ALABC tests waters for international seminars on lead batteries in ESS

The International Lead Association launched the first of a series of international workshops on November 24 aiming to demonstrate the functionality of lead in next generation energy storage systems.

Although the message is not new — the lead battery industry is aware of its recyclability, sustainability, safety and the like — the workshop intention is part of the ILA’s campaign, through its ALABC arm, to extend lead awareness to an energy sector that is increasingly looking at lithium as the new norm.

There were four presentations in all, led by an introduction from Andy Bush, head of the ILA.  “This will be the first workshop of many,” he said.

“Based on its success we will look to run others across all the major energy storage events in Europe, North America and Asia in the year ahead.

“It’s part of a much broader effort by ILA to put the positive message for lead across to a wider audience.  Efforts in the US are already under way in collaboration with BCI, and work in Europe will begin in the new year.”

A new director who starts work in January has been appointed to oversee all ILA and ALABC’s communications work.

There could be a very positive reaction to these seminars given the more general attitude across the entire energy storage market that lead is an out-of-date technology and lithium is the market standard.

One of the delegates, Jon Clifford-Smith, managing director of Eco-Economix, an independent energy consultancy based in the UK, said lead had not figured in their thinking. Eco-Economix is in the process of commissioning six ESS projects — five 10MW installations and one 20MW installation — all in the south of England.

“We’d all dismissed lead out of hand,” he said in a group discussion at the end. “I didn’t realise lead was so versatile and the price difference with lithium is enough to make many storage projects cashflow positive far earlier than our projections.

“When I heard the benefits at the seminar I was astonished because this was something that is hardly known at all. Cost, for example. Because as long as it’s got longevity of at least 10 years and has performance capacity, we would consider it.

“We need 10MW of power and 10MWh of storage capacity. If we had a guarantee that we would still have that in 10 years’ time, again, we’d consider it.”

He also said the recycling factor was a major reason to look at lead. “We want to save the planet too!” he said.

Some of the more detailed workshop findings provided information, in particular about lithium recycling, that were new to much of the larger lead industry.

Geoffrey May, a director at Focus Consulting and speaker at the seminar, said his personal estimate for the processing cost of dealing with end-of-life lithium-ion batteries was $4,000-$5,000 a tonne.

This is a far cry from the fact that recycling lead is a profitable business given the metal has an intrinsic value of its own.

May said, “Moreover, only a fraction of material from end of life lithium-ion batteries is effectively recycled.”

It is widely known in the market that large amounts of lithium batteries are standing electrically discharged in warehouses as storage is cheaper than the present prohibitive cost of recycling them. The expectation is that at some time costs will come down to a point where recycling would not have such punitive charges.

Quoting figures from the Argonne National Laboratory, May said that in the production process for lead batteries 30 megajoules of energy were used per kilo. To make lithium batteries, 170MJ/kg of energy was used.

When it came to carbon dioxide emissions, he said, with lead 3kg were emitted per kilo, yet with lithium, CO2 emissions stood at 12kg.

May gave five reasons for choosing lead: technical performance; affordability; unparalleled safety; sustainability; and the fact that it is proven as a reliable system.

Farid Ahmed, the principal analyst for lead markets with Wood Mackenzie, told the group there were real opportunities for lead to re-establish itself as the battery chemistry of choice and also that there was still a window open for it to fight back.

“While there is an abundance of lithium in terms of a global resource, the rate at which production needs to expand to meet projected demand over the next decade outstrips anything previously achieved for a mined commodity,” he said.

“That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it won’t be easy.”

Added to this Ahmed said there was an absence of any meaningful new supply of metallic nickel powder in the coming years, essential for Li-ion batteries.  Possibly an even greater concern is the lack of forecast production capacity of Li-ion batteries, whether or not the raw materials are available.

“This means that the availability of Li-ion batteries will remain constrained for the next decade or so, limiting the rate at which battery prices can fall,” said Ahmed.  “The likely outcome will be that in the short to medium term, Li-ion batteries output will go preferentially to the application most demanding of light weight and high energy density — electric vehicles and hybrids.

“Unlike lithium, there is ample future supply of refined lead, with over half of global production coming from recycling.  This opens a window of opportunity for lead batteries to become established as the best option for deployment as the energy storage battery chemistry of choice, both in terms of performance and cost.”

But this window of opportunity needs to be grasped by the lead community.

Eco-Economix’s Clifford-Smith, speaking to BESB six days after the workshop, said: “I made it obvious I was interested in taking our projects further but since then no one has called!” [There were at least three lead battery manufacturers attending the seminar.]