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Lead batteries: Still an essential energiser for a greener world

On a plain 4,700 metres above sea level in Tibet, a solar farm harvests the sun’s rays. It is absorbing this abundant source of power to help generate the clean energy required to satisfy China’s burgeoning demand for electricity. This sun-drenched farm is part of a growing phenomenon where a 150-year-old technology, the lead battery, is becoming one of the most reliable solutions to the problem of storing and supplying the energy of the future.

While lead batteries are more commonly associated with the technology under the bonnet of your car, starting the engine, powering the safety features and electronics, it is also one of the cleanest and most reliable options available in the green energy revolution.

In Tibet, with up to 14 hours of sunlight a day in the peak months between April and July, the plant run by China Shoto, part of the Shuandeng Group, uses lead batteries housed in containers on site producing 30MW of solar power supported by 20MWh of energy storage.

By choosing advanced lead battery technology, the company argues it is able to offer reliable, safe and long-lasting storage for up to 10 years, switching supply on or off according to the requirements of the grid.

The system is being replicated globally with projects in the United States, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and across southeast Asia, which are quietly changing the face of energy storage.

China Shoto picked out 20MWh of lead acid to run its solar-plus-storage system in Tibet. Image: China Shoto.

Lithium and lead - two leaders in rechargeable battery storage

Analysts predict the world-wide scale of the market in renewable energy storage will vastly outweigh the supply of current technologies, be it lithium or advanced lead battery technology.It is likely that the majority of future rechargeable battery energy storage needs will probably be met by these two leading technologies.

In reality our own analysis of the market anticipates both technologies will be required to grow together to meet the level of demand. While there are other potentially promising technologies, they are unlikely to achieve the market scale necessary to make substantial inroads. And it is the race to provide the latest technical solutions where the real competition around battery technology will take place as innovation, reliability, safety and hard economic facts are all assessed.

We are already seeing game-changers emerge, including energy storage batteries from companies offering extended lead battery cycle life, from between 3,000 up to 5,000 deep cycles, offering longer life and greater reliability at a reduced cost. The choices energy companies make will be driven by price, safety, reliability and sustainability. The growing debate about the recycling of batteries, and in particular the source of materials used in their production, are becoming more pertinent. In Europe and the US lead batteries already enjoy one of the highest recycling rates of any products. More than 99% of lead batteries are collected and fully recycled at the end of their life, so that the majority of the lead used in the latest generation of lead batteries has already been recycled.

As governments grapple with the policy implications of eliminating greenhouse gases and creating a non-toxic environment, it is the latest application of an older technology, one which has stood the test of time, which is set to help propel the renewable energy revolution forward.

Dr Andy Bush is managing director of the International Lead Association. 

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