Multiple world governments are pushing for a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2035… and North America is no exception. Not only has Canada committed to this decision, but it was also included as part of Joe Biden’s election platform during the United States’ 2020 presidential race.
What are some of the obstacles preventing easy conversion to alternative energy sources… and what are some blind spots that could have untold influences on our progress?
1. What is Net-Zero 2035?
Net-zero carbon refers to an organization’s ability to effectively neutralize their carbon footprint, and reduce it “down to zero,” hence the name: producing no more carbon than they also consume in order to generate power.
The most common (and therefore infamous) sources of carbon emissions are non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil) used to generate power, heat, and general transportation.
Multiple world governments are pushing for each of their own countries to achieve the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2035. In 2021 under President Biden’s direction, the U.S. rejoined the Paris agreement to slash emissions as one of the steps on the road to Net-Zero.
It should be noted, however, that Net-zero is not quite synonymous with “carbon-neutral.”
Net-zero refers to an active reduction in greenhouse gases produced by a company or country. Carbon-neutral means that an organization’s emissions may remain the same, but they’re investing in enough carbon consumption (such as the planting of trees or the cleanup of ocean regions) so as to balance out what they’re producing.
For example, a taxi business with gasoline-powered vehicles could be considered “carbon neutral,” by merely investing in charities that plant forests large enough to consume the same amount of carbon that the taxies produce.
While Net-zero is certainly a more desirable goal, carbon-neutral is largely a more achievable one. Many businesses have pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2050; Google actually managed to go carbon-neutral all the way back in 2007.
2. Why Isn’t There A Clear Alternative Power Source Solution?
Alternative energy sources proposed to hasten countries towards net-zero carbon include nuclear power, solar power, wind power, hydroelectric power… but just about every one of these processes has its own controversies and “side effects,” beyond the mere barriers of affordability.
- NUCLEAR POWER
Nuclear power plants may not produce air pollution, but they do produce radioactive waste… and accidents, equipment failures, or sabotage within any single facility could produce catastrophic environmental effects (the infamous, still-uninhabitable sites of Chernobyl and Fukushima come to mind. Neither area will be completely, safely inhabitable for the next 3,000 years at minimum). Furthermore, the nuclear fission process relies on uranium (the mining of which also produces radioactive waste and environmental damage).
- SOLAR POWER
Though solar is definitely one of the most popular choices of alternative power available, the industry has what Forbes and the Harvard Business Review have fittingly called a “dark side,” that not many everyday consumers are familiar with. Not only are solar panels manufactured using dangerous chemicals to begin with, but the industry is woefully unprepared for the disposal of its unrecycled, environmentally-damaging toxic metals that are already leaking into groundwater supplies in sub-Saharan Africa. Due to solar’s lack of procedures regarding safe disposal, many journalists have claimed that nuclear waste (as it is strictly regulated and safely stored to prevent environmental disaster) is a preferable alternative.
- WIND POWER
Wind turbines, while constructed with (as well as producing) zero toxic waste, still aren’t free from controversy or misinformation either. Wind farms already require massive expanses of land, and may require more than originally estimated in order to function optimally without affecting or slowing windspeeds, according to the Harvard Business Gazette. Turbines also produce excessive noise pollution and still can affect the wildlife and environment wherever they’re installed, and many local denizens object to their visual disruptions of natural landscapes. And while wind power is certainly inexhaustible… for some locations that may not receive very powerful winds, it may not be a cost-effective solution.
- HYDROELECTRIC POWER
As with other power sources, hydroelectric power (which generates electricity from running water or from the kinetic energy of ocean waves) comes with a lot of controversy over its environmental impacts. For one thing, dams still do produce greenhouse gases like methane: approximately 6.7 million metric tons of it every year, according to American Rivers. Building generators to harness power from moving water can damage biodiversity by altering local wildlife habitats; and constructing dams can even require the relocation of local inhabitants who might be living in a soon-to-be-flooded area. And with climate change likely to produce greater droughts in the future, dropping water levels could prove detrimental to hydroelectricity plants and anybody who may rely on them as their sole power source. And like wind power, tidal activity is not always constant or easily accessible in all areas of the world.
