California solves batteries’ embarrassing climate problem

Batteries were increasing carbon emissions (d’oh!), but new regulations and tech have fixed it.

A bank of Tesla batteries on a wall in a home’s garage.These batteries have been behaving badly. Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In the popular imagination, energy-storage technologies like batteries are a key part of the effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and fight climate change.

But storage has something of a dirty secret: Its net effect is often an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The full causes and dynamics behind this are complex, having to do with what energy is being stored, what energy is being displaced when it is released, and what energy makes up for the energy lost (roughly 20 percent) in the round-trip journey to battery and back. If you want the full details, I wrote a deep-dive post on this last year.

Today I have a happier story to tell — about how California realized that its enthusiastic deployment of batteries was increasing emissions and figured out a way to solve the problem.

The solution it has developed is clever in its own right, but it also illustrates how computing power is going to enable a cleaner grid. Once again, California is blazing a path that other states will follow.

First, a short bit of backstory.

Three wall batteries on a wall, each with the computer power symbol and the word “battery.”
The batteries that keep stock image websites running.
 Shutterstock

California batteries have been increasing emissions

The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) has a program called the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), which dates back to 2001 and the state’s energy crisis. Initially designed to reduce peaks in demand, the program has since been revised, reformed, and updated several times. In 2009, CPUC added the requirement that SGIP projects reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Though SGIP has always included a range of eligible technologies, from biogas to waste heat recovery to wind turbines, it has tended to focus on a few. In the early 2000s, SGIP mostly supported solar panels, spurring the enormous growth of that industry. Then, for a few years, it was big on fuel cells. In 2011, it made energy storage eligible. In 2017, it shifted the program’s funding so that 75 percent went to energy-storage projects, overwhelmingly batteries.

In 2015, the CPUC made explicit that the three goals of SGIP projects were to “improve reliability of the distribution and transmission system, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and lower grid infrastructure costs.” Note that’s an “and,” not an “or.”

The same year, the CPUC also boosted the required round-trip efficiency (RTE) of SGIP storage projects to at least 66.5 percent. The assumption was that batteries would be used to absorb excess renewable energy during the day and discharge it at night — in other words, reduce emissions — and thus, RTE was seen as a rough proxy for emission reductions.

But that is not how things went. As it turns out, if the only metric is financial benefit to the battery owner, batteries tend to charge with cheap, dirty power at night and discharge during the day for peak reduction (to reduce commercial demand charges) — that is, they tend to be operated in a way that increases emissions.

impact of batteries on emissionsCPUC

To the CPUC’s credit, it did not ignore the problem. It brought in research firm Itron to do a formal 2016 storage-impact evaluation (released in 2017). It found that while SGIP projects had reduced overall emissions, the storage projects had actually increased emissions. The net increase is relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things — less than 1,000 tons of emissions in a state with well over 700 million tons annually — but it clearly revealed that the program was not accomplishing one of its three goals with regards to storage.

When it comes to batteries and emissions, the report revealed that timing is everything. If they’re charging and discharging at the right times, even a low RTE will reduce emissions. If they’re charging and discharging at the wrong time, no RTE is high enough. In other words, RTE is not a good proxy for emissions impact.

A subsequent 2017 impact evaluation (released in 2018) confirmed the bad news was getting worse: It found that SGIP commercial-storage projects increased annual GHG emissions by about 1,436 metric tons, and residential-storage systems by another 116. Still relatively trivial, but still bad — that’s still a positive, not negative, growth in emissions.

misaligned signals to storageWatttime

CPUC figures out a fix — a combination of new rules and new data

Again to its credit, CPUC did not ignore the report. In 2017, it convened a working group to analyze possible solutions. (Here’s the group’s final report.) In May 2019, the CPUC issued an official decision approving the working group’s proposed changes, scheduled to go into effect in April 2020.

What are those changes, exactly? Remember, the problem is that battery operators are charging and discharging at the wrong times — they are optimizing for financial returns, which is not the same as optimizing for emissions reductions. They don’t have any incentive to optimize around emissions, and even if they did, they don’t have the information they would need to do so.

The solution is twofold: provide both the incentive and the information.

As for the incentive, under the proposal, new commercial-storage installations will still get the same amount of SGIP money — but only 50 percent will be paid up front. The other 50 percent will be paid out over five years based on demonstrated reductions in annual emissions, which must amount to 5 kilograms of CO2 for every kWh of capacity.

Residential-battery installations are eligible if they are paired with solar panels (from which they draw at least 75 percent of their charge), have a single-cycle round-trip efficiency of at least 85 percent, and are enrolled in some kind of time-varying rate program.

Legacy commercial projects will be subject to the same reduction requirements; legacy residential projects, meanwhile, are exempt if they join a time-of-use rate program.

That’s the incentive. But what about the information? That’s the really cool part.

