Two Southwest Tribes Raise Concerns Over Uranium Storage

Tribal communities in Arizona and Utah face environmental problems connected to the same radioactive resource: uranium.

In White Mesa, Utah, at America’s last uranium mill, a pool of toxic waste is emitting dangerous amounts of radon to the surrounding communities, among them the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. This isn’t news: In November 2021, High Country News reported on the improperly stored waste and its impacts on the community, and in December — thanks to EcoFlight’s aerial photography and a proactive tribal government — the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice to Energy Fuels Resources, ordering it to address the issue. Five months later, however, the improper storage practices persist.

In March, follow-up aerial shots from EcoFlight revealed a noticeable difference between the photograph taken in August 2021; the tailings cells, which consist of radioactive waste typically submerged in liquid from the uranium processing, have since decreased even further, increasing the amount of exposed toxic compounds. The visual evidence arrived two months after EPA representatives visited the site on Jan. 13. At the time, it was estimated that 60% of Cell 4B was uncovered. In a March letter from the EPA, the agency reported that Energy Fuels’ explanation of this decline is due to water conservation practices and extracting vanadium from the liquid, a rare earth mineral, for profit.

While efforts are currently underway to hold the mill accountable, Scott Clow, the Ute Mountain’s Environmental Programs director, says that the company wants to be in business until it is no longer profitable.

“There is a lot of uncertainty. We do know that when, eventually, the owners of that mill find it is no longer profitable to operate, and they will close it, they will be required to spend what they have set aside in a bond to do as much as they can for reclaiming it safely,” Clow said.  “And then it’ll be the responsibility of the Department of Energy under their legacy program — and our tax dollars — to pay for it.”

Complicating matters is the possibility that the Biden administration’s Department of Energy will establish a strategic uranium reserve, which would increase the domestic stockpile of uranium — but at a cost. Uranium mines would be able to begin operating and funnel ore to the White Mesa mill for processing. According to Amber Reimondo, the energy policy director at the Grand Canyon Trust, it doesn’t immediately pose problems for White Mesa residents, but might present long-term ecological and community health problems. Reimondo doesn’t believe it makes sense for uranium mines in the U.S. to begin extraction when the quality of the uranium here is lower, and it’s more expensive than it would be coming from countries like Australia or Canada.

“We did a lot of work at the beginning of the Biden administration trying to help decision-makers understand the implications of something like that,” Reimondo told HCN. “Especially because so (many) of the uranium deposits in the United States are either on or near tribal lands.”

This would further compound the concerns of local residents — concerns that are echoed throughout the Southwest. The Pinyon Plain Mine, located near the Havasupai Tribe and close to the Grand Canyon, is also owned by Energy Fuels. The Pinyon Mine recently received approval from Arizona for an aquifer permit. Carletta Tilousi, who served on the Havasupai Tribe’s council in Arizona, told HCN that if the strategic uranium reserve is established, the Pinyon Plain Mine would resume operations.

“If the uranium from Pinyon Plain mine goes (to White Mesa) and contaminates people, we feel responsible — Havasupai people feel responsible — because if we don’t stop it from our end, then it’s going to contaminate other human lives,” Tilousi said. “And that’s something that the Havasupai elders would always stress, that we can’t just sit back and not say anything on this end in the cycle of uranium process.”

Tilousi added that Havasupai communities have previously experienced negative impacts from the mine, including onsite water contamination and destruction of the nearby sacred mountain Red Butte.

In an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in late March, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., voiced his support for prioritizing domestic mineral supply chains to curb U.S. reliance on Russian minerals, including uranium. “They don’t understand that human life, water and animal life is so important here,” Tilousi said.

Meanwhile, Clow’s department has secured a small grant from the EPA that will enable the tribe to find a qualified candidate to design an epidemiological study of the direct and indirect health effects the White Mesa Mill has had on local residents, as well as its environmental impacts on the land. The study will look at the impacts of living in close proximity to the mine; for example, it will calculate the economic cost to community members who have to purchase bottled water because the local water supply is undrinkable. It will also examine how Native residents are affected when they are forced to cease traditional activities, such as picking plants for medicine.

Ultimately, the community will end up having to bear the costs of far-off industries, both nationally and globally, whether the nuclear waste comes from countries like Japan and Estonia or from nuclear power plants on the East Coast. “The initial mass and impact on the environment and public health are here,” in the West, Clow said. “And then the end impact is here” — also in the West.

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We Need to Change the Abortion Rights Narrative

Banning abortion pushes the U.S. towards the path of becoming a third rate power, with uneducated, unemployable citizens whose lives will need to be subsidized by government dollars. 

Looking at abortion as solely a women’s rights issue has not served women well.  It’s time to build a louder narrative around the larger economic issues, our country’s place in the world order, and overpopulation.

Typically I don’t overshare, but it’s time we all speak up. Eons ago, when I was a college student I had an abortion. I loved my partner very deeply but knew that I was not yet ready to raise myself, never mind a family. I had to do a lot of research and then travel to a different state to have the procedure, since Pennsylvania, where I lived, didn’t legalize abortion until 1982. I scraped together the money from friends. And I never told my parents.

Every woman who has a story about how abortion saved them from a very different life trajectory needs to speak up now.

I thought that the mostly bi-partisan war over the right to choose would last forever. It provided a clean, convenient wedge between party ideologies. Something we could disagree on in theory, while retaining our rights in perpetuity. I called that one wrong. I didn’t see SCOTUS, even the newly stacked one, as having the guts (polite word) to break the nearly five-decade old barricade of its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Collectively we’ll do the obligatory handwringing about whistleblowing and document leaking.  Women will be deservedly incensed about the loss of hard-won freedom. But we all know how the story ends. SCOTUS decides that it’s beyond their scope to decide the fate of a woman’s right to choose. It will become a state by state issue where the state that you live in becomes more important to abortion rights than religion, education, gender or pretty much any other factor. Twenty states (representing 40% of the country) are poised to ban abortion immediately following the court’s decision, which as Trevor Noah pointed out “will make living in South Dakota harsher than living in Afghanistan under Sharia law.”

Logic, like the fact that most people in this country don’t want to do away with  Roe v. Wade, no longer seems to matter. Protests demanding the right to choose only seem to increase the zealousness of the opposition. It’s time to broaden the abortion rights story so that it hits lawmakers where it hurts — their pocketbooks and their egos. The story needs to shift from just being about rights to a larger one about economics, population control, family planning, health, and most importantly, America’s waning influence in the modern world.

Which Country Do You Want to Look Like

Banning abortion puts the U.S. in some very bad company. Abortions are completely banned in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Those are really poor countries with a multitude of problems. Others that ban abortions include  Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Suriname, Tonga, and the West Bank & Gaza Strip – generally not happy places with vital economies.

