Who Gave The Battery Such Power?

Embracing electric cars and the batteries that power them inflates the need for mining. Is this an environmental paradox? Or are there more important questions to ask?

Valentin Tkach for Noema Magazine

Ian Morse is a science and environment journalist with a focus in Indonesia. He investigates land and extractive businesses, reports on the natural sciences and writes the Green Rocks newsletter.

In December, Serbian citizens took to the streets against a planned mine in the farming hills of the country’s west — their biggest protest since the toppling of the country’s genocidal dictator more than 20 years before. Across the country, protesters held banners reading “Serbia is not for sale” and chanted against the reigning political party.

But there was a green veneer to this project: The company developing the mine, Rio Tinto, declared that it could supply enough lithium to Europe to build one million electric vehicles a year. Australia and Chile held tight control of the majority of the market, but if this project got underway, it could spread the benefits of mining for a crucial element in the clean energy revolution to a country lambasted for its horrendous air pollution. Lithium would end up in electric vehicle batteries and renewable energy grid storage. Serbian citizens, this narrative held, were sitting aimlessly on the poster mineral for the energy transition. The citizen protest grew over the course of more than a year, until the prime minister suspended the project, awaiting the results of a national election.

News media quickly distilled this as a conflict between the benefits of clean batteries and the rights of people who live on top of the materials needed to create them. The paradox is tempting, offering intractability and sensation, cannon fodder for all forms of environmentalists and their opponents. This summer, the conversation matured into three new books that, read together and against the grain, reveal that the more important question is: How did we get here?

This mining-climate tension has been showing up on ballots all over the world. In Peru and Ecuador, which have been called copper’s final frontier, mining was a central topic in national elections. In Chile, the top producer of copper, citizens voted to transform the country with a socialist government which is overseeing a convention to rewrite the entire constitution, the first in the context of the climate crisis (voters recently rejected the first draft). In Greenland, a tale of two mining companies shaped an election that saw anti-uranium voters triumph. In Bolivia, voters twice re-elected the incumbent party, which accused foreign powers of meddling with its lithium.

As was the case with those other votes, the Serbian protests were about much more than a mine. They were about the rule of law, and citizens’ ability to decide what happened on their land. Experts described contaminated water sources across the Balkan region. Farmers had been pressured into selling off their land. Regulations were sidestepped behind closed doors. The reigning political party had sealed off access to many news channels, and citizens were frustrated with hearing monotonous political rhetoric from a powerful minority.

“Should a mine be built upstream from your water source if it means preventing global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees above preindustrial temperatures?”

Savo Manojlovic, a lawyer who had become an outspoken organizer in the protests, didn’t know much about environmentalism when he started. The year before, he was leading legal challenges to the destruction of a city park. Citizens wanted the park, he told me, and why shouldn’t they decide what happens next to their own front doors?

But what happens when the world also has something at stake? Should a mine be built upstream from your water source if it means preventing global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees above preindustrial temperatures? And, more importantly, who is allowed to answer that question?

For better or worse, the World Bank Group had already begun answering it in 2017. In order to provide for a clean energy future, lithium companies would need to churn out roughly ten times normal production every year until 2050. In 2020, the estimate was reduced, but it still saw that meeting the most ambitious climate goals would require 3.5 billion tons of metal, or roughly the total production of all metals for all uses in 2020. That budget includes the materials needed to create renewable energy plants and batteries to store that energy. They don’t include the associated infrastructure, like roads, power lines, or car frames. They don’t include construction materials like cement. They don’t include mine waste, which comprises the majority of a mine’s product, because metals are just a small portion of ore.

Wielding reports like this from financial institutions and business consultancies, mining companies declared their time had come. Mining billionaire Robert Friedland — who once earned the nickname “Toxic Bob” after a waste spill at one of his mines — joked to potential investors that the energy transition was the “Revenge of the Miners.” Though Green New Deal activists who paint them as the bad guys might not admit it, mining companies would now be the ones to save the day — and, he added, they would need a lot of money to do it.

