The Lead-Acid Battery’s Demise Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Following my recent article – Lead-Acid Batteries Are On A Path To Extinction – I received an email from Battery Council International (BCI), the trade association for lead battery manufacturers, recyclers and suppliers. Members directly provide nearly 25,000 U.S. jobs and make a $26.3 billion annual impact to the economy – and have experienced a 20% direct job growth since 2016.

They took particular exception to the headline, arguing that in contrast to my arguments, lead-acid batteries have a bright future. A key point they made in the email was that lead-acid batteries are 99% recyclable, while lithium-ion batteries are recycled at a rate below 5%.

So, I asked them if they would like to make those points in an interview. They agreed.

To summarize my view, I agree that the recycling issue must be addressed. Certainly, if it can’t be addressed, then that would be an advantage in favor of lead-acid batteries. 

However, when I look at the trajectory, I see lithium-ion batteries steadily declining in price, while the price of lead-acid batteries is relatively stagnant. I see that lead-acid batteries are losing market share — and are projected to continue losing market share to lithium-ion batteries. Given the multiple advantages, I don’t see how lead-acid can compete if lithium-ion continues its downward price trend. Indeed, it seems to me that the current trajectory is a path to extinction for lead-acid batteries.

What could change that trajectory? Several things. The cost curve could flatten at a higher price for lithium-ion batteries. Or, maybe the recycling issue can’t be resolved. Or maybe the overall market grows so fast that lithium-ion batteries can’t keep up, in which case lead-acid batteries would still be needed for many years.

I can see their point when I compare lead-acid battery use to our use of petroleum. Many people have argued that oil usage is on its way to extinction. I have argued that these projections are much too rosy, and that while oil may indeed be on that path – it’s a very long path that will last decades. Perhaps the same could be said of lead-acid batteries.

Answering the questions on BCI’s behalf is Dr. Matt Raiford, manager, Consortium for Battery Innovation, the global lead battery pre-competitive research consortium supported by BCI. Dr. Raiford earned his B. S. in chemistry from Texas A&M University and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Texas, Austin. His current work is focused on improving dynamic charge acceptance and cycle life in lead batteries.

Robert. So, how do you see the competition playing out between lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries? If the cost of lithium-ion batteries continues to decline, what would drive a consumer to purchase a lead-acid battery for their application?.

A: It’s not about picking winners, or choosing between lead and lithium. Each battery technology will have an essential role to play in different applications, and the market will ultimately decide which technology best suits a particular need. The huge hike in demand for energy storage, from energy storage systems (ESS) for residential, to commercial and industrial applications, to renewable energy integration will require a wide range of batteries, each with their different strengths. For example, for energy storage, lead is a very good fit for areas where safety is a concern as evidenced by fire marshals in New York and Boston restricting the use of lithium ion batteries in residential buildings.

Robert: Where do you see the most opportunity for lead-acid batteries going forward?

A: In Telecom and Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) there is a major cost advantage tied not only to lower manufacturing cost but also the lower shipping cost (Class 9 Hazardous for lithium, lithium can’t be moved via airfreight.) Telecom and UPS batteries sustain 4G and will be integral in 5G, which will require new equipment and more infrastructure. Lead and lithium will supply this effort. Close to a billion dollars in increase between the two industries. One key note, is that while lithium will penetrate in this market, lead will be the main choice and will dominate even more in countries that are doing rapid deployment (India, part of Africa, Western China, Vietnam, etc.). 

There’s also the fact that for materials sourcing, lead batteries have the advantage of being domestically sourced, which is important for both cost and national security, which is a priority for the Department of Energy (DOE).  Like petroleum and its dependence on some unfavorable partners for supply, consider that up to 70% of the global cobalt supply comes from the Republic of Congo, sometimes using child labor. Nickel, also used in lithium batteries, might become a pinch point for supply or cost. Currently, there are plenty of lithium reserves, but the vast majority of it comes from China, Chile, Argentina and Zimbabwe. Australia is also a large producer and likely the friendliest partner of the group.

Robert. Where do you believe the market is at the most risk?

