Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future

5.00 out of 5
(2 customer reviews)


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Editorial Reviews


“In Charged, Turner offers an eminently readable, elegantly precise treatise on the topic of batteries.”―Science

“Turner’s pathbreaking book deftly unpacks a key feature of modern history―the battery―and traces its globe-spanning material footprint. Detailing the incremental successes in battery engineering and recycling alongside the industry’s persistent failures in social and environmental justice, Charged is nothing short of a manual for building a more humane clean energy future.”―Megan A. Black, author of The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power

“Charged answers all the questions you didn’t know to ask about batteries then and now. It complicates basic assumptions about technology, supply chains, and sustainability. And Turner marshals it all to offer a remarkably specific (dare I say electrifying?) blueprint to achieve the early-21st-century great white whale―a just transition to a clean energy future.”―Jenny Price, author of Stop Saving the Planet! An Environmentalist Manifesto

“Lithium ion batteries, electric vehicles, and their critical mineral supply chains are the oil pipelines of tomorrow. Charged is crucial in framing our biggest challenge: scaling from the niche critical minerals to mainstream commodities fueling the fourth industrial revolution.”―Simon Moores, CEO of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence

“Charged is history that can make history. Jay Turner’s brilliant book will help with one of the great challenges of our time―the transition to a sustainable energy system. Full of arresting insights, written with grace and verve, Charged ends with smart suggestions about what still needs to change for batteries to drive a greener future. It’s a model for historians who aim to shape contemporary debate about pressing issues and a must-read for everyone working to move the world beyond fossil fuels.”―Adam Rome, author of The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation

Book Description

The dirty work essential to a clean energy transition

About the Author

James Morton Turner is professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College. He is author of The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964 and coauthor of The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump.

Additional information

Publisher ‏

‎ University of Washington Press (August 16, 2022)

Language ‏

‎ English

Hardcover ‏

‎ 256 pages

ISBN-10 ‏

‎ 0295750243

ISBN-13 ‏

‎ 978-0295750248

Item Weight ‏

‎ 1.15 pounds

Dimensions ‏

‎ 6.36 x 0.91 x 9.25 inches

2 reviews for Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future

  1. 5 out of 5

    Joe Conley

    Essential Reading for the Clean-Energy TransitionJames Turner’s Charged is essential reading for anyone interested in the transition to a clean energy future. Richly documented and researched, Charged explores the critical battery technologies that powered the technological revolutions of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. Batteries have long been in a kind of technological “black box”—shrouded in mystery or taken for granted, despite their crucial role in powering our modern technologies. In Turner’s skilled telling, batteries provide the pivot point for a deep exploration of not only battery technologies themselves, but also the complicated social and environmental networks in which they are entangled—including the webs of international supply chains, materials mining and processing, and transportation.With President Biden’s sweeping climate bill (the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022), the United States is poised for a massive push toward renewables and electrification in the coming years. This timely book provides critical context for anyone seeking to understand the issues at stake in the clean-energy transition. This transition will require greatly increased production of batteries, solar panels, and other resource-intensive technologies—each with its own unique set of human health and environmental costs.As Turner vividly documents, the mining and processing operations required to extract the materials for various battery technologies often have been energy intensive, exposed workers to hazardous conditions and chemicals, and damaged local ecosystems. Looking to the future, Turner warns that the clean-energy transition “risks trading one set of resource dependencies and environmental injustices for another.” He writes, “Decarbonizing the economy may curb society’s demand for fossil fuels, but it is going to mean ramping up use of a different set of nonrenewable materials and chemicals.” Turner’s wide-lens, cradle-to-grave approach to battery technologies provides the type of lifecycle perspective that will be critical to ensuring an environmentally-just clean-energy transition.Turner takes a deep-dive into three key battery chemistries that made possible the transportation, electronics, and other consumer technologies of the modern world: lead-acid batteries, single-use batteries (e.g., AA), and lithium-ion batteries. Each of these battery technologies came with its own unique set of environmental and social costs.In the twentieth-century, lead-acid storage batteries became ubiquitous as starter batteries for twentieth-century gasoline powered vehicles. But the environmental and social costs of mining operations—intertwined with global trade systems—were there from the start. Much of the sulfur needed to make the batteries in the early 1900s was mined in Sicily, where child labor and brutal working conditions prevailed. When technological change made sulfur mining feasible in Louisiana, the Sicilian industry collapsed, contributing to mass migration from Sicily to the United States.Meanwhile, the high toxicity of lead meant workers making lead-acid batteries were faced hazards on the job. Prominent industrial hygienist and progressive-era reformer, Alice Hamilton, undertook site visits at lead smelters, refineries and manufacturers, documenting high levels of lead exposure. Elsewhere, lead mines left behind a ravaged landscape of waste rock and tailing ponds in places such as Missouri’s lead belts.But Turner shows that lead-acid batteries were, in some respects, also an environmental success story. Incremental improvements ultimately led to almost universal recycling of the batteries in the United States, though far less so in the developing world. However, this came at the same time that rich countries such as the US increasingly outsourced the environmental and health impacts of recycling to developing countries. Since the 1970s “the burdens of sourcing and recycling lead-acid batteries have increasingly been shipped outside of the United States to other countries with lesser protections for public health and the environment.”From the start, battery technologies have involved intricate supply chains, and energy-intensive production techniques that led to significant environmental impacts and social disruption. The lithium-ion batteries that power twenty-first century cellphones and electric vehicles are no exception.Lithium-ion batteries have come to dominate these markets thanks to their high efficiency, low cost, and reusability. But the rise of lithium-ion technology has carried high costs as well. A major component of many lithium-ion batteries is nickel, much of which is sourced from a Russian company in the Siberian region of Norilsk. As production expanded to meet global demand in the 2000s, the environmental fallout expanded too. Nickel extraction “left behind a wasteland scorched by sulfur pollution,” making the entire region one of the worst-polluted sites in the world and reducing the life-expectancy of workers by a decade.Moreover, there is little hope for replacing such mining in the near future, as demand for batteries continues to grow. Turner notes that it will likely be years before a substantial amount of the materials needed for lithium-ion batteries will be recovered through recycling programs.Against this background, Turner urges a “just transition” to clean energy that will not only reform the practices of extracting and processing raw materials, but also support “new mining operations, trade policies, and certification schemes aimed at ensuring that the coming boom in materials production at home and abroad does not reproduce the injustices of the fossil fuel past.” Turner argues that government intervention here is crucial. This includes efforts to secure needed mineral resources, develop domestic mining and processing capacity for key minerals, and support rapid ramp-up of manufacturing for clean technology. But governments must also develop strict regulations surrounding manufacturing techniques as well as disposal processes for newly emerging forms of battery technologies.“Just as the climate challenge requires careful forethought and aggressive action,” he writes, “so too will building the mines, the supply chains, and the recycling infrastructure needed to enable a sustainable and just clean energy future.” Ultimately, Turner urges a new “industrial ecological literacy that can reveal how these technologies entangle us in the material world, with vast social and environmental consequences.” Charged is a model of the kind of industrial ecological literacy that can help guide the world’s radical shift to clean energy in the years ahead.