James Morton Turner, author of “Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future,” comes to a similar conclusion: Environmentalists, the very same who have championed a clean, just future for the U.S., haven’t really considered that their beloved world-saving technologies will need to begin as rocks in the ground somewhere, and likely not in an area with the same level of wealth as they have. Mining is necessary, Turner argues, and we need to find ways to support it, whether by subsidizing mining companies or creating regulatory incentives that encourage mining.

Turner, an environmental historian at Wellesley College, builds his argument by assessing the journey that batteries — lead-acid, AA, and lithium-ion — took to arrive in the present. He finds, counterintuitively, that the battery-powered future contains much more “past” than it does “future.”

The story of battery innovation is a story of tweaking meticulously manufactured metal mixtures. Prototypes fail or burn up, and popular designs lose their market to successors that iterate to gain an edge in performance. Oftentimes, the energy it takes to create a battery exceeds the energy the battery actually gives to a user in a single charge. Battery scientists are constantly on the hunt for better combinations of materials — ones that will hold structure without collapsing over multiple cycles, that minimize the energy lost in charging and discharging. They are material scientists as often as they are electrochemists.

John Goodenough was one of these material scientists at Oxford in the 1970s and 1980s when his lab discovered particular chemistries that could hold double as much charge as existing batteries — and without catching fire, at that. His token chemistry was the lithium-cobalt oxide cathode, permutations of which remain in use in most handheld devices. Around four decades later, battery development is continuing as if nothing is settled. Every month, it seems “new breakthroughs” are heralded as a possible revolution in energy or solution to climate crisis. But the value of lithium-ion batteries came after incremental wins and losses. When the first ones were incorporated into handheld cameras in the early 1990s, they were barely good enough for that.

“Globalization opened up multinational corporations’ access to the ground underneath predominantly poor communities.”

The explosion of lithium-ion battery production, Turner notes, could not have happened without a simultaneous reorganization of global supply chains. As consumers began to see cheaper and cheaper clothing and year-round bananas, globalization also opened up multinational corporations’ access to the ground underneath predominantly poor communities. “In short,” Turner writes with a healthy dose of hawkishness, “the history of the lithium-ion battery has been about more than just portable power; it has been driven by a profound shift in global economic and political power that put the United States in the position of playing catch-up to China, Japan and other Asian countries in the race to manufacture advanced batteries and secure a toehold in a clean energy future.”

In this respect, Turner truncates his own analysis. He establishes that “Charged” will recognize that mining causes harm, but his history focuses on the perspective of the consumer, or more accurately the company. That unfortunately leaves his work wanting, although it explains his cushioned opinion that consumers need not worry and only wait to swap out their vehicles. I would imagine that if he had gone further, his book might have illuminated how mining and its destructive methods cannot be separated from the innovations and companies that put a battery into a garage. By skipping this part of his consumerist history, he advocates for an expansion of mining while mostly sidestepping the issues of injustice that come with acquiring raw materials.

In “Volt Rush: The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green,” Henry Sanderson does a bit more to fill in that piece of the puzzle: How are these materials produced? His book reveals in abbreviated vignettes that it’s hard to find a billionaire mine owner whose operations have not been tied up in pollution, corruption or land-grabbing.

Sanderson reported for the Financial Times on the commodities industries as they grappled with the mining market makeover of the last two decades. Now with Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a consultancy on the lithium-ion battery supply chain, he has close knowledge of the actors that are leading this transformation. The value of “Volt Rush” is in its portraits of the figures who steer commodity giants to follow climate action, and Sanderson works in the local impacts of mining when he can. That becomes difficult, however, interviewing sources in company cars, luxury hotels, mining offices, even the home of a “lithium king.” Readers mostly hear from businessmen, corporate executives, entrepreneurs and others synonyms for private sector players.

Nowhere is his expertise more meaningful than in China, where there is scant information about the people who turned China into a top producer of copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, aluminum, rare earth elements, graphite and polysilicon, among other materials that are now being funneled into climate technologies.

