We need lithium for clean energy, but Rio Tinto’s planned Serbian mine reminds us it shouldn’t come at any cost


Ana Estefanía Carballo, The University of Melbourne; Gillian Gregory, The University of Melbourne, and Tim Werner, The University of MelbourneThousands of demonstrators rallied across the Serbian capital Belgrade this month, protesting the US$2.4 billion (A$3.3 billion) Jadar lithium mine proposed by global mining giant Rio Tinto. The project, Rio Tinto’s flagship renewable energy initiative, is set to become the largest lithium project in the European Union.

Lithium is a crucial component of energy storage, both for renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles. Forecast demand has prompted efforts by companies and governments worldwide to tap into this market – a scramble dubbed the “white gold rush”.

As lithium projects have multiplied across Australia, Europe, Latin America and the US in recent years, so too have concerns over their environmental and social impacts. Communities near proposed and existing lithium mines are some of the loudest opponents. In a town near the proposed mine in Serbia, a banner reads: “No mine, yes life”.

Lithium extraction serves legitimate global environmental needs. But the industry must not ignore local social and environmental risks, and community voices must be included in decision making. The harsh lessons of mining to date need not be learned again in new places.

Weighing the risks

According to the latest estimates, the world’s resources of lithium sit at 86 million tonnes, a number that continues to grow as new deposits are found every year. Australia is the main producer of lithium, where it’s mined from hard rock called “spodumene”. The largest deposits are found in South America, where lithium is extracted from brines underneath salt flats.

Lithium mining operates beneath the salt flats in the Atacama, Chile.
Shutterstock

In many cases, lithium mines are relatively new operations, yet complex and adverse social and environmental impacts have already been observed. More research and better targeted policy are needed to help understand and manage the socio-environmental impacts.

In Chile, lithium has been mined since the 1980s. It has been shown to interfere with cultural practices of local Indigenous communities, alter traditional economic livelihoods and exacerbate the fragility of surrounding ecosystems.




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The Jadar lithium project is operated by Rio Sava, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto. It’s expected to become one of Serbia’s largest mines, occupying around 387 hectares, and contribute to at least 1% of Serbia’s GDP.

An environmental impact study commissioned by Rio Tinto, and obtained by Reuters, found the project would cause “irredeemable damage” to the environment, concluding the project should not go ahead. Environmental impacts are expected for any mine proposal. Yet some are manageable, so such a grave assessment in this case is not encouraging.

The extent to which a project shows best practice in mine management can depend on pressure from communities, investors and governments. Promises to adhere to all regulations are a common response from the industry.

But as we’re seeing in Chile, significant environmental damage and socio-environmental impacts can still occur within established regulations. Here, communities living on the salt flats are concerned about the effect of removing groundwater for lithium extraction on their livelihoods and surrounding ecosystems.

Communities near the Jadar Mine project hold similar concerns. They have gathered in formal organisation to reject the project and stage demonstrations. A petition against the project has gained over 130,000 signatures, and a report by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences has protested the project’s approval.

The communities fear the potential risks of air and waterborne pollution from the lithium mine, destruction of biodiversity, and the loss of land to mine infrastructure. These risks could affect the livelihoods of local landholders, farmers and residents.

Of particular concern is that the proposed locations for mine waste (tailings) are in a valley prone to flash flooding and may lead to toxic waste spills. This previously occurred in the same region when the abandoned Stolice antimony mine flooded in 2014. Rio Tinto has said it will try to mitigate this risk by converting the liquid waste into so-called “dry cakes”.

In response to this article, a Rio Tinto spokesperson said it has been working through the project requirements for 20 years, with a team of over 100 domestic experts studying the possible cumulative impacts in accordance with Serbian law, adding:

The study will consider all potential environmental effects of proposed actions and define measures to eliminate or reduce them […] including water, noise, air quality, biodiversity and cultural heritage.

Can we decarbonise without sacrifice?

The Jadar Mine project is touted for its potential to bring significant profits to both Rio Tinto and the Serbian state, while helping usher in the era of decarbonisation.

Rio Tinto plans to begin construction by 2022, “subject to receiving all relevant approvals, permits and licences and ongoing engagement”, with first saleable production expected in 2026.

But relatively fast timelines like this can sometimes be a sign of regulatory governance instability, including weak regulatory frameworks or regulatory capture (when agencies are increasingly dominated by the interests they regulate). We have seen this in Guyana, Peru and Brazil.




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In Australia, Rio Tinto’s recent destruction of the culturally invaluable Juukan Gorge — which, notably, occurred legally — also demonstrates regulatory governance risks.

Jadar River Valley in western Serbia, home to a huge deposit of lithium.
Shutterstock

Rio Tinto’s spokesperson said its Environmental Impact Assessment process includes a public consultation period including, for example, meetings with non-government organisations, adding:

We have established information centres in Loznica and Brezjak and, since 2019, have hosted over 20 public open day events in these centres focusing on aspects of the project including environment studies, cultural heritage and land acquisition.

Although the Serbian government indicated that it’s prepared to hold a referendum to find out the will of citizens about the Jadar mine project, the community protests suggest the project hasn’t obtained any social license to operate.

