Greenpeace Hungary | 01. March 2023

More and more local protests are breaking out over the battery factories opening one after the other in Hungary, which in many cases the government classifies as priority investments for the national economy. This step results in the investor enjoying benefits during the licensing process, shortening the time of environmental protection inspections, which makes it practically impossible to thoroughly map the risks and channel the opinions of local residents. Such plants require much energy and water, and in addition, the factories currently operating in Hungary use a lot of hazardous materials. The question therefore arises as to what the environmental cost is of the decision-makers’ desire to make Hungary a battery-producing superpower.

© Photo: Bjoertvedt / Wikimedia

Currently, we expect the biggest development in Hungary to be in the production of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, as well as in the production of batteries for energy storage systems. It is these that Greenpeace Hungary is taking a stand on.

Göd, Komárom, Iváncsa, and now Debrecen. More and more Hungarian communities are becoming sites chosen for the production of batteries used for electric vehicles. Recently, the electric-car sector has started to grow by leaps and bounds, which is further enhanced by the fact that the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines, i.e. petrol and diesel vehicles, will end in the European Union from 2035. According to the Greenpeace position, the sale of petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles should be stopped in Europe by 2028 if we want to meet the climate goals set in the Paris Agreement, according to which we must keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. In the meantime, however, it is important that the decisions concerning the development of the infrastructure actually help the transition to sustainable electric transport. And for this, there needs to be fewer overall cars on the roads.

Replacing the approximately one and a half billion cars with internal combustion engines currently operating in the world with one and a half billion electric cars is not the solution, since the growing number of electric cars undoubtedly requires more batteries. The Hungarian Government pounced on this opportunity when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced in 2022 that the country would become the world’s third-largest producer of batteries. Since then, more and more related investments have been reported.

However, the decision-makers in these projects are essentially ignoring the interests of environmental and nature protection, as well as the needs of local residents. As in many other domestic large-scale investments, so the construction and operation of huge plants is often carried out in such a way that sustainability issues are almost completely sidelined. With projects of this scale, it must be kept in mind that resources are finite in Hungary. The factories in question have a huge need for water, their operation uses a significant amount of energy, not to mention that the construction of the infrastructure associated with them also involves the destruction of the environment.

In addition, there is a huge democratic disconnect in the process by which the government assists in the domestic installation of battery factories. The needs, interests and concerns of local residents were not sufficiently taken into account in connection with the expansion of the Samsung factory in Göd. In 2020, the government created a special economic zone and took the area of the factory away from Göd, where it ordered large-scale infrastructural developments to prepare for the expansion of the South-Korean enterprise. Similarly, in Iváncsa, the area of the SK Innovation battery factory was also classified as such a special economic zone, a measure that also adversely affects the nearby city of Dunaújváros. Because of the government’s actions, locals have been deprived of the right to have a say in these changes, and although they suffer all the negative effects of the factories, the communities do not benefit from the business taxes the companies pay.

Building a battery factory in exchange for valuable land

The construction of a battery factory planned a few kilometres from the city in Debrecen has sparked heated debates among locals, as valuable agricultural land of around 220 hectares will be cleared for the sake of the investment. In addition, local residents were only informed after the plans were already prepared, and their opinion was sought when the state had already agreed on the project with CATL, the company that carries out the investment.

The lands around Debrecen are part of the Hajdúság loess and are among the best-quality farmland in Hungary. Now, when both as a consequence of the Covid epidemic and as a result of the war raging nearby, one of the most important tasks in Europe has become to provide food for the population from local sources, sacrificing these areas for industrial investment that could be sited elsewhere is a worrying step. One of Hungary’s greatest natural assets is its extremely fertile soil. Its careful preservation could ensure the food supply for the entire population of Hungary, and part of the amount produced could even be exported. However, an ever-increasing proportion of Hungary’s fertile soil is becoming a victim of industrial investment.

In addition to the loss of agricultural land, residents are also concerned that the increased traffic associated with the factory may disturb the peace and safety of everyone living in the area, and that the plant itself, as well as the hundreds of trucks serving the factory every day, will worsen the air quality.

The locals are right to feel aggrieved. We should not turn a blind eye when a large investment damages the quality of life of local people, as well as valuable natural and environmental resources. During all major constructions, including battery factories, only brownfield investments should be permitted – these are primarily carried out in typically abandoned or polluted areas that were previously used for industrial or commercial purposes, or for national defence. However, it seems that the government continuously ignores this aspect in the licensing of battery factories. In addition to the recently announced battery factory in Debrecen, the factory in Iváncsa was also completed as a greenfield investment, and since the construction of Samsung’s battery-manufacturing plant in Göd, the community has suffered from increased traffic, noise and a stench that sometimes permeates the factory surroundings.