There are, by contrast, no restrictions on abortions in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and even in predominantly Catholic countries like Italy and Ireland. It’s reasonably clear that if you overlay the map of where abortions are banned on top of a map that delineates quality of life and prosperity, you see a pattern.

Even some of the most authoritarian countries like Iran and Russia have no restrictions on abortions. And China, which we love to fault for its human rights violations, has no nationwide ban on abortion. Instead there are governmental agencies whose job it is to help with family planning. Most countries fall on a spectrum where abortion laws are conditional, focused on saving a woman’s life, maintaining her health, mental health issues, rape and incest, fetal impairments and sometimes even the socioeconomic situation of the mother. In Cyprus, Hong Kong, Finland and Barbados, for example, you can be granted an abortion if you are not financially able to raise a child. The map is varied and complex, but if the U.S. were to leave abortion rights up to the states, a large swath of the country would quickly fall into lockstep with some of the poorest, least healthy countries on earth.

We All Pick Up the Tab

Abortions are going to happen whether they’re legal or not. Illegal ones are just more dangerous. Maternal health in the United States is already at the pathetic line. We’re tied for 57th place, and studies show that banning abortions would increase the rate of maternal death by 20-30%.

In our choiceless future, we’ll see more hungry babies born to mothers who can’t feed or educate them properly. Women will be held back from entering the workforce and earning good salaries because of unwanted pregnancies. Seriously-disabled and impaired children will be born into families that cannot provide for their needs. There will be enormous mental health repercussions of unwanted pregnancies.

The list goes on and on, but at the end it’s the taxpayers who will pick up the burden of bringing unwanted children into the world. In some states — Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma — more than 80 percent of unplanned births are already paid for with public dollars. Unplanned pregnancies cost US taxpayers $21 billion each year, according to one analysis. And that’s what it’s been like while abortions have been legal.

A study by the Brookings Institution found that abortion access “profoundly affects women’s lives.” It explains that having that right helps determine “whether, when, and under what circumstances they become mothers, outcomes which then reverberate through their lives, affecting marriage patterns, educational attainment, labor force participation, and earnings.”  The bottom line, says the study, is that “Restricting, or outright eliminating, abortion access by overturning Roe v. Wade would diminish women’s personal and economic lives, as well as the lives of their families.”

I’m not a political scholar, but I understand how to tell stories.  When the “it’s the right thing to do” story stops resonating, turn up the volume on a new story. Banning abortion pushes the U.S. towards the path of becoming a third rate power, with uneducated, unemployable citizens whose lives will need to be subsidized by government dollars.

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Ukraine’s Nuclear Power Plants Caught in the Crossfire of War With Russia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered fears of another nuclear power disaster in the region, 36 years after the world’s largest nuclear accident.

It took less than a minute after an unexpected power surge for one of the nuclear reactors at Chornobyl (Chernobyl in the Russian spelling) to explode on April 26, 1986, ripping the roof off and spewing dangerous chemicals into the air.

The event, and emergency cleanup that followed, left 30 workers dead, thousands exposed to cancer-causing nuclear material, and a legacy of radiation. Now, 36 years later and with war raging, Ukraine is desperate to prevent another nuclear disaster.

Nuclear reactors generate more than half of the country’s power. Ukraine is the first country with such a large and established nuclear energy program to experience war, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The country’s 15 nuclear reactors, housed in four power plants, have layers of safeguards to prevent core meltdowns like the one that happened in 1986, when Chornobyl was part of the Soviet Union. But wartime is far from normal conditions, and experts warn that Russian military action poses numerous threats to these facilities.

Andrey Ozharovsky, a Russian engineer turned anti-nuclear activist, said Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure is “quite vulnerable” to the chaos surrounding military attacks.

Chornobyl, Again

Those attacks have already begun.

The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the 20-mile exclusion zone around it, set up to limit further spread of radioactive material following the 1986 disaster, were captured by Russian forces on Feb. 24. It was in their control until they withdrew from the site on March 31.

Although Chornobyl is not an active nuclear power plant, the massive cap covering the reactor that exploded decades ago still needs to be maintained to prevent further radiation leakage.

Sensors put in place by the Ukrainian Ecocentre in case of an accident reported a spike in radiation levels shortly after the capture, likely due to Russian military vehicles stirring up radiation in the environment.

The IAEA said the rise wasn’t enough to pose a public health hazard.

Ozharovsky, who was one of the first to raise an alarm about the recent spike at Chornobyl, said he’s concerned that radioactive dust from the site could spread across the continent.

“The most dangerous thing is that they can bring radioactive particles in their hair, in their clothes and their boots,” he says.

Olga Kosharna, a member of the Ukraine Nuclear Society, urged experts to create an updated map of radioactive contamination in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone and to restrict movement in the area.

Ukrainian officials released footage, recorded since Russia’s withdrawal, which appears to show that Russian troops had built trenches and other fortifications in parts of the exclusion zone. Those actions may have further disturbed radioactive material in the soil and plants.

On April 26 Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA, and a team of agency experts arrived in Chornobyl “to conduct nuclear safety, security and radiological assessments, deliver vital equipment and repair the agency’s remote safeguards monitoring systems,” according to a statement from the agency.

Grossi says radioactivity levels at Chornobyl have returned to “normal” after the “very, very dangerous” Russian occupation of the site.

Nuclear Plant Captured

Chornobyl isn’t the only concern. Ukraine’s active nuclear-power facilities are also at risk.

On March 4, Russian forces captured Europe’s largest active nuclear-power plant, Zaporizhzhia, located in southeastern Ukraine. During intense fighting one of the site’s buildings caught fire, but didn’t harm the plant’s six reactors, and no radiation was released.

Ukrainian technicians continue to monitor Zaporizhzhia, but the country’s regulators have claimed that Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power company, has engineers at the plant who are giving orders to staff. Further, Ukraine reports that plant management actions require approval from the Russian commander, according to the IAEA.

“Who is now in charge of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant?” asks Ozharovsky. “The Russian army is around, but armies aren’t nuclear engineers.”

Rosatom released a statement on March 12 and denied that they’re managing the operation of Zaporizhzhia. They characterized their staff’s presence at the plant as “consultative assistance” that takes place “on a regular basis.”

Grossi expressed “deep concern” about the situation in a statement last month.

Further Threats

Since then, there’s been more reason for alarm.

On April 16, three missiles flew over the South Ukrainian nuclear power plant, Yuzhnoukrainsk, according to Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power company.