3. What’s One Overlooked Industry That Could Have a Massive Effect On the World’s Net-Zero Journey?
Believe it or not, the only problem on the road to Net-zero carbon emissions is not just generating energy (clean or otherwise).
Another issue… is storing it.
According to Stryten Energy CEO Tim Vargo, energy storage has, “a key role in the whole goal for 2035.” Because even if a power plant of any kind can generate egregious amounts of energy, that electricity will simply go to waste and disappear unless there is some way… some place… to keep it all at the ready until it can be utilized.
In a word? Batteries.
“Energy storage… [is] going to play a key role in the whole goal for 2035. That will not be possible without a concerted effort by a lot of manufacturers across a variety of different chemistries and solutions to provide that energy storage.”
“A lot of folks want to have solar power so that they can reduce their energy storage bill, so they can send power back to the grid and have a stable amount of energy coming into their home,” Vargo unpacked for us. “What has been lacking, really, over the last couple of decades with very few exceptions has been the storage of that energy that’s captured from a windmill in your backyard, solar panels on your roof or a solar array set up in your yard. That’s all fed back into the grid, and there’s really nothing stored in your home… The opportunity there is to provide a variety of different storage solutions for the home.”
But just like the controversies that surround alternative power sources, the battery industry is not without its own polarizing struggle, centered largely around the choice between sleek new lithium batteries, versus more traditional lead batteries.
- LEAD BATTERIES
For many people, the use of lead represents an outdated and uneducated past. Just mentioning the metal alloy is enough to generate apprehension in most consumers, as many adults are old enough to remember when lead was a popular and widespread ingredient in products like tools and paint. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the extensive negative effects of lead exposure were brought into the public eye, and recalls in products that still contain lead continue right up to the present day.
If handled incorrectly, the components of lead-acid batteries can indeed cause dangerous injuries to anyone who comes into contact with them. Factories that handle the components without proper safety regulations are particular hotbeds for exposure. Nevertheless, lead-acid batteries are also “the world’s most recycled consumer product… Thanks to recycling, we barely mine lead anymore.”
Nevertheless, lead-acid batteries are still highly common within vehicle manufacturing. In fact, they’re cited by the International Lead Association as “the world’s most recycled consumer product,” and a publication from the Yale School of the Environment confirms: “Thanks to recycling, we barely mine lead anymore.”
“On the lead side, we’re working with a variety of different government agencies to try to improve and enhance the technology that’s being applied to lead acid battery manufacturing,” agreed Tim Vargo in his 2022 interview with IndustrialSage. Stryten is aware of the major risks that lead can pose if it’s not recycled properly, and they’ve put strict procedures into place to make sure those dangers are minimized. “We have a lead solution which is probably a little more complicated than most people would like,” he admits. However, they’re doing the hard work to keep both manufacturing teams and consumer safe–– which is more than other industries like solar panels and lithium batteries are doing on their end.
Vargo also pointed out that while lead may still have a problematic reputation, it remains both far more recyclable, currently more affordable, and arguably a safer alternative than Lithium–– which is also toxic and has also proven highly dangerous if overheated. “It’s pretty hard to catch a lead acid battery on fire,” he explained in his comparison. “It’s like the safest thing you can do.”
- LITHIUM BATTERIES
Somewhat of a newcomer on the energy scene, Lithium has become a bit of a ‘town darling,’ for consumers seeking energy alternatives. Lithium is capable of storing far more energy than lead-acid, which Vargo admits makes it a very convenient energy source… albeit a pricy one. “It is a lot more compact. It has a better charging cycle, and there’s virtually no maintenance to it… It’s a lot more expensive than traditional energy storage,” he pointed out.