A. The market for small household items (like phones, tablets, etc.) and drones and other products where weight, not performance is the overriding factor. 

Robert. Aside from recycling, are there other sustainability arguments to be made for lead batteries?

A. Yes, lead batteries as a technology, not application specific, require 3 times less energy per kWh to produce. It’s 450 kWh per 1 kWh lithium, 150 kWh for 1 kWh lead. The energy generated to charge a lithium battery will likely cost more as the lithium battery is more energy dense. 

On the recycling side of lithium batteries, the energy needed to recycle the lithium batteries will cost more on top of the additional cost to transport, fully discharge, disassemble, separate prior to recycling, assuming enough infrastructure will be developed and is even cost-efficient to warrant the recycling of the lithium batteries. Since the volume of lithium battery production is so low in North America, the recycled materials would likely have to be exported and controlled by other countries, such as China who presently processes about 85-90% of all recycled lithium materials. Additionally, as the first round of 10-year design lithium batteries come out of the hundreds of thousands of EV autos, will this additional cost be captured in the total cost of ownership (TCO) of lithium batteries?

In addition, the battery management systems (BMS), particularly cooling requirements, for lithium batteries are considerably more complex – and expensive – than required for lead batteries.

Robert. The technology is 160 years old – don’t we know all there is to know about lead?

A. The lead battery industry is involved in significant research and innovation projects, including a ground-breaking study at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. In addition, the work being undertaken by the CBI to improve dynamic charge acceptance and cycle life performance will give the lead battery industry a competitive advantage and opportunity to secure a large proportion of the future energy storage and automotive markets. As an example, lead battery life has increased by 30-35% in the last 20 years. There are also many advanced lead battery projects focused on reducing the weight of lead batteries while increasing the energy density.

Robert. But will electric vehicles (EVs) spell the end of the internal combustion engine?

A. In terms of the electric vehicle revolution, lead batteries remain key to the transition with virtually all vehicles containing a lead battery. Only lead batteries hit all the cold cranking amp (CCA) performance necessary for starting, lighting, and ignition (SLI) applications, and virtually every EV also has a lead battery on board to power critical safety functions. This is reflected in Avicenne’s predictions for continued growth in the automotive battery market (Page 11 – CBI’s technical roadmap).

They also enable start-stop technology which removes 4.5 million tons of GHG emissions in the U.S. each year. This number is expected to grow as the market share for start-stop continues to grow from its current 7% of the U.S. fleet of cars and trucks.

CBI is bringing together the whole industry, from lead battery manufacturers to world-leading research institutes, to boost the performance of lead batteries and generate new technology breakthroughs to meet the future demand which is required as we transition to higher levels of electrification and decarbonisation globally.

Robert. Are there any final thoughts you would like to add?

A. I think we all agree that demand for energy storage, which is predicted to grow by at least 10 times by 2050 in Europe alone, and U.S. utility-scale capacity expected to grow from 1,000 MW today to 2,500 MW in 2023 (EIA), will require a range of battery technologies delivering at scale.

We commissioned independent market analysis and forecasts by Avicenne, who predicted more than double the growth of batteries needed for energy storage applications between 2015 and 2025 – from 100,000 MWh to over 400,000 MWh (See Page 8 – in CBI’s technical roadmap). 

While lithium will remain a key technology, and it is experiencing tremendous growth, lead batteries are the only other battery technology that are in the market today, and also available at mass-market scale with the technical requirements required to meet this level of demand. In fact, lead batteries currently account for more than 70% per cent of worldwide rechargeable battery energy storage.

It’s one thing to compare the price of the chemistry versus the cost of the entire battery system including battery management systems (BMS), charger and accessories. Lithium batteries require special BMS controls to prevent the battery from thermal events such as fires. There can be additional communication systems needed to connect to the vehicle it’s powering. With less than 1% of all lithium batteries produced in the USA, raw material supply, production capacity, investment may prevent lithium batteries from “keeping up” with demand.

And finally, thank you, Robert, for the opportunity to provide additional insight into the future of lead batteries.

Robert. Thank you for your time.

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