Then on April 26 Energoatom reported that two cruise missiles flew over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

“The flight of missiles at low altitudes directly above the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant site, where 7 nuclear facilities with a huge amount of nuclear material are located, poses huge risks,” says Petro Kotin, Energoatom’s acting president, in a statement released on the company’s Telegram channel. “After all, missiles can hit one or more nuclear facilities, and this threatens a nuclear and radiation catastrophe around the world.”

The day before, Energoatom reported that Russia fired missiles over the cooling pond of the Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plant in northwest Ukraine.

Russia hasn’t commented on Energoatom’s claims.

Kosharna wrote in an email that if a missile would’ve hit one of the plants the consequences would have been “catastrophic” for the world.

A stray missile damaging the plant could cause an explosion that would disrupt the power supply. Power is needed to ensure continuous cooling of the fuel rods to prevent a meltdown.

Typically nuclear plants use back-up generators to maintain power with a grid disruption and keep the cooling systems functioning normally. In wartime fuel shortages are common, and this risks the stability of the generators. Ukraine’s current shortage is only getting worse, according to the Gas Transmission Operator of Ukraine, a gas pipeline operator.

If the grid goes down and the generators are out of fuel and the cooling systems fail, there’s a last resort to prevent radiation from spreading. Containment structures around the reactors are designed to block any release of radiation, but they’re also vulnerable to missile attacks.

Reactor failure isn’t the only significant risk to the operation.

Staff operating facilities under extreme stress also poses a problem, Ozharovsky says, because any mistake they make on the job could be calamitous.

There are also other onsite dangers. Spent nuclear fuel storage pools that are a part of the waste-disposal system contain radioactive material. If they’re damaged the liquid could be released from containment, causing a massive spread of radiation. Japanese scientists considered this to be the “worst-case scenario” of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which had a series of meltdowns after a tsunami struck the plant in 2011.

Ozharovsky said he doesn’t believe the Russian military would deliberately sabotage one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants because it would threaten their interests. But he added that even the possibility that the nuclear power plants could be harmed accidentally should trigger worldwide alarm.

“For me it’s scary,” he says. “All the other nuclear power plants, like Khmelnytskyi, like Rivne, like South Ukraine (Yuzhnoukrainsk); they can be damaged during this war. And the international community needs to take care of that.”

Any attack on a nuclear plant is a breach of international humanitarian law. The Geneva Convention’s Article 56 considers attacking a nuclear power plant a war crime.

“I hope that many other countries who still have nuclear energy on their territory will rethink physical safety, military safety,” Ozharovsky says. “That’s a challenge no one country can solve.”

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The UN Sets Historic Targets for Global Connectivity

It’s no longer enough to just say people “need to be connected to the internet.” We require clear targets, especially since 2.9 billion people remain offline. So now the ITU and the UN Sec-General’s office have put on paper what connection really means. It is a set of guideposts and a mandate for action.

Absolutely everyone in the world older than 15 should be connected to the internet at an affordable price. Every home, business and school should have access. And the entire population of the world ought to be covered by a modern mobile network.

These are not crazy goals. Those of us privileged enough to already live under such conditions can barely imagine not living a connected life. Yet more than one-third of the world’s population remains offline. It’s a scandal. That’s why it’s important, and even historic, that the UN has finally come up with clear metrics to tell us how well we’re doing in connecting the planet. This is a critical element in achieving the 17 ambitious goals for the planet that all nations of the world agreed to–if you can believe it–back in the heady and visionary days of 2015, called the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

Image credit: ITU

But there was always one SDG missing—to connect everyone. While Goal 9–about improving global infrastructure–did address extending the internet, it was a subsidiary goal mentioned pretty far down in the verbiage: “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.” Well obviously even that understated goal was not met, as those 2.9 billion still-unconnected people could attest (if you could reach them to ask).

Many of us felt in 2015, and still feel, that it would be impossible to achieve almost any of the SDGs—which commit to reducing global poverty, ending hunger, and addressing the climate crisis, among other critical tasks–without connecting people so they could be informed and work together on all these challenges.

So it’s something to celebrate that the UN Secretary-General’s Acting Envoy on Technology, Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, together with the International Telecommunications Union, announced in April a set of concrete targets for digital connectivity for 2030. In effect this is a much-needed extension of the SDGs. The move is inspired by and connected to Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres’ own Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which was itself a historic document released in 2020. (The UN under Gutteres, himself an engineer, has put far greater focus on digital issues than ever before.) These 15 new aspirational connectivity goals are meant to help set benchmarks so that from now on we can determine, for every country and geography, just how connected its people are. Up until now there has been no agreed-upon standard for what “connected” even meant.

In June, at the World Telecommunications Development Conference (WTDC) in Kigali, Rwanda, the ITU will release its first assessment of how well the world is doing to achieve these targets. In November Spatolisano and the ITU will launch a dashboard to track the progress of every country in achieving the goals.

Image credit: ITU

The targets are unequivocal about what constitutes connectivity. Everyone over 15 must have a mobile phone. Everyone should be able to connect to a modern mobile broadband network and/or have a broadband wired connection. All homes, businesses and schools must be connected. All fixed broadband connections should be 10 megabits per second (Mb/s) or faster. Every school needs access to a minimum speed of 20 Mb/s, with at least 50 kilobit per second available to each student. Every school gets storage of at least 200 Gigabytes. At least 70% of adults must have basic digital skills, and at least 50% intermediate skills.

Cost is addressed as well. An entry-level broadband subscription must be priced at less than 2% of average gross national income per capita, and also be less than 2% of the average income of the bottom 40% of the country’s population. Many countries are so far from such targets that the initial assessments are not going to be pretty, in some cases. But the point, of course, is to start methodically moving the needle in the right direction.

“Meaningful connectivity is key to achieve digital transformation,” says Doreen Bodgan-Martin, director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, which worked on the targets. “Among today’s estimated 4.9 billion internet users, many have to limit their usage because connectivity is unreliable, too slow, or too expensive.” So the targets will, of course, also improve the internet experience for people who already have some access.

The WTDC in Kigali, June 6-16, will be a global gathering of representatives from all the world’s nations, to help further drive forward this urgent need for progress on connectivity and related challenges. Delayed during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has returned with an even broader group of participants and this newly-ambitious mandate to bring everyone fully online by 2030. Anyone who cares about connectivity has cause to be there and participate in the many discussions. Major tech, telecoms and other companies, NGOs, and other groups that care about connecting the world are invited to take part.

Image credit: ITU

I myself will be there, and I’m quite excited about it. I’ve been working closely with the ITU for the last two years on a series of sessions as part of a related initiative called the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition (P2C). I’ve moderated multiple online and in-person meetings that have gathered participants from all over the world to examine various aspects of the connectivity challenge. In Kigali I will help moderate a three-day P2C meeting beginning June 6 that kicks off the 10-day WTDC gathering.