  2. 3 out of 5

    Cody Allen

    Batteries are essential to our energy future…but not as essential as curbing global consumerismBatteries are a little-talked about yet integral piece of our future (and past) energy usage. We all know that fossil fuels will eventually run out and humankind must switch to renewable sources of energy, (regardless whether it happens during our generation or the next) and in order to capture that energy and store it, we will need the best batteries available. Thanks to a century and a half of innovation, batteries have continually optimized for power, capacity, durability, and safety. It has been a long road.The first widely distributed battery was the lead-acid battery. These batteries were large and leaky, and manufactured at a time when we didn’t fully comprehend the damages that lead can cause when it infiltrates the blood stream. Once upon a time in the United States, we had lead in our paint, lead in our water pipes, and lead in our batteries. We mined a large proportion of this lead from mines in Louisiana and the safety measures were abysmal. People throughout the entire surrounding area of the mine were documented with lead in the their blood at high enough levels to incite a myriad of health problems, shortening life spans and inciting sickness and death. Eventually, in the 1970s, regulators recognized the bodily harm induced by lead and demanded more safety measures at the mining facilities (in addition to removing lead from paint and pipes). Many lessons were learned the hard way.On the heels of the lead-acid battery came portable, disposable batteries, which brought a host of other pros and cons into the limelight. The pros were the use and enjoyment of portable electronics that revolutionized the modern world; things like flashlights, toys, and music players. The major con was the pile of trash they became once their charge was used up. “A profusion of products, many designed to be convenient and disposable, meant consumers were buying and throwing away more and more stuff. Although batteries accounted for less than one-tenth of the nation’s household trash, batteries accounted for the vast majority of the toxic heavy metals in household waste.” Logically, the industry began a campaign of recycling batteries for reuse (as they also did with lead-acid batteries as well).Recycling batteries created new problems: It often took more energy to collect, sort, and ship them to recycling centers than was actually saved by avoiding the production of new raw materials. “In the case of energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and resource consumption, recycling was more costly than landfilling for existing recycling scenarios.” Here again, there were pros and cons, as our author elaborates: “Where it was a net positive was in reducing toxicity—meaning the threat of pollution to human health and the environment—although this was also the metric with the highest levels of uncertainty.”While regulations in the United States were improving the health and safety of workers in the domestic mineral mines, those aboard were a different story. Cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nickel mines in the arctic circle in Russia, and lithium mines in Chile and China all sprang up to meet the demand of precious metals needed for newer and more efficient batteries. However, the regulations in these areas lagged behind those in the United States, and many locals communities were (and still are) negatively effected. Their water is poisoned, their children grow up sick, and their land is pulverized until it is empty of minerals, at which point the companies move on. These problems have exacerbated as more and different minerals have been sought for a larger and wider supply of efficient batteries.While the 1920s saw the rise in batteries attributed to the rise of household radios, the future will see battery production ramp up for usage in electric cars and other transportation vehicles. The newest on the market are lithium-ion batteries, most popularly used by Tesla in their fully-electric vehicles. A major positive for lithium-ion batteries is their rechargability—in addition to their longer-lifespan and low toxicity. Making batteries rechargeable has been another important step in helping to curb the creation of so much waste.In his conclusion, Turner asserts that we must recognize the reality that a Prius or a Tesla “contributes a lot more than it doesn’t to the wildly high-polluting industrial practices that devastate our atmosphere, bodies, forests, rivers, oceans, wetlands, wildlife, and more.” Batteries these days have a large variety of precious metals that go into their manufacturing, and sourcing these materials from around the world is costly, both financially and environmentally, especially when you consider the fact that we are still using fossil fuels to do it. Even in our modern age, batteries still pose a need for a balance between two important factors: the need for clean, efficient, socially and environmentally friendly energy, and the reality that making these necessary batteries continues to harm our planet and our communities.While there are many ways to help alleviate this problem, there is one that will change things the most: “reducing economic activity, downscaling consumption, and giving up on the ‘fantasy’ of decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts.” In short, we need to stop our constant growth, for as long as we are growing, we will continue to consume, and the earth only has so much to offer. This idea challenges the very basis of modern society, especially in more-developed countries such as the United States, and will be hard-pressed to be adopted. In the meantime, we must do our best to find the balance between what society demands and what our planet can safely offer.

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