In recent months, the issue of battery manufacturing safety in China has made the news headlines. However, it hasn’t made as much news in the RE world as I would like to see. After I read Kelly Davidson’s excellent article last month about recycling, I’m prompted to elaborate on battery manufacturing, and why it’s a good idea to buy batteries made in the United States.
The Chinese Ministry of the Environment has forced the closure of hundreds of the country’s battery manufacturing plants due to their poor handling of lead used in making lead acid batteries. Lead is very toxic and expensive to handle safely, both for workers and the environment. For example, according to Reuters, China phased out 583 lead-acid producers, processors, and recyclers as of mid-July 2011. The recent crackdown covered 1,930 plants, 1,015 of which were temporally closed for upgrading. That is a staggering number of plants to shut down, even for a little while.
While I’m not against the manufacture of batteries or anything else made in China, I’m concerned about these revelations. It’s a good thing that the Chinese government is improving its environmental standards, but will these standards be as high as our domestic standards, and how long will they be in place? What is its commitment?
Renewable energy is not sustainable as long as we prioritize short-term costs over long-term environmental goals and workplace safety. This includes the manufacture of batteries, PV modules, inverters, and balance-of-system components. As equipment gets less expensive, I think it is time to consider more seriously where our equipment comes from and how it’s made, not just its cost at time of purchase.
There is also the transportation of batteries to consider when choosing whether to buy American or not. I wonder about the embedded energy in a battery that is made in China, shipped across the ocean, used in the United States, and then shipped back to China for recycling. That’s a lot of lead getting shipped around the planet. Again, wouldn’t it make more sense to manufacture and recycle lead-acid batteries here, safely and efficiently?