The new industrial revolution must have the environment at heart

The digital technology age means a massive boom in devices and increasing energy demand, but it doesn’t have to come at the cost of the environment, writes Patrick de Metz, Environmental and Governmental Affairs Director at Saft.

The changes to our work lives and leisure time in the digital technology age have been profound – and with the coming of artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things, the pace of change will accelerate.

Klaus Schwab, the World Economic Forum's Founder and Executive Chairman, calls this the fourth industrial revolution and one of the biggest leadership challenges of 2017[1]. One question is how to power this technological boom, particularly considering the need to protect the environment by using fewer fossil fuels.

We need energy to produce those devices that drive the digital age, ship them around the world and keep them charged. When they no longer function – or we are just ready for the latest upgrade – we discard them, generating a potential waste problem. How do we then ensure that the benefits of the digital age do not cost us the Earth?

 

The Internet of (even more) Things

The digital revolution is transforming every aspect of our lives. Advances in technology and data collection are making the Internet of Things a reality as it is embedded into the environments where we live, work and play. The resulting smart cities will use technology and internet-connected devices to guide self-driving vehicles, improve public safety and deliver services more efficiently. At home, smart meters, smart lighting and connected appliances will help us to save time and use less energy. Businesses will be transformed by 3D printing, robotics and advanced manufacturing materials.

Analysts expect this Internet of Things to number as many as 17.6bn devices by the beginning of the 2020s[2]. That number – the equivalent of one or two devices for every person on the planet – does not include smartphones, tablets or laptop and desktop computers, which are still proliferating.

The need to power these devices will boost the market for lithium-ion batteries from $29.68bn in 2015 to $77.42bn by 2024, according to Transparency Market Research[3]. We are becoming more power hungry just at a time when we need to be conserving energy.

Worse, we discard and replace these devices very quickly, especially as consumers. In 2015, the German environment agency warned that the lifespan of consumer devices had shortened since the early 2000s[4]. The issue is so common that it has even acquired a name: e-waste. By 2020, the EU expects to be generating more than 12m tons of it per year.

 

Reuse, recharge, recycle

It's not just a question of the energy required to produce replacements for discarded devices but also a matter of whether the defunct gadgets can be recycled. In the circular economy, today's goods are tomorrow's resources.

At Saft, we take our environmental responsibilities seriously. We specialize in long-life batteries that last up to 20 years without needing to be replaced, reducing the amount of waste generated. In manufacturing, we prioritize recycled raw materials over virgin.

We are the first battery supplier to carry out full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), measuring the impact of every phase of a product's life to determine its environmental footprint.

For example, the LCA we carried out on our Evolion® Li-ion telecom battery demonstrated a reduction by 40% in CO2 emissions in comparison to conventional lead-acid batteries, together with increased service offered to customers through more compact and lighter batteries.

 

We've had a battery bring-back program since long before it became compulsory and we were the first company to provide a free recycling program for nickel-based batteries. Our customers can return their batteries to us for recycling so that, where possible, the materials can be reused in new batteries or by other industries.

 

Batteries backing-up the grid

The fourth industrial revolution means more batteries, but these in turn can play a role in providing green power. As the world looks to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels for energy, the answer is increasing use of renewable energy sources: wind, sea and solar. However, such sources do not deliver constant, predictable energy levels so we need to store the energy from periods of plenty so that we can call on it at other times.

Integrating batteries with national power grids or with smaller, self-contained microgrids will be an important part of the solution to our energy needs in the decades to come.

The industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries transformed lives but generated lots of pollution, covering many cities in a dense smog, with appalling health consequences.

In the present day, we are more environmentally aware, but the impact of technology can be forgotten in the rush to progress. We must ensure that issues of sustainability and reuse of materials are core principles as we embark on another exciting journey of transformation.

 


[1] Five Leadership Priorities for 2017, World Economic Forum, 2 January 2017: www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/five-leadership-priorities-for-2017

[2] Popular Internet of Things Forecast of 50 Billion Devices by 2020 is Outdated, IEEE Spectrum, 18 August 2016: http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/internet/popular-internet-of-things-forecast-of-50-billion-devices-by-2020-is-outdated

[4] Lifespan of Consumer Electronics is Getting Shorter, Study Finds, The Guardian, 3 March 2015: www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/03/lifespan-of-consumer-electronics-is-getting-shorter-study-finds