Before token German car companies had begun to think about developing products that would be more climate friendly, Robin Zeng, the engineering-minded son of a farmer, had spent 20 years building a battery company to feed lithium-ion batteries into the mobile phone market. Helped along by a government eager to reduce reliance on oil imports and urban air pollution, his company, Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), had already created more billionaires than Google or Facebook. Now the Chinese company was supplying Mercedes-Benz with the meat of its new line of cars.

Zeng and CATL’s nationwide conveyor belt presided over a dramatic drop in lithium-ion battery prices that was predicted by few observers early in the century. In Sanderson’s estimation, Zeng is one of these “winners” in the race to go green — and, despite its subtitle, Sanderson’s book centers winners. Losers, likely in much higher number, feel like an afterthought or a statistic. When there’s little discussion of their aspirations or the forces that put a mine under them, these real people and communities appear irrelevant and important questions remain buried.

“Despite its subtitle, Sanderson’s book centers winners. Losers, likely in much higher number, feel like an afterthought or a statistic.”

As consumer-facing books, Sanderson and Turner both praise these low prices for batteries — for electric vehicles to save the climate, they need to be cheap, otherwise drivers will head to the subsidized pump. Turner would likely attribute the low prices to ingenious engineering, although his self-imposed guardrails prevent his book from looking into political economy of mining. Sanderson would perhaps say it’s government support for research and industrial development.

The downward pressure on prices is likely a combination of both science and institutional support. It likely also relies on harmful practices at the origin of every battery: the mine. Researchers and activists have long argued that the market price of coal does not reflect the true price; burning it adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and destroys the lungs of neighboring communities, and mining it obliterates ecosystems downstream and leaves abandoned holes that are expensive to rehabilitate. None of those things factor into the price of shoveling it into a power plant. Incorporating those factors into the price would have long made it impractical to rely on it as an energy source. Hard rock mining — for cobalt, copper, iron ore, etc. — is not so different.

When Goodenough’s lab was researching the lithium-cobalt oxide cathode for use in the market, the majority of cobalt came from where it does today: the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time, it was called the Republic of Zaire and under the leadership of Mobutu Sese Seko, who amassed personal profits from the country’s natural resources at the expense of greater impoverishment of his citizens. But the U.S. remained friendly to the country, as its military had also become reliant on cobalt in jet engines. At one point, insurgencies had shut down supplies of cobalt from the country, and manufacturers quickly began looking for replacements. Had Mobutu not stepped in to quell the violence, would cobalt have remained a trivial metal? Had the Goodenough lab not had access for two decades to cheap cobalt, might another chemistry prevailed?

The last two decades have showed a wide range of materials achieving similar results. After revelations about the more recent, but still destructive provenance of cobalt in the Congo and a more than three-fold price spike, companies began increasing nickel content. Concerned again about insufficient supply that doesn’t harm communities, companies rewound the clock of innovation. Companies, including Tesla that had spent millions developing new batteries, chose to revive an iron-based battery chemistry that has so far been used in smaller, more popular Chinese vehicles.

There are of course limits to which materials can allow a battery to function. But scientific innovation doesn’t always have a predetermined goal, and a history of innovations shouldn’t. A good history of innovation would recognize the constraints, but also put them in context of scientists’ goals and the constraints on their own decision-making. A political economy of battery development, for instance, might reveal that companies and scientists were influenced by prices or political ideology. Today, the already robust network of factories that support the handheld battery industry make it seem as if electric cars built on lithium-ion batteries would be the quickest way to deliver mobile, high-energy use to cars. On the other hand, the relatively small network of mines unprepared to contribute to these products promising harmony with nature make alternatives seem more attractive.

Strangely, it seems the people in Sanderson’s chronicle of globe-trotting, climate-focused miners aren’t motivated by environmental concerns. Glencore, the Swiss commodity behemoth, built up its cobalt offerings when commodity traders, including Glencore, guarded the coal business with myths about global warming. (Friedland bought his during the DRC civil war.) The company found a business partner in Dan Gertler, a hot-tempered closer who funneled profits to himself, amounting to billions of losses to the DRC. The U.S. government sanctioned Gertler in 2017, but when Glencore needed to pay him, Glencore tried to sway the Trump administration by invoking the specter of Chinese competition. Sanderson’s sources recounted a similar meeting in Switzerland. U.S. officials focused on greater conquests: Glencore had bribed officials in seven countries related to its oil business. The company pleaded guilty earlier this year.

