The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Your Tuesday Update: Rumors

I’m volunteering at a National Park in Maine. We’re in a serious drought, but rain is predicted tonight–several inches worth. Some serious rain is on the way. We’ve been here just over a month, now, and this will be only the third or fourth time it has rained (fog has been rare, too, which is weird) and each time it has been a deluge that has rutted out the bike trails in the park. I’m not actually sure I’ve experienced a light rain all summer….

This morning I was talking to a park visitor who mentioned that where she’s from, in the Southern US, they’ve had a huge amount of rain lately and they’re getting lots of floods. I mentioned our drought and she said that her area has been having a serious drought, too, until recently. Is there any part of this country that is not either in a drought or flooding or both at once?

No, I’m not trying to claim that this anything other than a group of anecdotes. It’s just un-nerving, that vague sense of the weather being broken. Which it probably is.

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About Batteries

Now and then I hear battery-operated versions of various machines touted as “environmentally friendly” because they produce zero emissions. Of course, a moment’s thought shows that this is not true–or not necessarily true, anyway. A battery stores energy, and if the energy in question came from a coal-fired power-plant then the battery-powered machine is responsible for a a lot of emissions. Those emissions are simply somewhere else.

But is that the only caveat batteries carry? Between personal electronics and new “greener” technologies such as hybrid and plug-in electric cars, batteries are a huge part of the modern energy landscape–and yet, I realized, I didn’t really know much about how they work or what problems they might cause. I set out to learn the basics, and here I pass them on.

As I’ve been saying for years, rechargeable batteries only store energy, they don’t create it. Of course, nothing except whatever started the Big Bang creates energy, that’s part of the First Law of Thermodynamics, but a gallon of gas is an energy source in a way that a battery isn’t. Most people know this, but don’t seem to really think about it. For example, plug-in hybrid cars receive praise for their wonderful gas mileage even though that’s the wrong measure of efficiency for those cars. Such a hybrid could be an absolute energy guzzler, sucking down kilowatts, and still use very little gas. And if the electricity comes from a coal-fired power  plant, the carbon footprint of a plug-in could actually be higher than for a traditional car of the same weight and engine type.

But batteries do not store energy the same way a jug stores water. For one thing, electricity, by nature, moves. You can’t keep it in a box any more than you can shine a light into a closet, close the door, and expect the brightness to still be there when you get back. Instead, a battery converts chemical energy into electricity–and back again, if it’s rechargeable. That means that beyond asking where the energy comes from, we also have to ask what happens to it inside the battery and whether storing the energy is actually a good option.

I had a really hard time tracking down information, here, in part because I didn’t understand the right questions to ask. In turns out the answers are both very technical and very specific to each battery type–turns out “a battery” is something like “a sandwich” in that all the members of the category look recognizably similar and all accomplish roughly the same thing, yet the insides of two batteries might have no more to do with each other than do peanut butter and roast beef. I didn’t research all possible types of batteries, and I am very far from being an electrician, but I can give you the questions I’ve found–and a few examples of some answers.

  • How efficient is the battery?
  • Can old batteries be recycled into new batteries indefinitely?
  • What is the environmental impact of building and eventually disposing of the battery?
  • How does the battery compare with relevant energy alternatives?

 

How efficient is the battery–and its charger?

When you put energy into a battery, how much of it do you get back out again? The answer depends on the battery type, its age and condition, and how it is being charged, but it’s never 100%. First of all, every time energy changes form, some of it dissipates, as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Charging a battery converts electrical energy into chemical energy, so some is lost in that process. Some is lost again when the battery is used, converting chemical energy to electricity. And of course charging a battery requires a charger, which is also not 100% efficient for a similar reason. For example, depending on its initial state of discharge, an eight-hour charge cycle for a lead-acid battery could be anywhere from 36% to 64% efficient. That means that if you’re charging car batteries to do a job that you could just as easily accomplish with an extension cord, you could find yourself using almost three times as much electricity as you really need. The picture gets worse if you leave the charger attached too long; these batteries accept less and less charge the closer to full they get and the electricity they don’t except just makes the battery hot. It’s wasted.

Can old batteries be recycled into new batteries indefinitely?

Not all batteries are rechargeable. It is possible to make a crude battery out of half a grapefruit and those don’t need an initial charging–the energy is present in the relationship between the fruit juice and the electrodes. If commercially available batteries also don’t need an initial charge, then they are, essentially, a form of fuel and we need to ask the same questions about them as we would with any other fuel–like, are we going to run out?

I was unable to answer this question, because internet searches on charging non-rechargeable batteries yield websites all about how to recharge non-rechargeable batteries (which, by the way, is a bad idea. We tried by accident some years ago and very nearly killed out cat in the process). But it doesn’t really matter because the important question–are we going to run out–applies to all batteries regardless of when or if they are charged. To put it simply, any battery made of something that cannot be recycled back into the same type of battery indefinitely is unsustainable long-term.

