we’re in the business of energy security. We want to make sure every household knows what it feels like to have back-up power--stored energy that you can tap into whenever you need it. It’s a really good feeling. Instead of wondering when the next power outage will hit, you can know that you’ll still have the electricity you need to keep your outlets up, your light on, your devices charged, and your refrigerator running. With this sort of security, you can focus on the things in your life that really matter.

The current state of lithium is pretty great for home battery consumers. Home batteries are more high-tech and efficient than ever. If you want to secure your home against potential power outages, contact Swell for a free quote.