One entire mining industry, at least, considers climate action among its motivations: deep-sea mining. The majority of earth’s surface is water outside any country’s borders where a single UN agency is writing the laws and regulations to allow companies to scrape minerals from the bottom of the sea. The climate crisis presents a disaster so vast that mining the bottom of the ocean for manganese, nickel and cobalt will satisfy an international rule that allowing it to happen must bring a net benefit to mankind.

In a strange turn of history, battery-powered electric cars once threatened to stifle petrol cars before they ever hit mass market. At the turn of last century, Thomas Edison and a monopolistic Electric Vehicle Company had helped populate roads with batteries on wheels. But Edison overpromised, and the battery he designed with his team over decades simply wasn’t ready, Sanderson writes. Petrol was cheap and Henry Ford streamlined production, so the internal combustion engine caught on among wealthy drivers.

Another chance came for the electric car, in 1996 when General Motors introduced the EV1, complete with a futuristic digital display and keyless entry. By 2006, a documentary asked in its title “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Again, GM had aced the marketing portion of the business, Turner writes, but fell short on providing a product that drivers could rely on.

Or perhaps both stories are too simple. Men early last century were more interested in gas-powered cars because the sound gave them a chance to attract attention, and a faulty engine gave them a chance to show off their mechanics know-how. Men controlled wealth, so they were better customers. Historian David Kirsch concluded in his 2000 history of electric vehicles, which is cited in both books, that the problems with oil were not a result of gas-powered vehicles per se, but rather of the “massive expansion of the automobile transport system.”

“Are personal cars really so important that swapping them for zero-tailpipe-emission ones must consume a significant chunk of climate financing, material and time?”

That’s the line of questioning from Paris Marx in their book, “Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.” In the period when Turner explains the innovative power of the lead-acid battery and when Sanderson describes the convenience of petrol, Marx notes that a movement against automobiles entirely was strong and widespread. It was fed mainly by the thousands of annual deaths due to cars — some 200,000 in the 1920s. Anti-car campaigns likened child victims to children lost in the war. Cincinnati saw more than 10% of its electorate sign petitions calling for speed limits. The car industry, backed by oil companies, pushed back and the measure was dropped. They claimed citizens were fighting “progress.” In 2016, a former commissioner of a department of transportation remarked, “Transportation is one of the few professions where 33,000 people can lose their lives in one year and no one in a position of responsibility is in danger of losing his or her job.”

Marx, host of the “Tech Won’t Save Us” podcast, reassesses the car dependency that sprouted in the U.S. and spread to Canada, parts of Europe and increasingly developing countries. They train their scope not on the four-wheeled engine, but rather on a system of beliefs that equate technological progress with general life improvement. The real evil, they say, is that companies have convinced their customers that a personal vehicle is the only way to greater quality of life and prosperity. We should question the conflict of interest that companies — from mining to Silicon Valley — claim to improve the human experience for a price.

Technological determinism limits our ability to imagine more equitable, climate-friendly worlds, Marx writes. Are personal cars really so important to a select minority of the world that swapping them for zero-tailpipe-emission ones must consume a significant chunk of climate financing, material and time? Tesla features prominently in the book, predominantly as an example of failure. The company walked back its claims to be able to create a fully self-driving car, not after more than a dozen were injured or killed and billions were spent. Even its main business model struggled to profit, as a significant portion of its revenue came from carbon offset credits. Its electric cars remain out of reach for most of the world’s people.

