Battery blues

| July 18, 2023

When I first posted on this topic several years ago, some 20,000 electric and hybrid vehicles (EV) were on the road in Australia. Now, with around 100,000 on the roads, the first training courses are becoming available for more complex electrical work on EV.

The belated realization that costly specialist skills are needed to service EV and manage emergencies demonstrates the stupidity of placing good intentions ahead of rigor in formulating public policy.

Lithium battery technology for transport and balancing renewable energy supplies is continually evolving. These batteries typically consist of lithium with a number of other metals and electrolytes, all of which are toxic. The chemistry is complex and may pose significant health, safety and environmental hazards, including fire, toxic gas emissions and the risk of explosion.

Electrocution is another hazard facing first responders to accidents involving EV. No wonder firefighters, paramedics, police and other emergency services want EV to be labelled. Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR) said: “The battery power packs in these vehicles can kill someone, they have that much power in them.” But as the ‘Big Battery’ fire near Geelong recently showed, lithium battery fires are difficult to extinguish.

High voltage EV car batteries are fire-prone. ‘Thermal runaway’ can start a fire, even when the EV is stationary for battery recharging. It’s not hard to imagine house fires or bushfires being started by EV batteries. A crash on a busy freeway involving an EV battery fire and heavy vehicles carrying hazardous or flammable materials could be disastrous.

Identification of the lithium battery types for safe resource recovery and recycling will be difficult due to inadequate labelling. Many used lithium batteries are likely to be dumped in landfills. There is strong resistance to the relatively simple process of lead recovery. Resistance to more complex and potentially hazardous lithium battery recovery technology may be even stronger.

Technological optimism is anathema to sound environmental health practice. New technologies should be supported by science-based ‘cradle to grave’ plans encompassing health, safety, environmental and economic costs and benefits. Otherwise ideologically appealing developments can easily produce more intractable problems than the technologies they replace.