Growth in Battery Storage Sparks Chase for Metals

The growth in renewable energy is spurring battery-storage projects, which are fueling a “gold rush to metals.”

Salar de Uyuni Bolivia
With estimates of 21 million tons, Bolivia holds about 25% of the globe’s lithium, including the world’s single-biggest lithium deposit, the Salar de Uyuni salt flat, which is visible from space.
SeppFriedhuber/Getty Images

Natural gas is considered the fossil fuel to facilitate the transition from hydrocarbons to lower-emissions energy sources such as renewables. Wind and solar projects factor significantly into major international oil and gas companies’ goals of achieving net-zero emissions in the future. For example, both BP and Royal Dutch Shell intend to reach net zero by 2050.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts total installed wind and solar PV capacity is on course to surpass natural gas in 2023 and coal in 2024. This represents progress toward the achievement of the 2050 goals.

However, wind, solar, and hydropower, which together account for about 90% of all renewable-electricity generation, are largely dependent on variable weather conditions. And the variability in weather translates to an undesired variability in availability and reliability.

For wider adoption, utility-scale batteries are needed to store energy for use when a light breeze barely whispers, or the skies are cloudy.

Battery-storage projects are not a new concept, but their recent growth is notable. Although California is the global leader in the deployment of high-capacity batteries, news from other parts of the world offers indicators of progress.

In 2020, global installed energy-storage capacity totaled 173.6 GW, including pumped-hydroelectric, compressed-air, advanced battery-energy, flywheel-energy, thermal-energy, and hydrogen-energy storage systems.

The US had 0.74 GW of rated-power battery-storage projects based on lead-acid, lithium-ion, nickel-based, and sodium-based batteries.

A Tesla subsidiary, Gambit Energy Storage LLC, is currently constructing a 100‑MW+ battery-storage facility in Angleton, Texas, about 40 miles south of Houston. It is expected to become operational 1 June. Elon Musk (best known for his Tesla electric vehicles and SpaceX) launched a 100-MW lithium-ion battery project in South Australia in 2017 adjacent to a wind farm.

Soon to become a “hot(ter)” commodity will be the lithium, rare earths, and other minerals needed to build the batteries. The global lithium and cobalt markets rallied in January and February in response to the resurgence of demand for electric vehicles (EV) in Europe. Last year, sales in battery EVs and plug-in-hybrid EVs in Europe outpaced those in China. Adamas Intelligence reported that the second half of 2020 saw a global 205% increase in battery cobalt deployed, a 192% increase in battery lithium deployed, and a 135% increase in battery nickel deployed vs. the second half of 2019.

Investors and companies are chasing this potentially lucrative sector. Startup DeepGreen Metals, whose partners include Maersk and Allseas, aims to mine the deep sea for battery metals and on 4 March announced an agreement to merge with Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corp. to list on the Nasdaq.

Cornish Lithium, holding rights to explore for lithium within geothermal waters in areas off the north and south coasts of Cornwall, UK, recently signed on MarineSpace to help it begin its desk-based exploration program to identify potential geological targets for later research. Physical exploration work is not expected for at least 4 years.