Two key advantages of fossil fuels are the energy density of the fuel itself and the ease of storing energy that a molecule based fuel offers.

Most homes have a huge energy store sitting in the car gasoline tank in the garage, or perhaps in an LPG / propane tank in another part of the house. The ease of storage makes transport relatively simple, with everything from passenger cars to A380 planes dependent on the need to carry fuel with them. But as the shift away from fossil fuels gathers pace and electricity grows in importance as the energy carrier of choice, one critical technology emerges that we all already use but will grow in size and scale – battery storage. We need batteries to store electricity for portable use and to store electricity at city level scale to manage the power grid, particularly as intermittent renewable sources become prevalent.

Battery technology dates back to around 1800, but domestic batteries were made popular over 100 years ago with the introduction of the AA battery in 1907 by the American Ever Ready Company, following on from their successful D cell flashlights. Today, we use batteries for a variety of household devices, but battery use across society is set to expand rapidly as the energy transition gathers pace. Further, as battery technology improves, these handy energy stores are making their way into more and more devices and applications.

In 2010, global battery production was less than 5 GWh, but with the arrival of the electric car and the growth in grid storage, production in 2020 was nearly 400 GWh (Source: Wood Mackenzie). There is also a significant and growing pipeline of Gigafactory projects, with manufacturing capacity around 1.3 TWh by 2030 based on known and expected projects. But what about the demand potential?

Numerous auto manufacturers have signalled their intent to bring internal combustion engine (ICE) passenger car manufacturing to an end, with dates between 2030 and 2040 often cited for the full switch to electric vehicles (EV). As a stretch, let’s assume that all passenger ICE production ends by 2035, which by then might mean 70 million EVs produced globally per year. If each car requires an 80 kWh battery, then that’s 5.6 TWh of new capacity required each year. Although recycling of batteries and battery components will eventually change the manufacturing landscape, that won’t be the case in the first half of the 2030s. At that time the availability of material for recycling will be the result of production today, which is a tiny fraction of our assumed production in 2035.

Grid storage requirements are a significant unknown. In a report published earlier this year by the research firm Frost & Sullivan, they predict additional global grid battery storage capacity additions will likely reach 135 GWh (0.14 TWh) in the next nine years from the 8.5GWh annual capacity additions that were recorded last year. But capacity additions are scaling rapidly, with the much talked about Tesla installed 100 MWh facility in South Australia in 2016 now easily eclipsed by multiple 300-400 MWh projects. In a 2020 study released by RethinkX, they estimated that for areas of the United States, a shift to 100% wind and solar would require some 40-90 average demand hours of battery storage. In 2020 US electricity demand was 4300 TWh, which would imply around 30 TWh of battery storage. However, it is possible that there is overlap between grid storage and EV storage, which by 2035 might have reached 12 TWh sitting in US garages and at charging points (assuming at least 50% EV penetration by then).

Assuming a rapid transition, the US alone might need 20-25 TWh of installed storage capacity by 2035, with global installed capacity perhaps reaching 100 TWh by that time. That would require a 35% year-on-year expansion of battery production capacity for the next 15 years as shown in the chart. That means in 2035 global battery production is close to 100 times current levels. It also requires manufacturing capacity in 2030 of 8 TWh, six times that of the current project pipeline for new facilities.

Batteries require particular minerals and chemistry, which today consist of lithium, nickel and cobalt in the current generation of Li-Ion batteries. The chemistry of batteries is the subject of extensive research, which points to much lower requirements for these minerals per kWh of storage. A recent analysis by  the European Federation for Transport and Environment (Transport & Environment (2021), From dirty oil to clean batteries) states that over the period 2020 to 2030 the average amount of lithium required for a kWh of EV battery drops by half (from 0.10 kg/kWh to 0.05 kg/kWh), the amount of cobalt drops by more than three quarters, with battery chemistries moving towards a lower cobalt content (from 0.13 kg/kWh to 0.03 kg/kWh). For nickel the decrease is less pronounced – around a fifth – with new battery chemistry moving towards a higher nickel content as a fraction of the total, but still a decline per kWh (from 0.48 kg/kWh to 0.39 kg/kWh).

On the basis of the 2030 numbers above, production of 20 TWh (20,000 GWh in the chart above) battery storage per year in the early 2030s would need;

Metal Early 2030s additional annual demand, million tonnes Current global production, million tonnes Required increase in global production
Lithium 1.0 0.09 10 times
Cobalt 0.6 0.15 4-5 times
Nickel 7.8 2.7 4 times

This is a significant step-up in metals production, with history pointing against achieving it.

Data Sources: BP and

Metals supply could well become a limiting factor in the energy transition given the potential demand for electricity storage. These levels of production increase are feasible over time, but in the space of 10-15 years they represent double to triple the historical trend, although that is true for almost everything in attempting to reduce emissions by 40+% in a decade. The above analysis also doesn’t account for other demands on batteries; from vans and trucks, small ships, barges, small planes, household and commercial devices and so on.

Equally, we shouldn’t discount innovation and different directions of travel. Apart from a slower energy transition, other factors that might influence the outcome are a more rapid evolution of battery chemistry towards more widely available minerals and/or a shift away from chemical batteries to other storage and balancing solutions in the electricity grid. However, don’t expect to see a truly novel solution scale sufficiently in just a decade. The first commercial Li-Ion battery was marketed in 1991 and has taken 30 years to scale to current levels. it was based on research and development over the previous 20 years.

In any case, the decade ahead could well be a period of rapid change and expansion for the global mining industry.

This article first appeared here