Tech failures to redesign urban transportation extend further. Ride-hailing companies haven’t relieved congestion from cities but rather increased it. Uber’s business model couldn’t stand up in the face of the free market, so it resorted to regulatory evasion in the U.S. and breaking laws as it extended around the world. Dockless electric scooters and bikes privatized the sidewalk or ended up the next day in trash heaps. Meanwhile, ride-hailing companies such as Uber claimed that tech company status precludes them from complying with the same rules about making themselves accessible to people with disabilities, which taxi services must follow. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, he later told his biographer, was designed to jettison plans for a public high-speed rail line. Solutions reveal the worldview of their designers.

These failures are meaningful. We are not dropping fossil fuels fast enough. Oil corporations still dominate politicians’ pockets and spread lies about their impacts. The most significant climate legislation in the U.S. this century still hands subsidies to some of the worst polluters. Combatting these subsidies is expensive, yet billions are being funneled to companies proselytizing a technological Eden just beyond the next quarterly report.

Most of Marx’s vision for transportation that centers people starts and ends with questioning the powers that have created the current one. They’re short on alternatives, but steadfast on principles. Removing cars from the urban soup is difficult. Car-reduced or car-free neighborhoods have only been possible with a reshaped local economy of numerous small stores.Oslo, for example, discourages the use of personal cars in its city center, but its existing urban design allowed it. Some of the same arguments for equity have also led scholars to argue for increasing personal car ownership; a professor of urban planning recently told The Bafflermagazine that the disadvantages faced by the urban poor are “so severe that we don’t have time to build other alternatives.” Still, crises have initiated change before, such as the shift to design cities for cycling in Europe when oil prices spiked in the 1970s.

The conversation about transportation, mining and the climate is about how we envision the future, and who gets included — and left out — of that “we.” All three books make plenty of statements about what “we” must do. “We” are going to need a lot of batteries. Despite recycling, “we” will still need mining. “We” need to make sure “people” have access to “the very stuff of modern life.” “We” need a better transportation system.

 “Our best bet,” Turner writes, “is to reform these systems in ways that measurably advance both sustainability and social justice, while expanding access to energy and mobility.” He believes that green activists need not be anti-modernists — instead, he argues, we can achieve a material environmentalism that creates high living standards and harmony with nature. But there may not be enough material on earth to give everyone an electric car.

After introducing readers to the executives guiding the world toward lower battery prices, Sanderson introduces the possibility of driving smaller cars or focusing efforts on electrifying trucks that drive much more than “any of us” do. Green products don’t mean green supply chains, so “we” should vote with our money. The proposals may have been radical at one time, but now they feel restrained.

“The conversation about transportation, mining and the climate is about how we envision the future, and who gets included — and left out — of that ‘we.’”

Omitted from each book is a discussion about whether it’s even possible for mining to solve the climate tech material issue. The International Energy Agency said in July that even just announced climate pledges would require an additional 50 lithium, 60 nickel, and 17 cobalt mines before 2030. Mines typically take between five and 20 years to come to production. That doesn’t include the necessary capital and permitting time for mineral processing and battery manufacturing facilities.

Marx questions the companies that are seeking a quick buck. Transportation inequality exacerbates poverty and outsources pollution either to low-income neighborhoods or abroad. “We must avoid making the mistake,” Marx writes, “of ignoring the global environmental footprint of building more than a billion electric vehicles to replace all the personal vehicles on the world’s roads simply because the serious harms that will be produced by such an endeavor will be out of sight of most consumers.” Perhaps this is the same “we” that Turner and Sanderson are addressing — or perhaps Marx is provoking readers to choose whether they want to be a part of this other “we.”

Consider a “we” that includes Mariane Paviasen, who was elected last year to Greenland’s parliament. Two mining proposals for rare earths thrust her and her local campaign against uranium mining onto the national stage. Global news media portrayed the vote — and her hometown of Narsaq — as a battleground between the U.S. and China. For a decade, she had fought projects that could have left Narsaq radioactive. Before the election, she asked me why countries kept building useless things, like dancing robots, if it meant destroying the ground where people stand. “How can we call them clean energies by destroying a landscape like Greenland and shipping minerals to the other side of the world to pollute even more?” She chose another “we.”