A “social license to operate” is, despite its corporatised name, increasingly key to sustainable or responsible mining projects. It centres on ongoing acceptance by stakeholders, the public, and local communities of a company’s standard business practices. Building such trust takes time, and a social license is only a minimum requirement.




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In Argentina, for example, Indigenous communities living near the lithium mines have developed their own protocol for giving their informed consent.

Similarly, processes of community-based impact assessment or self-government structures led by First Nations in Canada offer insight into potential collaborative relationships.

These processes cannot be rushed to ensure voices are heard, rights are respected, and environmental protection is possible.

Lithium is essential for the transition away from fossil fuels, but it shouldn’t come at any cost.
Shutterstock

A new frontier

Like many other communities negotiating proposed mine projects, local communities and residents in Serbia should not become another zone of sacrifice, shouldering the socio-environmental costs of supporting a renewable energy transition.

Lithium deposits are often seen as “new frontiers” in the places they’re discovered. Yet we must learn from historical lessons of frontier expansion, and remember that places imagined as “undiscovered” aren’t actually empty.

The people who live there must not bear the brunt of a so-called “green” future.




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The Conversation


Ana Estefanía Carballo, Research Fellow in Mining and Society, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne; Gillian Gregory, Research Fellow in Mining Governance, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne, and Tim Werner, ARC DECRA Fellow, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Happy birthday, SA’s big battery, and many happy returns (of your recyclable parts)


Aleesha Rodriguez, Queensland University of Technology

A year ago today, Tesla’s big battery in South Australia began dispatching power to the state’s grid, one day ahead of schedule. By most accounts, the world’s largest lithium-ion battery has been a remarkable success. But there are some concerns that have so far escaped scrutiny.

The big battery (or the Hornsdale Power Reserve, to use its official name) was born of a Twitter wager between entrepreneurs Mike Cannon-Brookes and Elon Musk, with the latter offering to build a functioning battery in “100 days or it’s free”.

Musk succeeded, and so too has the battery in smoothing the daily operation of South Australia’s energy grid and helping to avert blackouts.




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The battery has also been a financial success. It earned A$23.8 million in the first half of 2018, by selling stored electricity and other grid-stabilising services.

These successes have spurred further big battery uptake in Australia, while the global industry is forecast to attract US$620 billion in investments by 2040. It’s clear that big batteries will play a big role in our energy future.

But not every aspect of Tesla’s big battery earns a big tick. The battery’s own credentials aren’t particularly “green”, and by making people feel good about the energy they consume over summer, it arguably sustains an unhealthy appetite for energy consumption.

The problem of lithium-ion batteries

The Hornsdale Power Reserve is made up of hundreds of Tesla Powerpacks, each containing 16 “battery pods” similar to the ones in Tesla’s Model S vehicle. Each battery pod houses thousands of small lithium-ion cells – the same ones that you might find in a hand-held device like a torch.

The growing demand for lithium-ion batteries has a range of environmental impacts. Not least of these is the issue of how best to recycle them, which presents significant opportunities and challenges.

The Hornsdale Power Reserve claims that when the batteries stop working (in about 15 years), Tesla will recycle all of them at its Gigafactory in Nevada, recovering up to 60% of the materials.

It’s important that Tesla is held account to the above claim. A CSIRO report found that in 2016, only 2% of lithium-ion batteries were collected in Australia to be recycled offshore.

However, lithium-ion batteries aren’t the only option. Australia is leading the way in developing more sustainable alternative batteries. There are also other innovative ways to store energy, such as by harnessing the gravitational energy stored in giant hanging bricks.




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Solving symptoms, not problems

Tesla’s big battery was introduced at a time when the energy debate was fixated on South Australia’s energy “crisis” and a need for “energy security”. After a succession of severe weather events and blackouts, the state’s renewable energy agenda was under fire and there was pressure on the government to take action.

On February 8, 2017, high temperatures contributed to high electricity demand and South Australia experienced yet another widespread blackout. But this time it was caused by the common practice of “load-shedding”, in which power is deliberately cut to sections of the grid to prevent it being overwhelmed.

A month later, Cannon-Brookes (who recently reclaimed the term “fair dinkum power” from Prime Minister Scott Morrison) coordinated “policy by tweet” and helped prompt Tesla’s battery-building partnership with the SA government.




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Since the battery’s inception the theme of “summer” (a euphemism for high electricity demand) has followed its reports in media.

The combination of extreme heat and high demand is very challenging for an electricity distribution system. Big batteries can undoubtedly help smooth this peak demand. But that’s only solving a symptom of the deeper problem – namely, excessive electricity demand.

Time to talk about energy demand

These concerns are most likely not addressed in the national conversation because of the urgency to move away from fossil fuels and, as such, a desire to keep big batteries in a positive light.

But as we continue to adopt renewable energy technologies, we need to embrace a new relationship with energy. By avoiding these concerns we only prolong the very problems that have led us to a changed climate and arguably, make us ill-prepared for our renewable energy future.

The good news is that the big battery industry is just kicking off. That means now is the time to talk about what type of big batteries we want in the future, to review our expectations of energy supply, and to embrace more sustainable demand.The Conversation

Aleesha Rodriguez, Phd Student, Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.