This issue should be a priority for every thinking person. The world faces a raft of grave challenges, notably climate change and the related challenge of climate-driven migration.  Getting people connected is a critical pathway to work on those issues, as well as move toward achieving all the SDGs. We must do it. All of our futures depend on it.

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Cities and Countries are Solving Real Problems In the Metaverse

Cevat Yerli wants a metaverse rooted in pragmatism, optimism and happiness. He’s not alone.

A generation that’s grown up on video games will help determine how the future plays out, so to speak.  “Gaming is the digital manifestation of our human nature,” says Cevat Yerli, a successful gaming entrepreneur who is the son of Turkish immigrants and was born in Germany.

Today Yerli is using his gaming chops to create a broader vision for an emerging metaverse.  It won’t be filled with Bored Apes or overdressed avatars, he says. His metaverse is called Internet of Life and runs on RealityOS, a 3D engine featuring real-time video twins of its users instead of avatars. He says it “will not be an escapist world like many of my American counterparts are building,” but rather a world where you can experience a rich digital life grounded in getting stuff done and solving major challenges. His vision of the metaverse is one rooted in pragmatism, optimism, and happiness.

Yerli’s first project with his new metaverse company, The TMRW Foundation, was created for the United Arab Emirates, a country that has invested heavily in building out a government metaverse. One of TMRW’s first projects was a metaverse service center for the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention. Residents can get health services and consultations from this government entity without leaving home or going to a conventional website.

Yerli, like so many metaversians, got his chops building super successful games built on components that would become the spine of Web 3.0: a realistic gaming engine, in-game currencies, motion capture animation, and user immersion. Transferring the gaming ethos to a more pragmatic metavese has become a battle cry for Yerli and others who see a purpose beyond just entertainment or brand building in this new web. And while everyone from banks to law firms are starting to hang out their shingles in the metaverse, some of the the loftiest ambitions are coming from governments like the UAE as well as private/public partnerships around the world hoping to solve citizen problems, from the most mundane to the most pressing.

Countries, cities, states and governments are creating digital twins of their physical spaces. Then, using feedback collected from the real world sensors and IoT devices, combined with AI models, they’re driving simulations of how things might play out in the real world. Imagine, for example, using a digital twin of a city to explore traffic routing, truck idling patterns or energy usage. You don’t need a headset so far for the new government metaverses, though it might be more fun if you donned one.

Unlike the metaverse of fashion and art, the metaverse of government will rely more heavily on IoT, 3-D visualization, open data and mobile data.  Long before you need to invest any money in building a new road or laying piping in a city, you can explore and test the ramifications of such moves in the digital metaverse. Challenges that lend themselves well to these sorts of digital twin metaverse worlds include pollution, public health, affordable education, crime, and extreme weather.

If Dogs are Like Their Owners, Metaverses are Like Their Countries

Government initiatives in the metaverse are numerous. They fall into 3 major categories: using digital twins to remedy issues, bringing a set of services to residents, or enhancing tourism goals (both physical and online) for real world visitors.

In the U.S., we’ve seen numerous efforts to monitor traffic patterns, utility usage, and movement through a city using digital twins and information collected from Internet of things (IoT). While many of those efforts would not properly be called “metaverse”-related, they move in the right direction (headset devices optional). Now Orlando, Boston and Las Vegas have created virtual replicas of their cities in the form of digital twins, allowing them to play out hypothetical scenarios to anticipate specific impacts of things like adding new buildings, changing streets or other land use decisions. Pittsburgh used such systems to help deploy adaptive traffic signals which change based on actual traffic to reduce commute times and fuel consumption. This “smart traffic system” has reduced travel delays in Pittsburgh by about 20 percent.

In places like Santa Monica, California the focus is on tourism, using the metaverse to provide virtual experiences where participants can collect digital tokens to unlock real world experiences. One of the most promising projects in the U.S.  is privately held, and known as Cityzenith. This company is hoping to drive carbon-free building in cities through its SmartWorld OS digital twin platform.  The platform connects every IoT item in a building or city – including data from thermostats, HVAC traffic lights, water usage, and energy consumption. “Buildings in cities produce 50-70% of total emissions”, says Cityzenith’s literature, “and in dense cities like New York and others, more than 80%.”

Seoul, South Korea has one of the most ambitious metaverse projects of all.  As part of the five-year metaverse Seoul promotion master plan, Seoul will invest $3.3 million to develop a platform to provide services to its residents. All of Seoul’s municipal administration departments, from traffic enforcement to tourism, will have metaverse offices. In Seoul’s “Metaverse 120 Center” residents will meet with avatar public officials in a virtual office for public services previously only available in person at City Hall.

Seoul sees many benefits of a governmental metaverse, including saving on time and travel, reducing language barriers, increasing access to services at convenient times, and also creating zones for cultural events, town halls and other community-building opportunities. Today Seoul offers cultural events in the metaverse to attract global tourism and has built a virtual city hall, where residents can have life-like interactions with city officials. Accessing key services from their homes will be a continuous rollout. By 2023, Seoul aims to create a metaverse where citizens can deal with civil complaints and consultations — virtually.

Passive Income

Taken to the extreme, government metaverses may ultimately become where we earn our living.  …There’s no shortage of creative ideas for income generation in the metaverse–property ownership, a job in a metaverse community, and of course investment opportunities.  And if you ask companies like Affyn the idea of a play-to-earn Metaverse is already reality.  Expect soon to see voting, renewing a passport, and projects to make streets safer by changing lighting and traffic patterns, and plenty of projects to move towards generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions. These incipient governments in the metaverse may rewrite the rules of civic engagement. Or, as Cevat Yerli puts it: “The virtual world has to serve the purpose of making the real world better.”

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How Tech Is Mobilizing to Confront the Climate Crisis

Can technology help solve the climate crisis? A lot of smart money is betting that it can.

Can technology help solve the climate crisis? A lot of smart money is betting that it can. Taylor Francis, co-founder of Watershed, has raised $70 million dollars in venture capital, putting the startup’s estimated value at $1 billion within a year of establishment.

Watershed aims to be a leading software platform that helps businesses cut down their carbon emissions by providing tools for companies to measure where their carbon emissions are coming from, as well as devising plans to reduce them and reporting on the progress. Francis said his clients want to consider all of the things they can change as a company to get to zero emissions. “That’s where companies can have an impact here,” he said at a recent conference. “I think there’s a real power for networks and aggregation and pointing dollars together at the low-carbon solution.”

