ILA Blog

Lead’s role in the sustainable energy transition

To celebrate EU Sustainable Energy Week, read on for seven ways that lead is enabling the EU’s sustainable energy transition.

1. Driving the electric vehicle (EV) revolution

As an essential onboard component in mild-hybrid, full-hybrid and EVs, lead batteries play a crucial role in clean mobility. The lead battery has much the same function in both EVs and Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles – powering critical on-board emergency and safety functions such as anti-lock brakes and airbag sensors. As the technology behind ‘start-stop’ micro-hybrid vehicles, lead batteries stop the engine when the car comes to a stop, and seamlessly restart the car when the brake is released or the clutch is pressed. Delivering a reduction of up to 10% CO2 emissions, start-stop technology is one of the most cost-effective ways to yield fuel savings. Lead batteries are also being more widely installed in EV charging stations to improve their efficiency and reduce cost.

2. Improving energy storage for renewable energy

Lead batteries play a vital role in enabling clean energy. The global demand for electrical power will increase by well over 50% over the next couple of decades. By balancing power grids and saving surplus energy, battery energy storage represents a reliable means of integrating more renewable energy sources into electricity systems and enhancing European energy security. Most of this increase will be met by renewable energy, chiefly wind and solar power. As renewables rise up the energy mix, so does the need for energy storage systems (ESS) to store this power for when it’s needed. Lead batteries have shown a significant increase in the performance needed for renewable energy storage applications. Coupled with their very low battery system cost, lead batteries can reduce the costs and complexity of the renewable energy storage set up.

3. Supporting a surge in wind energy

Wind energy is set to become the EU’s largest power source by 2027. High powered offshore wind, because they can take up more space, (at a premium on land) are therefore steadier and faster than on land, meaning more energy can be generated. Lead sheathed cables are a critical piece of infrastructure supporting this offshore technology, as they provide necessary and continuous protection from water across thousands of kilometres of cables – there is no alternative that provides the same level of continuous water protection, longevity and corrosion resistance. Current offshore wind farm and interconnector projects underway in the EU rely on more than 3,000 km of lead-sheathed cables – used for power transmission and super-grid power balancing between offshore islands, between countries, and even across geographic regions for offshore power transmission. A growing reliance on this technology means an increasingly important role for lead.

4. Harnessing the benefits of solar energy

Solar panels are currently the cheapest means for governments to increase their share of renewables and reduce CO2 emissions. Lead is part of the alloy used to coat the photovoltaic (PV) ribbons used inside solar panels. It imparts durability to the solar cells inside the panel, by lowering the melting point of the metallic coating and reducing thermal stress (necessary after prolonged sun exposure). Addressing this issue has seen lead become an important part of current and future solar panel design. Improving the durability and reliability of solar panels ensures homeowners and other users can realise the economic and environmental benefits of this low carbon technology for longer.

5. Providing uninterrupted power energy source

The increased use of lead batteries is powering the shift to more renewable energy sources. Due to the intermittent nature of renewables such as solar and wind, there is a greater need for energy storage across electricity networks to maintain power and consistency. An example of this can be found in Scotland on the Fair Isle. Previously, due to reliability on a diesel generator and wind power, the Isle had a night time blackout until 7:30 am. A solar photovoltaic (PV) system, new wind turbines, and a lead battery microgrid have enabled Fair Isle to benefit from continuous power for the first time.

Fair Isle’s lead battery microgrid harnesses renewable energy from wind and solar sources.

Credit: Rolls Battery Engineering 

6. Making Europe’s recycling industry one of the most advanced and efficient in the world

As Europe works towards a sustainable business environment, the ability to recycle metals efficiently is increasingly important. The carrier metal properties of lead make it an efficient and effective enabler for the recycling of non-ferrous metals, from gallium used in mobile phones and solar panels, to precious metals including gold and even platinum. It maintains the value of products, materials and resources for as long as possible, returning them into the product cycle at the end of their use and minimising the generation of waste. With a quarter of the world’s recycled metals already generated in Europe, lead metallurgy can ensure Europe’s continued global leadership role in the circular economy.

7. Setting the standard for modern battery recycling and production

Lead batteries are the gold standard in adopting the EU’s circular economy principles. Unlike other commonly recycled materials, such as paper or plastics, lead can be recycled infinitely without diminishing in quality. 75 % of lead in European lead batteries is now produced from recycled sources. Thanks to its long-established collection and recycling scheme, almost all used lead batteries are collected for recycling – the highest of all battery technologies. Every year, more than 100 million used lead batteries are kept out of the EU's waste stream by a value chain embracing circular economy principles and operating in a fully closed loop. 

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