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Feb 2, 2017

An Endless Hunger for Power

Why lithium batteries may be the power source of the future.

Our hunger for power seems insatiable…and this is not just true in the United States, but also in Russia, China and many other nations. The world is filled with power-hungry people from all walks of life. Leaders and ordinary citizens alike are seeking more and more power. And no matter how you analyze the data (and there’s tons of it), this trend is likely to intensify in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Although this dynamic may in fact also be true for individuals seeking to impose their will upon those with whom they disagree, I’m actually referring to our insatiable appetite for electric power. A rapidly growing global middle class is generating rising demand for refrigerators, computers, televisions, air conditioners, smartphones and many other power-hungry goods. Further, because fossil fuels are used to generate a large portion of the power produced in the world, many are justifiably concerned about the impact of power-generation on the environment.

Alternative energies like solar and wind offer some hope, but they’re fundamentally unreliable. The sun doesn’t always shine; the wind doesn’t always blow. To make alternative energies a truly viable source of power production, the world needs a robust, cost-effective means of storing energy. And while there are many different approaches to power storage, battery technology is among the more promising of the options. Sure, we’re all aware of the batteries in our smartphones and our laptops, but the possibility of batteries storing enough energy to power thousands of homes is not particularly intuitive.

To make alternative energies a truly viable source of power production, the world needs a robust, cost-effective means of storing energy.

Yet that’s exactly what began this week in California. On Monday, Tesla launched a project near Los Angeles that takes excess power generated from solar during the day and stores it until the evening, when it can be used to offset production that’s less green. Batteries offer a path to viability for alternative energies.

Batteries are heavy users of lithium, an ingredient that can be accessed from subsurface brines or via hard-rock mineral ores. According to the US Geological Survey, Chile has the world’s largest reserves of lithium, followed by China, Argentina and Australia. Lithium demand is poised to skyrocket, driven by growth in the electric vehicle market. Just think about the fact that one electric car uses roughly the same amount of lithium as 10,000 mobile phones. Yowser!

Last month, I was in Chile to address the country’s Mining Council. Given my fascination with energy storage and lithium, I took a trip to Salar de Atacama, the country’s largest salt flat and site of the world’s lowest cost lithium producers. I met with managers at Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile S.A. (SQM) who showed me around the company’s operations. Over the course of my three-hour visit, I developed a deep appreciation for the complexities and scale of the business as well as a respect for how thoughtful SQM had been about protecting the environment.

While touring the operations, I couldn’t help but note the amazing global supply chain that had taken the lithium containing salt brine I had run through my fingers from below the world’s driest non-polar desert over to Asian battery factories and eventually into an affordable smartphone that was so fundamental to my day-to-day existence. Globalization and trade, I realized, work.

But it clearly doesn’t work for everyone—hence the current backlash against free trade, open borders and global markets. The world needs a new approach. But before we generate one, we need to better understand the current situation. Might citizens of the world be blaming the wrong cause? Isn’t it possible that technology is the real source of the uneven outcomes? Robotics and automation are stealing jobs. Will less trade address this trend? Return on capital has been outstripping return on labor. Will closing borders change this dynamic?

Amidst the rapidly rising uncertainty in the world today, one thing seems certain: Leaders must adopt more inclusive policies, stronger safety nets and more progressive approaches to helping those left behind by globalization and technology. Not doing so risks generating an existential threat to global capitalism.

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