Francis was one of dozens of speakers at the 2022 Techonomy Climate summit last month in Silicon Valley. Buzzing with entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and experts on climate and data science, the event showcased innovative companies and new concepts ranging from carbon accounting to climate justice. The players from Big Tech were there too, including IBM, Microsoft and Salesforce, as sustainability becomes a major imperative across corporate America. Among the highlights:

Saving Us: The Case for Climate Hope

Katherine Hayhoe, author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, kicked off the event by raising issues about how we tackle the political divide when addressing climate change. Hayhoe addressed two central themes that she has spent decades trying to unpack in her work as a researcher: Why so many people feel distanced from the issue and why they feel that we can’t fix the problem.

“Many people feel like the cure is worse than the disease–that the solutions they feel would leave us worse off than just coping with the impact,” she said. “A hurricane does not knock on your door and ask who you voted for in the last election before it floods your home and rips off your roof,” Hayhoe added. “Climate change affects all of us to the point where to care about it, we only have to do one thing. And that one thing is quite literally being a human being living on planet earth.”

Building Microsoft’s Foundations to be Carbon Negative by 2030

Microsoft sees climate change as an existential threat that needs to be measured, tracked and forecast, according to Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa. “Without the predictability of climate change, we can’t further build and develop enduring socioeconomic structures,” Joppa said. Seeing climate change as not just a danger but also a business opportunity, the company has launched Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability to help companies record, report and reduce their environmental impact.

Microsoft is making strides toward its goal of being carbon negative by 2030. To do that, the company plans to reduce its emissions by half or more by 2030 and then physically remove the remaining amounts in small portions from the atmosphere. Joppa said that the steps to this process start with defining what net zero means for every organization and individual, maturing the carbon-removal markets, and by doing a much better job of figuring out how to measure carbon.

James Newsome of Persefoni

Carbon Accounting: The Invisible Cost of Doing Business

Persefoni, a company founded in 2020, is a climate-management and accounting platform designed to help  companies and financial institutions to meet stakeholder and regulatory climate-disclosure requirements and requests. In that role, Persefoni has been growing at a fast clip, with a  global team of more than 240 employees. Said James Newsome, the company’s chief data officer: “There is one thing that is consistent: Without being able to measure something, then how do you even manage it? We cannot get to where we need to be if we do not have proper accounting for it.”

Accelerating Breakthrough Technology for a Lower-Carbon Future

General Electric, the 130-year old company founded by Thomas Edison, is still leading the way in energy innovation, according to Roger Martella, the company’s chief sustainability officer, who was interviewed by David KirkpatrickTechonomy’s founder and editor-in-chief. “The state of energy transition that we’re in is significant,” Martella said. “I think history will look back and say ‘This is the era of climate innovation.’”

According to GE, the company is responsible in one way or another for creating one third of the world’s electricity, in 175 countries. The giant company is collaborating with international governments including Germany and Canada as well as smaller energy companies to develop new technologies.

As the war in Ukraine is shedding a new light on the world’s energy resources, Martella said that GE is working to accelerate solutions that will reduce solve multiple challenges at the same time. “It’s not only about climate change,” he said. “It’s about energy independence; it’s about access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable electricity beyond Ukraine.”

“Why I Think Tech Can Solve Climate Change”

Bill Gross, founder and CEO of Idealab, not only believes that the world can be saved from climate disaster with technology, he recently launched three companies–Heliogen, Energy Vault, and Carbon Capture–to address the crisis from several different angles. “Renewable energy is freedom energy,” Gross said. “It can give access to people all over the planet and it can end the geological lottery.” What the companies aim to do:

•Heliogen will concentrate solar energy to supply steel and mining companies with clean power and zero carbon emissions. Envisioned to be built on-site at steel and mining plants, the technology has two cameras that control 400 mirrors to accurately direct light from the sun.

•Energy Vault stores wind and solar energy. Designed to mimic hydro-electric systems that pump water up mountains and let it flow down to release energy, the two large-scale structures would store energy by lifting and stacking 35-ton boxes.

•CarbonCapture, which has support from Microsoft, aims to take carbon out of the atmosphere at a cost-effective price. To do this, CarbonCapture is constructing machines that will directly remove carbon from the atmosphere by using low-cost, renewable energy.

The Climate Justice Imperative

Three powerhouse organizations are leading the charge in fighting for climate justice and bringing marginalized voices to the table. Heather Tony, VP of community engagement at the Environmental Defense Fund, started this conversation by defining climate justice as “the social justice issue of our time.” She continued: “Recognizing the importance of climate justice and focusing on people is going to be a key to solving the biggest problems of climate change in the future.”

Justine Lucas, executive director of the Clara Lionel Foundation, asked: “Where are all the people in the room that are being impacted?” She followed up by emphasizing that philanthropy needs to recognize that there is a need for investment in climate resiliency now. “[Funding] needs to be spent in communities that are affected and that are not responsible for climate change in the first place,” Lucas said.

Suzanne DiBianca, chief impact officer and EVP of corporate relations at Salesforce, took the stage to explain her company’s sense of purpose about the issue. “We’ve been thinking about what kind of levers we have that can move the needle as a company,” DiBianca said. Salesforce took action by placing policy and regulation as as an important focus within the company. To carry out its mission, based on three three principles, Salesforce fought for climate regulation by supporting mandated climate disclosure and putting a supplier program in place that would require 60% of the company’s suppliers to have science-based targets within three years.

“There’s just not enough money going into this space,” DiBianca said. “We have to think about who we’re investing in–whether it’s through venture, whether it’s philanthropy–that we’re really supporting leaders that have a diverse and robust point of view.”

Josh Kampel with IBM’s Deborah Magid

Tech Rises to the Challenge

Deborah Magid, director of software strategy in the venture-capital group at IBM, highlighted ways that the company engages with the VC community to spur innovation. When IBM started doing so more than 20 years ago, the goal was to simply build relationships and to learn from each other.

But today, the company is taking new steps to further conversation and work with VCs and their portfolio companies to work together and enhance each other’s businesses. “Being in Silicon Valley is really important because most of venture capital’s high volume in deals and dollars is here, it’s just a fact.”

IBM’s search for novel solutions can lead to acquisitions as well. IBM recently bought Envizi, a company that helps corporations navigate their “sustainability journey” by getting a better look at climate risk and climate management.

How Policy Can Spur Climate Innovation

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, talked with Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former minister of Environment and Climate Change, about the impact on government policy in finding answers and scaling up ventures. “Policy innovation is going to be extraordinarily important,” said McKenna, now the founder and principal of Climate and Nature Solutions.

The most effective policy, Krupp said, is carbon pricing. “By taking something that’s an external cost and putting it inside the balance sheet, it drives decisions in places like California, right down to the entrepreneurial level and creates a hunt for the lowest-cost ways to solve these problems,” he said.