However, the cost of lithium-ion batteries have certainly been dropping over the last decade towards a more affordable price point. “As lithium cost continues to go down, that’s going to be a very efficient way to store energy,” Vargo agreed. “So that when the power goes out, you have actually energy stored up to run everything in your home from your heating to your air conditioning to your refrigerator to the lights on.”
But personally, Vargo isn’t sure that a lithium battery for every home is such a great idea.
“You’ve seen in the news where your Tesla catches fire and burns to the ground; the fire department can’t put it out,” he warns. To have that same sort of fire hazard not just in one’s vehicle or bike or toothbrush, but powering one’s home is “a little concerning for a lot of people.”
And unfortunately, volatility isn’t lithium’s only drawback as an energy storage source on the road to Net-zero carbon.
Like lead-acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries are also manufactured using toxic components (cobalt and manganese, for example). And like solar panels currently piled up and leaking into African groundwater, lithium batteries have an abysmal recycling rate.
However, that doesn’t mean that Vargo doesn’t think lithium solutions aren’t worth investing in. “We bought a great little boutique company up in Canada. They have the intellectual property that has lithium with significantly reduced exposure to explosion and fire,” he shared. The battery comes with “an enhanced… management system that controls the electricity going out, electricity going in, in an absolute way.” Applying that technology could greatly reduce the danger of unquenchable home fires for everyday consumers in the future.
“We see a huge opportunity there for us to supply a lithium product for the home that’s safer than anything that’s on the market today. It’s going to take us a couple years to get there, but it’s going to take everybody else a couple of years or longer.”
The only remaining bump in the road to those developments… is supply within the lithium-ion battery market as it currently functions. At the moment, Lithium is a component that the United States can’t mine or acquire inside of their borders. The vast majority of it is sourced from the People’s Republic of China. But if manufacturers have learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we definitely don’t want to put all our (supply) eggs into one basket overseas.
According to Vargo, Stryten’s goal is to find alternative sources for more reliable lithium. “We’re going to have that… manufactured right here in the United States with products from the United States or in some cases perhaps products from NATO-related countries,” he shared.
- OTHER BATTERY ALTERNATIVES
Ultimately, however, there may not be one singular energy storage solution that will overtake all the others–– at least not for a long while. “Lithium is not going to solve the world’s energy storage problems,” Vargo insisted. “Lead is not going to solve the world’s energy storage problems.” And neither, he adds, will flow batteries or any other technology single-handedly achieve this necessary and admirable goal by themselves. “It’s going to take a concerted effort across a variety of different chemistries and platforms to do that.”
Some up-and-coming alternative to both lithium and lead are batteries that employ substances like nickel & zinc. These components have the potential to make a battery that’s far less flammable than lithium-ion batteries, but has improved traits over lead-acid batteries. “It has better characteristics for storage and charging,” Vargo stated. “It generates less gas; you don’t have to worry about it being in your house.”
In the end, whether Net-zero carbon emissions come from a singular power source, or else from a variety of sources, the ability to store that energy and the ability to recycle any manufactured components will fundamentally affect the results.
“It’s all about source reduction,” insisted Emmanuel Cerf, the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Polypack, in a 2022 interview sponsored by Schneider Electric. “The more you can recycle the materials you use, the better you are for the environment. The less you use, the better it is. If you put four people in a car, it’s going to be better than putting one person in a car, whether that car is electric or gas-powered.”
“The less you use, the better it is.”
So long as companies and countries alike continue to invest in more recyclability (specifically safe and regulated recyclability), the expenses will ultimately be outweighed by the benefits… especially as developing technologies continue to improve.
“The great thing about manufacturing ingenuity is that it never ends,” Tim Vargo also concluded. “It’s amazing the things that we can do to solve problems and create jobs and different solutions that we had only dreamed of before.”
Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get new episodes sent directly to your inbox. You can also subscribe wherever you download podcasts so you can listen on the go!
If there’s a particular topic that you’d like for us to talk about, or if you have a particular a challenge that you’d like us to take a crack at, send us an email. We’d be happy to answer them for you!