As far as I can gather, at least the primary materials in many popular battery types, such as lead or lithium, are closed-loop recyclable in theory. These are metals, and metals are pretty simple to work with. But that doesn’t mean they are being recycled. The issue is whether the price of the material is actually high enough to pay for the processing. With the exception of lead, it generally isn’t. In some cases, even the carbon footprint of recycling could be larger than that for mining, though I have not seen an analysis of that. Sometimes batteries are recycled at a financial loss for environmental reasons, but this isn’t closed-loop recycling. Recycled lithium might be sold for use as a lubricant, for example. Even in the best case scenario, most batteries also have non-recyclable components, such as plastic, that recycling centers simply incinerate.

What is the environmental impact of building and eventually disposing of the battery?

Potential environmental impacts include the life-cycle carbon footprint of the battery (how much carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas it is responsible for, from mining through final disposal), physical disruption of the land associated with mining, and any toxicity related to disposal. Again, the answer depends on battery type, but we just don’t have all the answers. For example, cadmium in the ocean might have come from batteries, but then again it might not have. Life cycle energy analyses have not been done for all battery types, and some of those that have been done may be out of date. Generally, lead-acid batteries have the lowest energy footprint and are the most recyclable, but they are also quite toxic if not recycled.

How does the battery compare with relevant energy alternatives?

This question is the big one. In some circumstances, batteries are clearly the best option around. They make small-scale solar or wind power generation practical, for example. Without them, these systems would only deliver when the sun shone or the wind blew. In other circumstances, since as in the duel between a lead-acid battery and an extension cord imagined earlier, they are clearly wasteful. Still other times, they fall into a gray area of very nuanced decision-making.

Any time energy changes form, some of it is lost. Part of overall energy efficiency is therefore keeping the number of transformations as low as possible. For example, if you have several gallons of gasoline and want to boil water, your best bet is to use some kind of gasoline-burning stove. Using the gas to power a generator to make electricity to run an electric stone is wasteful because it involves so many more transformations. If everything else is equal,therefore, any kind of heating device, from stoves to baseboards to clothes dryers, are better run on gas than on electricity, if the electricity was generated by burning fossil fuel (as it often is). But everything is not always equal.

For example, how energy-efficient is gas delivery? If it has to come a long distance by truck (in which case it will probably be propane, not gasoline), the calculation might even out. The situation gets even more complex with motors since the relative weight of different designs and the circumstances of operation all come into play. For example, a battery-powered car does have emissions, it simply has them at the power station not at the tail-pipe. But if the car drives into an area that is very vulnerable to pollution, leaving the emissions behind at the plant might be important.

What does it all mean?

The bottom line is that batteries are not a panacea. In fact, they make thinking about environmental issues much more complicated. They’re handy tools for “green-washing,” as long as the public believes that battery power always means pollution-free. But they are also important tools for increasing overall energy efficiency and sustainability, especially if used in concert with electricity generation from renewable sources.

The important thing to remember is that we can’t create energy, nor do we get to decide how much energy a given task requires. If you want to accelerate a two-ton vehicle up to sixty miles an hour, that will take X amount of energy whether you use a gas engine or an electric motor to do it. The electric version might well be better in some respects, and if so then that is definitely the version we should pick. But mobilizing that energy always comes with some cost, somewhere, and if we can’t see what the cost is, we need to start asking questions..

The only way to truly go “zero emissions” is to use less energy in any form.

 


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Your Tuesday Update–At Last!

Hi, all!

I was hoping to post the article on batteries today, but that’s not happening. So I’m falling back on the brief, ordinary, Tuesday update.

Bloomberg Business opines that carbon pricing may be about to become a real thing, globally. You can read the article by clicking here. I’m very much encouraged. A properly run carbon market could be exactly the thing we need. After all, we know that human-caused climate change is extremely expensive, but by and large the people who are most responsible for the emissions–the political and business leaders who create our infrastructure and make other large-scale choices–do not bear the cost themselves. Ralph Nader–remember him?–had a wonderful phrase for this sort of thing; “privatizing the profits and socializing the cost.”

A well-run carbon market would make the people responsible for the pollution bear its cost themselves. Not only is that fair, it will almost certainly result in a dramatic reduction of emissions.

I am not an economist myself, but I suspect that to be “well run” a carbon market must be mandatory. No choosing to buy carbon offsets to make yourself look “greener.” In a voluntary system, those who want to look better can pay some money (and not change their behavior) while everyone else opts out of the program (and doesn’t change their behavior, either). Only if the act of polluting automatically and unavoidably costs something will the program work.

Only then will it reflect reality.


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Your Tuesday Update: An Action in Washington

A group of activists are currently part-way through an 18 day water-only fast to protest prioritization of fossil fuels by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). They hope to convince the commissioners to take their concerns about climate, due process, and justice seriously and also to draw public attention to what they see as  FERC’s failure to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. I have not researched the matter myself, but I am inclined to believe they are right about FERC.