Krupp and McKenna also addressed the impacts that the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions on Russia will have on climate policy. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a horrendous humanitarian disaster with people dying and it demands a response,” Krupp said. “But at the same time, we have a second humanitarian crisis in that people are dying every year now from climate change, from weather disasters, from floods. These are twin imperatives. What are the solutions that answer for both?”

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Let’s Take Climate As Seriously as the Pandemic

The image of a cleaner planet we experienced during the early pandemic was not a mirage. While we can’t live in lockdown, we can learn its lessons.

Remember the early days of pandemic lockdown? It may not have been great for our mental health, but it sure gave the planet a kickstart towards rejuvenation. During lockdown, LA sunsets were smog free. NASA and the European Space Agency’s pollution monitoring satellites detected significant decreases in harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. There was an eerie noiselessness in NYC city streets, and more dandelions than usual poked up on sidewalks. Normally timid jackals appeared in Hayarkon Park in the heart of Tel Aviv, Israel. Scientists widely recorded the positive effect of lockdown as a decrease in CO2 emissions.

Some scientists even called the pandemic the “earth’s vaccine.” Science Magazine refers to it as the anthropause. The dramatic slowdown in human activity caused by the pandemic kept researchers busy monitoring how wildlife and other phenomena reacted to a break from frenetic human travel, tourism and traffic. As social, economic, industrial and urban activity slowed, we saw improved air quality, cleaner skies and water, less noise pollution and more wildlife.

HOLD ON TO THAT IMAGE.

The image of a cleaner planet was not a mirage. While we can’t live in lockdown, we can learn its lessons. Now that we’ve seen how much we can effect change, we should be more able to understand how long-term behavioral changes can mitigate some of the longstanding damage to the planet. But, it can only happen if we create a more compelling narrative.

We were at risk of dying from a disease, so we acted. Shouldn’t we feel the same sense of urgency for the planet? This early-pandemic article from Yale’s School of Environment argues compellingly that we must. Don’t suggest action, mandate it. The virus showed that if we wait until we can see the impact, it will be too late. “It’s all about somebody else stepping in and forcing us to internalize the externality, which means don’t rely on parents to take their kids out of school–close the school!” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University and co-author of Climate Shock. “Don’t rely on companies or workers to stay home or tell their people to stay home–force them to do so or pay them to do so. But make sure it happens. And of course that’s the role of government.”

I thought about narratives over the recent Passover/Easter/Ramadan holiday. As families of many faiths gathered around tables to retell stories and perform rituals at the same moment, we were reinforcing a global commitment to rebirth. Earth Day needs the same litany, a post-pandemic narrative: “You saw that actions matter. You saw you could alter the destruction of the planet with your own eyes.” That image needs to be etched into our brains and re-enacted ritually.

Let Earth Day help us begin a new ritual of urgent action.

Technology: The Hydra of Earth Day

There are so many ways technology can help reinforce that narrative. Imagine if your Fitbit or Apple Watch gave you an environmental nudge for socially responsible behavior. You might ride your bike instead of a car to the store. You can do laundry in off-peak hours; you can lower your blasting air conditioner. Climate fitness needs to be gamified as much as physical fitness has become.

For the moment though, tech is more like the multi-headed hyrda of of Earth Day. From one head it’s doing amazing things to reverse climate change. Mobile devices have helped reduce our use of paper; they’ve let us gather without using fossil fuels. In cities and industrial facilities, digital twins, based on sensors that continuously measure the real world, increasingly enable us to use simulation, AI, and machine learning to run what-if scenarios and change behavior accordingly. That will help with everything from managing traffic to heating and cooling to monitoring the best outcomes for the entire planet. This week I attended an investment presentation by CityZenith, which is ramping up an ambitious program to create digital twins of major cities across the globe to help decarbonize and get to net zero. (Yes, climate action can definitely be good business.)

But with its other, uglier heads, technology is held hostage to a complex global supply chain that involves mining dirty minerals, fabricating in dirty factories, and distributing products with dirty transportation. And we aren’t moving fast enough in some of the ways that tech could help, like electric vehicles. The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) released a report saying global battery cell production for EVs will not meet demand until 2030, leading to a shortage of over 18.7 million electric cars between 2022 and 2029.

Digital commercial and financial transactions have a voracious appetite for electricity, as well, and many seem likely to move to blockchain architectures. The Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index estimates that Bitcoin mining uses more power globally per year than some countries, including the Netherlands and Pakistan. (See Techonomy’s Earth Day article for a look at the brighter side of crypto’s contributions to the planet.)

Small Milestones Worth Noting

Instead of ending like a grim reaper, though, I’ll focus on a few Earth Day headlines that made me smile.

  • Arizona State University dedicated the Rob & Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health. The first medical school for the planet.
  • The Air Company captures CO2 out of the air, and through distillation and fermentation turns it into vodka (or perfumes and hand-sanitizers). That’s a negative carbon cocktail for you!
  • For meetings and conferences, Eventcellany launched a digital carbon calculator to help organizers get a handle on the real environmental costs of meeting digitally.
  • Finally, while big tech companies are often accused of greenwashing — signing pledges to prioritize their environmental commitments, but taking no action–this PC Magazine overview celebrates forward progress by the industry.

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Seeds of Sustainability in Wales. And Around the World?

Software entrepreneur Liam Kurmos’s community regeneration project is one of many little cells of activity popping up all over the country. With this kind of energy and creativity, opportunities abound.

In 1861, a group of Welsh nationalists gathered in Engedi, a chapel in Caernarfon, on the coast of northwest Wales, to plan a Welsh colony in far-off Patagonia. At the time, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, many Welsh rankled at the rule of England, the oppressiveness of mining and other industries, and the loss of their culture and identity. The confederates who met in Engedi hoped to regenerate Welsh culture by leaving Wales. In 1865, they succeeded in establishing Y Wladfa, and, today, several thousand people still speak Welsh on the east coast of Argentina.

Fast forward to the early 21st century. Wales, a country of 3 million, still struggles in the shadow of the United Kingdom, though like Scotland it has its own legislature and limited self rule. The old mining and smokestack industries are largely gone, with farming and tourism the main drivers of the economy, and the country suffers from high rates of poverty, ill-health, and out-migration by young people.

In this way, Caernarfon shares traits with many older small and medium-sized towns and cities across the developed world. The industries that gave birth to these places are gone, but the structures and people remain—often fragile and forlorn.

