Lab long read: Why battery research is vital for Norway’s sustainable energy transition
The EMPOWER project will research batteries in mobility
EMPOWER Project on batteries in mobility receives funding from UiO:Energy.
There is a buzz about batteries. Here at the University of Oslo, the project EMPOWER Sustainable Batteries in Mobility - (Em)powering a Net-zero, has been granted funding from UiO:Energy, and is due to start in the autumn of 2022. In policy circles, both the European Commission and the Norwegian government have announced ambitions for a transition to a battery economy, not only through battery manufacturing but for the recovery of end-of-life batteries. In academia, exciting developments for more sustainable battery design are well underway. For instance, researchers from Imperial College London recently published a paper in Energy and Environmental Science on the promise of sodium-ion batteries to replace lithium-ion batteries for future energy storage systems. Where the social and ecological impacts of mining lithium, a scarce resource commonly named as “white gold”, are unsustainable, the abundance of sodium-based resources are thought to be a viable option. While the transition to a battery economy has far reaching global implications, research from and in Norway has a particularly important role to play.
“Norway is a really good case study because they already have a lot of electric cars and lots of batteries that will need replacing, sooner than in other countries. They are looking now for new industry areas to move away from oil, so battery production is where they see they could move into. There are lots of initiatives in Norway to actually start producing batteries.”
Dr. Marianne Zeyringer, Associate Professor in renewable energy systems at the Department of Energy Systems, UiO, is explaining the motivation for EMPOWER at the Department of Informatics offices. In many ways, the project is unusual: it combines systems modelling, a discipline Zeyringer describes as largely technically and economically focussed, with qualitative mapping of the social and environmental impacts of battery production, storage, consumption and reuse. The project calls in an eclectic range of advisory board members, from Bilkollektivet, a non-profit car sharing ring in Oslo, to the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association. In addition to being a cooperation between the Department of Technology Systems, the Department of Informatics, the Department of Psychology, the Department of Private Law, the Department of Mathematics and Department of Education, the project also happens to be overwhelmingly led by women in research. Further, education, public outreach and a focus on early career researchers are baked into the project, with workshops due to be held at UiO’s Klimahuset. Having worked at University College London, Zeyringer is also enthusiastic about working with both colleagues in Norway and in the United Kingdom for the project.
Cross-disciplinarity for modelling social transitions
The University of Oslo recently announced its commitment to taking the lead in sustainability action through cross-disciplinarity. Though not always easy to execute, Zeyringer explains what finding common ground between disciplines can bring to the table:
“I really wanted to work interdisciplinarily. Modelling is very techno-economic – so we consider technologies and costs, but often we leave out the wider social aspects that actually shape the transition.”
While batteries will play an essential role in integrating solar and wind into energy systems, it can be difficult to paint the big picture with the brush of just one discipline. Marianne uses the example of wind energy modelling to explain that while their models might be able to pin point the most cost effective place to build wind farms, they do not account for the socio-political resistance with which windfarms have been met in Norway. That, or the issue that energy system modellers perceive EVs as a sustainable transport option; while in social ecology EV batteries can be understood as an unsustainable technology, causing environmental problems as well as human rights violations related to raw material extraction.
Legal frameworks for circular battery systems
The idea of the project is to measure where Norway is on battery technology and implementation, and then use a circular economy framework to reimagine where it might take us. For example, the focus on batteries in mobility will enable material scientists working on EMPOWER to understand the potential for reusing batteries from bicycle and scooters first for electric cars and eventually to be put together for grid storage. Grid storage, both daily and seasonal, is one of the biggest challenges facing renewable energy roll-out. Known as the infamous ‘duck curve’ (the graph is duck-shaped) in solar energy research, this is because energy consumption is typically sporadic; as our energy needs wax and wane – we need a place for energy safekeeping. It takes energy to store energy, which is again why Norway’s abundance of hydropower positions battery research well, geographically speaking.
Dr. Eléonore Maitre-Ekern, a partner from the Department of Private Law on the project, has been researching legal frameworks for circular economy since 2012. At the time, she explains, ideas about circularity had been established in the field of economics since the 90s, but were still only talked about in policy circles in the framework of the not so ambitious Integrated Product Policy. Fortunately, Maitre-Ekern finds that discussions around product regulation are becoming increasingly holistic. The establishment of the EU Eco-Design Directive and its circular frameworks points to a start. As Maitre-Ekern points out, “these are very complex issues and we really need to start taking the time to regulate the overall complexity and not shy away from that.”
International ambitions, local solutions
Modelling, designing and regulating batteries in mobility for sustainable transitions raises a number of challenges and opportunities, such as, for instance, ownership models. Maitre-Ekern warns against relying too heavily on the EU model, wishing instead to shift the focus of the project to empirically grounded, local experiences. Taking the recent influx of e-scooters in cities around Norway as a case in point, she outlines the pitfalls:
“If you look at e-scooters for example, it’s the antithesis of sustainability. But at the same time it’s typically the type of consumption that we talk about when we talk about circular economy… it’s really important to look into what we do, how we do it – not just because it seems like a good idea, it seems circular but that it actually brings about the transition that we need. Norway’s new strategy is very much relying on the EU to lead legislation changes, it’s not good enough.”
Professor Maja van der Velden, Director of the Sustainability Lab and partner on the project, is looking forward to the project launch. Follow us on our social media channels to keep up to date with research findings and events.