And all of this is possible because this kind of bad practice is widespread in Hungary, the government easing licensing requirements with the stroke of a pen, citing priority investment, and practically ignoring the needs and interests of residents, as well as concerns over environmental protection.

Huge water-intensive investments in drought-stricken Hungary

The significant water needs of currently functioning and planned battery factories is particularly worrying in Hungary, which is suffering from increasingly dramatic droughts. If the government and decision-makers do not spend the majority of state and community funds on the immediate treatment of these problems, then by 2070, two-thirds of Hungary will turn into a dry steppe where locals will not be able to produce food for themselves. Even areas used for grazing will be limited.

In order to avoid this catastrophe, a decision should be made about the fate of every drop of water within the territory of Hungary, in a conscious, caring and forward-thinking manner. Existing resources should be used to retain the water that enters Hungary. Due to aridification, Hungary’s waters in the deeper soil layers should be treated as an emergency reserve for the future drinking water needs of the population, and not jeopardised at the altar of thoughtless, short-term solutions offered by the promise of investment.

Looking solely at the battery factory being built in Debrecen, the water consumption of the industrial park that supports it, according to the expert study carried out for its construction, can be up to 60,000 cubic metres per day. This number alone is greater than the water consumption of the entire city. The environmental impact study claims that this is not a problem, but it is a fact that the city and its surroundings have been affected by increasingly severe droughts for years. Increasing water extraction may cause surface drying, whose impact should be investigated and assessed. Debrecen does not have a major river, a potential solution to its supply problem. A significant part of the water used by the factory may simply evaporate into the atmosphere.

The decision-makers should therefore work to preserve Hungary’s water resources, but instead, during a climate and ecological crisis, they make investments that require a lot of water. For such a water-intensive investment, it should be a basic requirement that the long-term effects of the climate crisis on water management be taken into account before the location of the factory is designated. In her article on the subject, Dalma Dedák, ecological expert at WWF Hungary, has also outlined in more detail the concerns related to the use of water in battery factories.

Factories with high energy consumption during an energy crisis

Since battery production is a particularly energy-intensive activity, it is important to examine whether Hungary is able to provide the necessary energy. Based on government announcements, the production capacity may increase to almost ten times the current level, and the annual battery-production capacity may increase to 250 GWh by 2030. The total annual energy demand of such a battery-production capacity can reach up to 15-16 TWh, which corresponds in magnitude to the production of the Paks nuclear power plant. The expected distribution of heat and electricity demand is not known – the former would probably be produced from natural gas.

This enormous energy demand was not taken into account in the relevant energy-strategy documents currently in force, so it is not clear how the Hungarian government would solve the supply of the plants, nor is it known how much the operation of the factories would increase the country’s carbon-dioxide emissions.

CATL aims to build a battery factory with an annual capacity of 100 GWh in Debrecen, if all the planned phases are carried out. Since the specific energy demand for the production of lithium batteries (based on 1 kWh of battery capacity) can reach 50-65 kWh based on the available evidence, the future annual energy demand of the plant can be estimated to be 5-6 TWh (terawatt hours). This quantity corresponds to the electricity production of approximately one and a half reactors at Paks, which is about 10-13% of Hungary’s current electricity consumption. Based on the impact study, the plant’s energy demand will be divided between electricity and thermal energy produced from fossil gas, in a ratio as yet unknown.

We do not know exactly the national plans, since the relevant industry strategy (National Battery Industry Strategy 2030), prepared by the Ministry of Technology and Industry dated September 2022, does not provide exact figures for the current situation, nor the planned investment in CATL Debrecen. Overall, battery-production capacity will increase to 250 GWh by 2030, according to the government (more precisely, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade), while an analysis calculated at 207 GWh by 2031 is seven times the capacity of 27.5 GWh in 2021.

Taking into account this announcement of 250 GWh, the total energy demand of this kind of battery-production capacity can reach up to 15-16 TWh. In comparison, this amount of energy corresponds to about 40% of the current domestic gross electricity production (approximately 35 TWh). If electricity accounts for half of the energy demand, then in total, electricity produced by two reactors in Paks would be needed to supply the plants.

However, this enormous increase in energy demand does not follow on from any single relevant strategic document currently in force (National Energy Strategy 2030; Medium- and Long-term Sources for Capacity Development of the Hungarian Electricity System 2019; Network Development Plan of the Hungarian Electricity System 2022; National Battery-Industry Strategy 2030).

On the basis of the above, the overall picture emerges that the plans for the construction of battery factories were not preceded by careful planning, neither from the point of view of energy policy, nor when considering the needs of the electricity network. The concept within the industry strategy that the electricity demand of the factories should be met by solar panels alone seems to be a somewhat forced one, especially when solar-energy developments in the commercial power plant, as well as in the household and industrial sectors, have been practically stopped by various measures.