 

The Engedi Chapel

Yet there’s something going on at the former Engedi Chapel that signals potential for regeneration in Caernarfon and similar places across Europe and North America. A handful of 21st-century confederates there share a vision of helping regenerate their culture and local economy with sustainability at the core. The project is called Engedi 2. It’s the dream of a couple of guys who grew up in Wales, traveled the world, and came back home to the country they love. “We’re taking a stagnated, empty building in a town with a lot of deprivation and poverty and bringing people together to make things better,” says Liam Kurmos, a software entrepreneur who owns the chapel building.

The vision is to use the building as a sort of community center, where local people from all walks of life collaborate, learn, and engage in projects aimed at revitalizing the community in sustainable ways. (Kurmos also owns another former chapel nearby, Capel Cefn Y Waun, which is home for his tiny software company, AstralDynamics, and workspace for a handful of independent software programmers.) Kurmos bought the Engedi chapel in 2014 with the current mission in mind. While he has hosted a number of community activities there, he has struggled to fulfill the larger vision. He’s still at it, though, with help from a small group of like-minded local people.

Principal among them is Dylan Evans, an ecosystem regeneration consultant who has worked around the world and now lives a stone’s throw from Caernarfon Castle, a medieval fortress that’s a major tourist attraction. He believes the mass remote-work phenomenon fostered by the COVID crisis has awakened many people to the potential of living in beautiful, rural locations, like he does, and working for organizations anywhere. To him, rich history and natural beauty are essential for a fulfilling life. “In Wales, most of the old industry is gone, but we have tourism, which is reliant entirely on the quality of the natural environment,” he says. “My hope is we can use Engedi to create solutions to preserve the environment and, in so doing, protect tourism, the last remaining industry accessible to a mixed skill workforce.”

The interior of Engedi Chapel

This sort of community regeneration activity was one of the reasons Jane Davidson, then a minister in the Welsh cabinet, worked for the passing in 2015 of the country’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. The first law of its kind in the world, it requires all government officials and agencies to make sure nothing they do adversely affects the lives of people in the future. Guided by the framework of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, it recognizes that communities can’t be truly sustainable unless they address environmental, social, equity, economic, educational, and health issues holistically.

Since the act was passed, little cells of regenerative activity have been popping up all over the country, among other positive effects. “There’s an explosion of spaces and projects, and there are hundreds of buildings like Engedi in our communities crying out for a new lease of life,” says Davidson, whose book, #Futuregen: Lessons from a Small Country, was published in 2020. “This marriage of the old and new is exactly what we need to create new opportunities,” she says.

One example she points to is The Green Valleys, a non-profit based in a mountainous area in the south of Wales, which helps former coal-mining communities develop community-based energy sources and clean up the environment. One of the group’s initiatives, Project Skyline, aims to empower communities to reclaim degraded land and create new income streams by enabling people to work locally for the benefit of their communities, including replanting and managing woodlands and building tourism opportunities.

Inspired by Wales, legislatures in Scotland and Ireland are considering similar legislation. More broadly, a number of countries have begun to use wellbeing as a consideration in economic analysis and budgeting, and they are sharing their experiences through the Wellbeing Economy Alliance.

The Engedi 2 project is operating on a small scale and its future path is uncertain. Kurmos was raised by a hippie mother on a remote island off the coast of Wales. He got physics and computer science degrees while bouncing back and forth between Wales and Japan, launched and ran his software company in nearby Bangor, and now lives with his girlfriend and their new baby on an organic farm outside of Caernarfon. He was only recently able to evict a group of famous but apparently ill-behaved artists who had lived in the building for a number of years—stalling his efforts to turn the dream of Engedi 2 into a reality.

The goal is to try to raise money from government initiatives or private foundations that are focused on community regeneration. Kurmos recently teamed up with a UK sustainable-development consultancy, Resilience Brokers, to apply for a grant from the Welsh National Lottery Community Fund to develop and run sustainability mentoring programs in small Welsh towns. The idea is to use Sensemaker, an insights-gathering tool, to discover the needs of particular communities so they can design programs aligned with them.

Whether or not that gambit works, Kurmos plans on seeking funding for similar projects, and the folks from Resilience Brokers are supporting him. “Engedi 2 creates conditions for people to be empowered,” says James Green, a community manager for Resilience Brokers. “In an era of great disconnect and the threat of climate change and environmental collapse, we need these spaces to heal, bond, and nurture.”

I came to know Kurmos through his involvement in Pivot Projects, a global, all-volunteer collaboration launched at the beginning of the COVID crisis to promote sustainability and resilience in communities. In many cases, as with Engedi 2 and Caernarfon, there aren’t a lot of financial resources available, so both individuals and small groups face the challenge of making things happen with energy and creativity rather than money. But it’s exactly this kind of crazy, seemingly-impossible dreaming that we need to make our communities and our world more sustainable.

Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker in New Haven, CT. Columbia University Press recently published his new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, which follows the journey of Pivot Projects, a global volunteer collaboration aimed at helping to make communities more sustainable and resilient.

 

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Meet the Recycling Start-up Hustling to Keep EV Batteries Out of Landfills

Just four years after launching a pilot plant in Canada, Li-Cycle has raised US$500 million from high profile investors to build out EV battery recycling plants and hubs across the U.S.

There’s no shortage of evidence that the electric vehicle market hit some kind of inflection point in the last year or so. But for Ajay Kochhar, the CEO and co-founder of Li-Cycle, the telling detail was buyer response to General Motors’ very first e-Silverado. The initial production run sold out in 12 minutes on the day it went up for sale in early January – and this is for a pickup that won’t roll off the assembly line until 2024. “Consumers,” as he says, “are speaking.”

And Kochhar is listening. Just four years after launching a small pilot plant in Kingston, Ontario, Li-Cycle has emerged as a formidable player in the nascent EV-battery recycling industry. Now publicly traded (LICY: NYSE), the company quickly raised more than US$500 million from investors. Last year, it secured another US$150 million in strategic infusions from global battery-maker LG Energy Solution, a partner in a newly announced $4.9-billion EV-battery plant in Windsor, Ontario, and Koch Strategic Platforms to build three large facilities in Alabama, Arizona and upstate New York. (While the oil and gas empire run by the Koch family has lobbied heavily against climate action, Koch companies have been investing in a number of renewable sector start-ups of late.)

With early-stage backing from Carnelian Energy Capital, a Houston venture fund, last spring the company also inked a deal with Ultium, the sprawling EV-battery joint venture established by GM and LG Chem, to set up a processing facility within a huge new Ohio battery-plant complex. The value of its planned capital investments is now almost half a billion dollars. As Li-Cycle has told investors, it expects to be recovering battery-grade materials from the equivalent of 60,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries annually by 2023.

