Are lithium batteries finally the answer to the energy storage limitations of alternative energy? Can they act as a reservoir for inconsistent energy sources and non-hydrocarbon transportation? How bad is lithium production for the environment? Does the environmental impact of lithium production negate the usefulness of the batteries in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?
Recently I have had posts popping up on social media from friends back in Saskatchewan showing a supposed lithium mine versus an oil sands site. The idea is that an open pit lithium mine MUST be much worse for the environment than a small clearing in the mostly forested land of northern Alberta. At first glance this seems totally reasonable. However, when one considers a few facts about lithium mining, production and batteries it becomes highly likely that the environmental impact of producing lithium batteries is relatively benign.
First off, the majority of the world’s lithium reserves is actually in brines, or really salty ground water accessed by a well startlingly similar to an oil well. The large open pit mine for lithium is not as common. However, the pit mines produce the end products much faster as they do not have to wait up to three years for the water to evaporate off as in brine operations. These two methods can be considered as a long term base load source (brines) and a short term ‘burst’ sources (mines) which can be tapped when demands jump unexpectedly.
Throughout the 1990s, brine operations provided the vast majority of lithium production. However, as demand spiked in recent years, mining operations have picked up the slack and are about half of production today (Jaskula, 2016). That being said, these mines are often found in desert locations which have low populations of both humans and animal life which could mean a lower impact. Furthermore, many of the locations which have brine deposits are inhospitable to most life due to the highly saline (salty) conditions, for example the Nevada salt flats, and as such dedicating that land to evaporation to gain lithium production is a very effective use of that land.