On top of the climate crisis, in the middle of the energy crisis that is hitting Europe, logically a lot of thought and reasoning should have been needed, especially in the case of plans for the development of such an energy-intensive industry. Due to the lack of realistic planning, there is a fear that if the proposals for huge-scale battery factory investment are carried out, they will result in a significantly higher energy demand than at present, an increase in energy dependence, and an increase, here or abroad, of climate-damaging emissions.

Hazardous and toxic substances surrounding the factories

In the case of battery factories, environmental and nature conservation risks must be taken into account, not only during planning and construction. Many dangerous and toxic chemicals are used in the production of batteries, which can damage the living world and human health if they enter the environment and surrounding nature. This danger exists for as long as the factory is in operation. A compound such as NMP (N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone) is harmful to the foetus – as a substance that damages reproductive abilities, it is subject to EU restrictions, i.e. it can only be used under strict restrictions. This substance was detected in the groundwater near the Samsung plant in Göd in tests funded by non-governmental organisations.

The non-profit Hungarian watchdog Átlátszó filed a lawsuit in 2022 for the water-monitoring data of the battery factory in Göd, due to be kept under wraps for ten years. As a result, it received the requested documents in January 2023. The result showed that no water samples were taken from the monitoring well in the factory area since 2016, and the well was also covered over in 2018. The fact that the groundwater has not been tested for dangerous substances used in battery production is entirely the fault of the Hungarian authorities. Meanwhile, an independent investigation revealed NMP in the wells near the factory for battery production, also used at the Göd plant.

Lithium compounds are also among the risky materials used in battery production, which are harmful to human health and the environment. The commonly used lithium hexafluorophosphate is toxic, causes burns in contact with the skin and eyes, and long-term exposure to the compound can damage our organs. Several of the organic solvents used in lithium-ion batteries can be harmful to human health, such as ethylene carbonate, dimethyl carbonate, propylene carbonate, 1.2-dimethoxyethane, butyrolactone and tetrahydrofuran.

The question then arises as to what is the guarantee that the plant to be established in Debrecen will comply with all industrial safety rules. It is extremely important that plants avoid emitting more pollution than the set limit by following strict rules and regulations. The transport of these materials in large quantities by road is also a risk, as dangerous substances might be released during a road accident.

It is also the task of the inspection authorities to ensure that the factory complies with the regulations. If, for some reason, pollution above the set limit is released into the environment, the authorities must investigate it as soon as possible with the co-operation of the factory, as well as fully informing the public, involving local residents and civil bodies. Then, if applicable, the remediation process must begin.

However, the experience of the past years and decades shows that the Hungarian authorities are unable to prevent cases of pollution nor take care of the remediation of pollution that might have occurred (eg at Illatos út, the Óbuda Gas Factory, etc), or to effectively prevent industrial accidents (eg the Kolontár disaster). The presence of NMP was not investigated in the vicinity of the Samsung factory in Göd. Even after measurements commissioned by civil organisations, the cause of the NMP pollution could not be clarified, and the disaster and fire-safety regulations were not adhered to in the battery-manufacturing plant for years.

What does Greenpeace do to combat the environmental impact of battery factories in Hungary?

In recent years, we have provided professional assistance to several domestic NGOs and residential communities who have taken action against the construction of battery factories planned for their location or fought to reduce the risks of these factories: 

How can local residents get involved in the process?

We advise local residents where a battery factory is earmarked for construction to try to get involved in the licensing process from the beginning. We recommend they contact their local government about the issue or the company that operates the factory, especially if the authorities do not release the necessary data and do not ensure the participation of local citizens in the decision, citing priority state investment.

With the involvement of a local NGO, it is also worth investigating the water and energy demand, and potential emissions of the factory, as well as the potentially affected area. It is a wise move if a civil coalition can also be organised around the case, which allows locals to unite and protest against the possible harmful effects of the battery factory. In addition, starting a petition and informing the media can be a great help.

The position of Greenpeace on the spread of electric vehicles

Greenpeace is calling for an immediate end to investment in internal combustion-engine technology and a gradual phase-out of sales of new internal combustion-engine cars in Europe by 2028 and in the rest of the world by 2030 at the latest, so that we can meet the climate-protection goals of the Paris Agreement, and reduce air pollution from traffic.

While electric vehicles (and batteries) are needed to phase out internal combustion-engine vehicles and address the climate crisis, Greenpeace advocates fewer overall cars on the road. This goal can be achieved by investing in and developing affordable (renewable-energy) public transport systems and improving the micro-mobility infrastructure.

In the meantime, cities must be transformed in such a way that all necessary services are within reach and people are not forced to use private vehicles. If you still have to get behind the wheel, then the use of car-sharing services should be an available alternative, as they also contribute to the reduction of the number of cars.

The Greenpeace position regarding the battery factories located in Hungary: