Are Lithium-ion Batteries “GREENER” than Lead Acid?

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There are many different ways you could consider a product to be more environmentally friendly or not than another.  Li-ion batteries do not contain hazardous materials while lead-acid batteries do (i.e., lead).  Both battery types are recyclable; however, at present it is much easier in most regions of the world to recycle lead acid than larger format li-ion batteries used in UPSs and electric vehicles.  For a complete picture of environmental impact, however, consider the entire carbon footprint over the course of the battery lifecycle.  Carbon use accumulates throughout the product lifecycle:

  • Raw material extraction
  • Energy to produce and transport
  • Operating energy to keep batteries charged and cooled
  • Recyclability and impact on the earth when it is time to dispose

Previous analysis has shown that the operating losses (i.e., the energy used to keep the batteries charged) are, by far, the dominant driver of the carbon footprint of a UPS and its battery system over a 10 year life cycle. However, there is not a large difference in operating losses between the two systems.  Which one edges out the other depends on the actual use case.

Lithium-ion batteries do require less energy to keep them charged than lead acid.  The charge cycle is 90% efficient for a lithium-ion battery vs. 80-85% for a lead acid battery. Additionally, lead acid batteries self-discharge at a higher rate than Lithium-ion.  These efficiency gains, however, are offset by the need for Li-ion to have a battery management system (BMS) to protect against short circuits and overcharging.  This monitoring system consumes energy.  So the total operating losses are very similar between the two.

With the dominant factor for determining a 10-15 year carbon footprint basically a wash, one must look to the other factors.  Given that lithium-ion batteries containing landfill -safe materials are recyclable, and because their lifespan is 2-3 times longer than lead acid batteries, it can be argued that lithium-ion batteries are “greener”.

However, note that the recycling rate of lead from lead-acid batteries is 99% with over 90% of the batteries being collected (in North America…similar rates occur in Europe and Japan).  The state of recycling for lithium-ion batteries, particularly the larger format ones (such as those used in electric vehicles and data center UPSs), is much less mature, however.

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  • Jason Drage

    7 years ago

    “.. the need for Li-ion to have a battery management system (BMS) to protect against short circuits and overcharging. ”
    — Yes a BMS is required.

    “This monitoring system consumes energy. So the total operating losses are very similar between the two”
    — Show me your figures supporting this claim.
    The monitoring of a battery pack can be done with circuitry that consumes milliwatts, and the balancing charge is just the charge required, put into the appropriate cell.

    Your dominant factor hasn’t been given the attention it deserves, perhaps because your company would rather we all keep buying lead-acid storage.

    • Patrick Donovan

      7 years ago

      Hi Jason, Schneider Electric sells both VRLA and Lithium-ion batteries for many of its UPSs. Not all of our UPSs support the use of Lithium-ion…yet. We believe that given the strong benefits of li-ion and its declining prices, we believe larger format li-ion batteries will become the dominant energy storage choice for UPSs in the future. I think our white paper strongly supports this position.

      At least for the large format li-ion battery technology we chose, the energy consumed to power/charge the system is basically the same compared to our VRLA systems. At least for us, its just not really a significant comparison point. The BMS system is posed as a good thing…its a critical component to ensuring the battery system performs safely. The system monitors to the cell level.

  • John Roccisano

    7 years ago

    Hi Patrick,
    The assumptions you have made between the Lithium-Ion batteries and the Lead Acid batteries do not stack up.
    Your comments “Previous Analysis has shown” reference the following document;
    In this document Wendy Torell discusses the Lifecycle Carbon Footprint Analysis of Batteries vs. Flywheels. not Apples for Apples right there.
    Secondly under Analysis methodology. Point 3 delivery – Li-Ion Batteries have a much better Energy density per pound/kilogram so will cost much less to transport anywhere.
    Thirdly under Point 7 of the document notes that the VRLA battery has an expected life of 5 years where as the Tesla Powerwall warranties its product for 10 years of ‘daily cycling’.
    These 3 points alone show up the poor preparation and lack of research rigour for your Blog article.

    • Patrick Donovan

      7 years ago

      Hi John R., thanks for your comments. I stand by my statement that the (by FAR) dominant factor determining the 10 yr carbon footprint of a battery system is the energy consumed over its life time to keep the batteries charged. This is why I referenced the “VRLA vs. Fly-wheel” analysis I did…it clearly shows this. The fact that we’re talking about VRLA vs. li-ion does not change this fact. The carbon released from raw material extraction, production, and shipping is MINISCULE compared to the energy losses due to charging the batteries over 10 years….unless, perhaps, you live in France where a large percentage of your energy is nuclear (the tool shows this). Yes, li-ion are much smaller/lighter and so the travel-related carbon would be less, but again, that is a tiny piece of the overall carbon footprint. My only point on this was that there was not much of a difference between the large format li-ion batts we use and the VRLA batts we use for our UPSs in terms of the energy losses to charge the batteries. But we still say li-ion batts are, in fact, greener than VRLA because there’s no lead (or other hazardous substances VRLAs have) and because their lifespan is much longer.

      As for the typical lifespan of VRLA batteries in UPS applications, 3-5 and 4-6 are the typical ranges you hear in the industry. I don’t think there’s much debate about that.

  • Patrick Donovan

    7 years ago

    Thanks for the comments and input!

  • Mark J Stewart

    7 years ago

    What about Lithium Iron phosphate ?

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