The demonstration ends on the day Pope Francis addresses Congress about climate change. There will be an associated climate rally in Washington DC  on the morning of September 24th. There is no way I can go as I have just learned of the event today and I will be nowhere near DC, but please go, if you can. Make some noise, show Congress that we are serious (again) and somebody tell me how it goes so I can post about it on here.

To read more about both the fast and the rally, click here.

The stuff about the rally is on the second page.


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Syria

The Syrian refugee crisis is starting to get scary. I mean, obviously the Syrian refugees themselves have been terrified for a long time, that’s why they have become refugees, but what I mean is that this is not a run-of-the-mill humanitarian disaster. This one has the potential to change the world, but not in a good way. The people are running from violence, primarily, and also poverty. For four years, now, people have been coming out–more than four million already. Mostly they go to neighboring countries, but many–more than three hundred and fifty thousand this year so far alone–make their way into Europe. Some are now being sent on to the United States.

To put this in perspective, Syria’s total population is now less than 24 million people, meaning that about one in every seven people in that country has recently left. Forced migrations on this scale leave scars that last for generations and radically change the cultures that take in the migrants–I’m thinking here of the Irish Potato Famine, which killed a million people and displaced a million, far fewer than in the Syrian crisis, but then Ireland was a much smaller country at the time. The whole world was much smaller. Almost two hundred years later, the Irish Diaspora continues to enrich the rest of the world–and the great-grand children of Irish refugees continue to take their history personally. I do, anyway.

The fact that I’m talking about Syria here suggests that climate change is involved somehow–and indeed it might be. The connection is that from 2006 to 2011, parts of Syria were in a very serious drought. Huge numbers of farmers were forced off their land and into the cities looking for work. The Syrian government severely mishandled the crisis, triggering the present civil war. The drought, of course, is just one more event made more likely by climate change. No less an entity that the US Defense Department warns that climate change is a destabilizing influence, capable of creating exactly the sort of mess currently exploding in the Middle East and into Europe.

The climate-deniers have, of course, cried foul, questioning the science of the drought attribution point by point. It is a mistake to argue science with those whose real objection is cultural or ideological, so I’m not going to offer a detailed rebuttal–but the point is not a direct causal chain, anyway. The point is that large areas of the Middle East and Africa are extremely poor, huge numbers of people living just above the poverty line–if anything goes wrong, they fall off into the abyss. Climate change simply makes it more likely for things to go wrong.

For rich countries, like the United States or most of Europe, a serious natural disaster (and we’re having two at present, the California drought and the related western fires) hurts us but does not destabilize us. We have enough of a safety margin that we can not only continue to take care of our own, we can simultaneously offer aid to other countries and take in refugees.

The reason the Syrian crisis is scary is that its scale hints at the possibility of a world where we will no longer be able to do that, where even if the United States remains comparatively rich, the number of things going wrong will rise so high that we will no longer be able to take our stability as a country for granted. Fourteen years ago today, many Americans made the unsettling discovery that we are not immune from attack. I did not–I never thought that our country was special in that way. It’s true we don’t get attacked very often, but that’s not because we live in a protective bubble. It’s not because we’re immune. But I gotta say, I’ve gotten kind of used to this national stability thing.

For weather to contribute to a civil war is nothing new. Weather and climate have always been one of the drivers of history–as James Burke elegantly demonstrated almost twenty years ago. Where crops fail and where they succeed, where floods and fires occur and where they do not, even something as simple as where the weather is pleasant, all these things have always been one of the several facets of historical events. The only thing that has changed is that weather, that thing that has always shaped events, is becoming ever more chaotic.

And the problem is that as long as we keep pumping greenhouse gasses into the sky, there will be no new normal to adapt to. Stability will not be available.


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Your Tuesday Update: The State of the State

So, being in Maine at present, I decided to do an online search for “climate change Maine” and see what happened. What I got was a report on the state’s present and future climate, an update on a more extensive report on the same topic conducted several years earlier. It’s dry but quite readable–and it’s shorter than it looks, since many of the pages don’t actually have a lot of text on them. You can get an overview of the state of the state, as it were, in just a few minutes.

To read the report, click here.

I won’t try to summarize the whole thing, but here are a few highlights:

  • Air temperatures have increased, especially in the winter. The warm season is about two weeks longer, now.
  • Overall precipitation has increased.
  • The number of extreme precipitation events has increased (including extreme snow).
  • Ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are rising faster than in the ocean as a whole.
  • The Gulf of Maine is more vulnerable to ocean acidification than is the ocean as a whole.
  • Practical impacts of these changes include increased risk of heat stroke, Lyme disease, and flooding, as well as disruption to fisheries, agriculture, and winter tourism.

The report concludes with a list of information resources.

I haven’t checked every state, but it looks like at least most of them have commissioned similar reports and they’re easy to find online. What is the outlook for your state?