Investors aren’t the only ones paying attention. In its national blueprint for lithium batteries for 2021 to 2030, the U.S. government puts a heavy strategic emphasis on recycling lithium-ion EV batteries, citing research showing that batteries that use recycled materials can cut costs by 40%, water consumption in the production process by 77% and energy use by 82%.

Not surprisingly, Li-Cycle’s sector is rapidly becoming a very crowded space, attracting China’s battery giant CATL (which currently claims to recycle enough lithium for 200,000 EVs per year), as well as huge investments by multinationals like Nissan, BASF and Tesla, via Redwood Materials, a battery-recycling company founded by a Tesla co-founder. All this activity is being driven in part by the relative scarcity of both lithium and cobalt, another ingredient of lithium-ion batteries, as well as the car industry’s efforts to achieve carbon reduction targets. Meeting those targets pivots on transitioning to electric power but also on contending with the pollution and emissions associated with mountains of used batteries. “It’s a make-or-break moment for the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers],” says Kochhar. “They’re looking at recycling as a way to reach net-zero and have a domestic supply source instead of going to the ends of the earth.”

Lithium, a metal found in abundance in Chile, Australia and China, has long been recognized for its ability to pack a lot of energy into relatively small volumes – hence its widespread use in consumer electronics. When Elon Musk began building EVs, he reckoned he could use lithium-ion batteries to power his vehicles, with modules consisting of stacks of the sorts of batteries used in laptops. Since the original Tesla debuted in 2006, demand for lithium has been climbing a steep growth curve. “In 2019 the installed capacity of lithium-ion batteries in the world exceeded 700 [gigawatt hours],” noted a 2021 life-cycle-analysis report prepared by Circular Energy Storage, a U.K. consultancy. “Of this 51% was installed in light or heavy duty electric vehicles. The same number in 2015 was 19% and in 2010 it was less than 1%.” Commodity prices for clean energy minerals have also soared, setting off something of a geopolitical sprint to secure access to both lithium and cobalt, the lion’s share of which is found in mines in the Republic of Congo. China has been busy snapping up global lithium resources (it recently acquired a Canadian lithium mine).

New mines often face heavy opposition (environmental protests in Serbia earlier this year over a proposed Rio Tinto lithium mine led to cancellation of the project). With surging EV demand over the next decade, the major challenge, according to a 2021 paper in Nature, will be scaling up the mining and production of lithium, which is itself an energy intensive process. And a bit further out, the accumulation of out-of-service batteries could begin to look like yet another geyser of post-consumer waste.

In short, the theoretical case for recycling seems obvious and important, not just for environmental reasons but to mitigate the geopolitical conflicts associated with lithium and cobalt mining.

However, EV battery recycling is a complicated proposition, for both electrochemical and logistical reasons. “This was a constant question for us,” says Kochhar, a chemical engineer who led a lithium study for a cleantech consulting arm of Hatch, the engineering giant, before co-founding Li-Cycle. “People would ask, what would happen with the used batteries?”

Unlike conventional car batteries, used EV batteries are not a uniform size, often weigh hundreds of kilograms and, in many cases, are integrated into a vehicle’s chassis or power train. While an EV battery may last more than a decade, the spent version still contains plenty of energy, enough to inflict serious harm on handlers. The first order of business for recyclers, therefore, is to drain the residual power, which can be done in various ways, including submerging them in an electrolyte, as Li-Cycle does. Recyclers then need to remove the plastic casing and reprocess the battery’s exposed innards, including the metals they’re made of: lithium, cobalt, nickel and other elements.

There are various techniques: exposing this material to extremely high heat or, as Li-Cycle does, “shredding” it into what’s known as a “black mass” – a confection of metallic crumbs that can be separated into its component metals and used as feedstock to make new batteries. But before any of this can occur, recycling firms need to secure supplies of used EV batteries. Although that process may be more straightforward than has been the case with consumer electronics, which often don’t end up in a recycling stream at all.

Li-Cycle’s secret sauce, which appears to have attracted investor attention, has more to do with the logistics of recycling heavy car batteries than with the electrochemical processes involved. The company opted to parse the whole process into what it calls a “spoke and hub” model. Some of the company’s plants – the “spokes” – will collect, drain and mechanically shred spent batteries, with the valuable residue – the black mass – shipped to a large centralized metallurgical facility in Rochester, New York, where that material is separated back into its component metals. These will then be sold back to the battery manufacturers or carmakers.

Photo courtesy of Li-Cycle

“This is reverse logistics,” Kochhar explains. “You don’t want to be transporting these massive batteries cross-country. It’s going to cost a lot, won’t be safe, and our customers like LG and GM – they won’t do that, right? That’s where our spoke comes in.”

This approach, he adds, has been designed to minimize emissions – a lot less shipping, no burning, and reclaiming the scrap generated by the shredding process. The company’s strategy is to construct 20 spoke plants and four hub facilities worldwide over the next three years. Li-Cycle also claims that its process generates 25 to 30% less life-cycle carbon than other battery recycling techniques.

For all of Li-Cycle’s bullishness about its future, there are still many tough questions hovering over this piece of the EV revolution. Among them: will recycling provide enough lithium and cobalt to meet future demand, or whether reprocessing aging EV batteries is better for the planet than other uses for the residual power in these objects, such as stationary energy-storage applications like back-up power instead of diesel generators.

Finally, we need to ask what role public policy plays in this story. The European Union will phase in tough recycling requirements by 2030. The Biden administration, as part of its lithium battery blueprint, calls for incentives to achieve 90% recycling for consumer electronics, EVs and grid storage batteries by 2030, as well as federal requirements to ensure that recycled metals are in fact used to make new ones. (Clean Energy Canada, a Simon Fraser University think tank, has called for a similar policy framework for an EV-battery supply chain that, to date, does not exist).

Kochhar, for his part, wants Li-Cycle to be driven by market forces and not subsidies. Which is fair enough, but it’s difficult to argue that public policy shouldn’t play some role in ensuring that these heavy, chemically volatile objects stay out of landfills – the final destination of countless numbers of smartphone batteries.

“How do you get those materials back from consumers?” he says. “That’s a big challenge.”

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Just four years after launching a pilot plant in Canada, Li-Cycle has raised US$500 million from high profile investors to build out EV battery recycling plants and hubs across the U.S.

How Catastrophe Bonds Help Mitigate the Impact of Climate Change

Just four years after launching a pilot plant in Canada, Li-Cycle has raised US$500 million from high profile investors to build out EV battery recycling plants and hubs across the U.S.

Globalization Isn’t Dead in Software Engineering

Just four years after launching a pilot plant in Canada, Li-Cycle has raised US$500 million from high profile investors to build out EV battery recycling plants and hubs across the U.S.