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.




Read more:
A month in, Tesla’s SA battery is surpassing expectations


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.




Read more:
Charging ahead: how Australia is innovating in battery technology


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.




Read more:
A year since the SA blackout, who’s winning the high-wattage power play?


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.

The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn’t actually recycled



File 20180503 153884 180g652.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
These are already 100% recyclable – the trick is to actually recycle them.
Srisakorn Wonglakorn/Shutterstock.com

Atiq Zaman, Curtin University

Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers last week agreed on an ambitious target that 100% of Australian packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. This is no doubt sensible, given the turmoil sparked by China’s crackdown on waste imports.

Having a 100% target is fantastic. But this does not mean that all of the waste we generate in 2025 will necessarily find its way to one of these destinations.

For one thing, the definitions of different waste categories vary by state and territory, so there is no commonly accepted working definition of what constitutes “recyclable, compostable or reusable”.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


In practice, these terms depend largely on the infrastructure available. Single-use plastic bags are a good example of a product that is technically recyclable but which is not accepted in most councils’ kerbside recycling collection. That’s because they are often contaminated with food waste and many councils lack the machinery to process them.

On its own, the new 100% target is not enough, because it doesn’t guarantee that recyclable or reusable items will definitely be recycled or reused. To really make a difference, we also need policies and market incentives to ensure that these things end up where we want them to.

Driving recycling

We can see this principle in action by looking at the issue of drink containers. Glass and plastic bottles are already 100% recyclable, yet there is a stark difference in recycling rates between states that do have container deposit schemes, and those that don’t.

In South Australia, which has had container deposit legislation for more than 40 years, almost 80% of drink bottles are recycled. But in Western Australia, where similar legislation is only at the discussion stage, the rate is just 65%.

Despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ attempt at a National Waste Account in 2013, little nationwide data are available, thanks to a lack of a consistent reporting framework across different jurisdictions.

Plastic not fantastic

In sectors where not all waste is fully recyclable, the problem is more complex still. Of the seven categories of plastic packaging, only three are economically viable to recycle: PET (soft drink bottles); HDPE (milk bottles); and PVC (shampoo bottles). The other four – LDPE (garbage bags); PP (microwaveable cookware); PS (foam hot drink cups); and other plastics – are less economically viable and so are recycled at much lower rates. While these plastics will still be allowed under the new target as they are technically recyclable, the new target might prompt a switch to less problematic materials.

Globally, around 78 million tonnes of plastic is used every year, but only 14% is collected for recycling, while 14% is incinerated and the remaining 72% ends up in landfill or as litter in the environment.

The fate of the world’s plastics.
Author provided

The problems are no less vexing for other types of waste. With market rates for many types of recyclable paper having dropped to zero in the wake of China’s import restrictions, it will be hard to see how some products will be recycled at all, if left purely to economic forces.

Retailers may have to embrace more innovative solutions to improve the quality of recycling waste, such as reverse vending machines, which accept items such as aluminium cans and plastic or glass bottles – as long as they are cleaned and sorted. However, without creating a local waste market or government incentives, we cannot expect retailers to buy their packaging back.

And this is before we even consider the complexities of composting and reuse. Compostable waste as a whole is already facing problems due to a high contamination rate, and lack of separate bin for recycling organic waste in many local councils. Reuse, meanwhile, needs us to tackle the eternal problem of people’s perceptions and behaviour about using old packaging again.

Will some kinds of packaging disappear?

Under the product stewardship initiative, which calls on producers and retailers to take care of the waste produced after consumption of goods, it seems more likely that some materials will simply be phased out of the product supply chain altogether.

The impending plastic bag bans in several states and leading supermarkets offers a chance to replace them not with heavier, more durable plastic, but with biodegradable, renewable and eco-friendly natural materials such as hemp.

In turn, this would boost hemp production (alongside the legalisation of hemp-based medicine and food products in Australia). This could lead to the opportunity for manufacturing industry to produce environmentally friendly biodegradable plastics. Hemp-based biodegradable plastic would significantly safeguard the environment, even if we failed to achieve a 100% recycling of biodegradable plastic packaging. Similarly, glass or aluminium might be used instead of plastic, and are more easily recycled.

Even more innovatively, we might even see the arrival of edible packaging derived from the milk protein casein, formed into film rather like plastic cling wrap, which can be used to package foods such as butter or cheese.




Read more:
The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem


We need a better target

We’ve established that it’s not enough simply to set a target of making 100% of our waste recyclable, compostable or reusable. To really feel the benefits we need a follow-on target, such as actually recycling 100% of our packaging by 2030.

For this to work, we would need three things:

  1. legislation, regulations or incentives for manufacturers to develop new packaging types;
  2. an increase in public participation rates in recycling; and
  3. the development of a strong domestic market for recyclable materials.

The ConversationFinally, we should remember that waste prevention is better than waste management. Everyone – from governments, to manufacturers, to retailers, to consumers – should focus first on generating less waste in the first place. Then the fiendish problem of what to do with our waste will be all the smaller.

Atiq Zaman, Lecturer, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.