The question is: Even if storage-project owners want to reduce emissions, how can they? How can they know when to charge and when to discharge? Sometimes there are more natural-gas generators online and the grid is dirtier; sometimes more solar and wind are online and the grid is cleaner. The exact mix is constantly changing.

After much discussion, the working group decided that what was needed is a “GHG signal” — real-time information about the carbon intensity, or dirtiness, of the grid, as well as a 24-hour forecast about the expected carbon intensity of the grid, available to all battery operators. That’s the information they need to plan their operations.

optimized battery deploymentWatttime

WattTime will make data on California’s greenhouse gas emissions available to everyone

The CPUC held an open bidding process to find the provider of the signal and the winner was WattTime, a nonprofit tech company that has, since 2017, been operating as part of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Faithful readers may find the name familiar. Earlier this year, WattTime rolled out Automated Emissions Reduction, a consumer-facing program that uses exactly this kind of real-time grid-emissions data to help customers better manage their distributed energy resources (DERs). Then, in May, it announced a program whereby it would use satellites and AI to track real-time emissions data at every power plant in the world, which could enable DER owners the world over to maximize their GHG impact.

WattTime uses EPA data on the emissions of power plants — combined with wholesale market prices, fuel costs, wind and weather data, various other inputs, and a whole bunch of AI — to produce day-ahead forecasts of grid intensity at a granular level.

Best of all, WattTime is making its work open source in California. There’s an API that battery operators can tap into for free, which means forecasts are automatically included in their operation algorithms. (WattTime wrote a piece on the program that is worth reading.)

The good news is, WattTime’s modeling found that optimizing battery operation around even a modest GHG signal led to a 32 percent improvement in emissions performance with less than a 0.1 percent reduction in revenue. A broader look at this same question (the trade-off between emissions performance and revenue) published in the journal Energy found that “marginal storage-induced CO2 emissions can be decreased significantly (25–50%) with little effect on revenue (1–5%).”

It’s clear that operating storage purely based on revenue tends to increase emissions. The hope of everyone in California, especially those who sell battery systems, is that operating storage based on emissions performance will only modestly reduce revenue. It’s difficult to know for sure until the SGIP changes go into effect.

What a cool experiment, though!

optimized battery deploymentEnel-X

By way of concluding, I want to briefly emphasize three themes that this story highlights.

1. In terms of emissions, the when-and-where matter

As more variable renewables and DERs come online, grid operation is becoming more fluid and complex, and the GHG impact of a given technology depends increasingly on time and place. Exactly when and where energy is being generated, stored, and released determines its effect on emissions.

Thus, maximizing emission reductions — not just for batteries, but for any flexible energy resource — crucially involves understanding the state of the grid on a minute-by-minute basis, what kind of energy is on it, what energy is available to it, and both its present and anticipated carbon intensity.

That’s the kind of information WattTime is making available. The company notes that forecasts — which it is working on extending to 48 or 72 hours — are somewhat easier in California, since there’s no coal or nuclear on the grid, only natural gas and renewables (which makes for fewer variables). It’s a more complex undertaking in other, more mixed grids, which is why the company charges a fee for access to that information.

But it is safe to say that this kind of information will eventually be available about all grids, representing a radical new level of transparency and empowerment for DER operators.

2. Storage isn’t a decarbonization technology

Eric Hittinger, a policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, makes a point in this Twitter thread about the SGIP changes (and in the papers linked therein) that is worth emphasizing: It’s a mistake to deploy batteries, or energy storage in general, as though they will inevitably reduce emissions. They might or might not. Indeed, it’s probably a mistake to think of them as emissions-reducing technologies at all.

Rather, it’s better to think of storage as akin to transmission lines. Wires can carry both clean and dirty energy; their impact on emissions depends on local circumstances. Their primary purpose is not to reduce emissions, though, but to make the grid run more smoothly. They’re a grid tech, not a decarbonization tech. The same applies to batteries.

As it happens, making the grid more stable will have the effect of allowing more renewables to be integrated, thus reducing emissions. But they are nonetheless distinct tasks, and batteries should be deployed mainly with the first task in mind.

Primus Power
Solar panels and batteries have different functions. 
Primus Power

After all, it may be that some battery installations in California will want to provide grid services, emergency backup, or functions other than emission reductions. Being forced to reduce emissions might make it more difficult for storage to pursue those other revenue possibilities.

To be clear, Hittinger and I both think these SGIP changes are for the better. It’s good to use whatever policy tools are at hand. But in the larger picture, clean-energy types need to rethink where storage is categorized in their mental model.

3. Computers allow us to substitute intelligence for stuff

A theme I have returned to in several recent posts is: A big part of the clean-energy transition is going to be using computing power to enable technologies and techniques that allow us to obtain the energy services we need (transportation, heat, etc.) using less labor and material.

Computing power is one of the few things in the modern world that consistently and reliably gets cheaper and more powerful. As it does, it helps us better understand and predict complex systems (like an energy grid) in real time, which in turn enables us to produce energy services more efficiently.

California’s SGIP solution is a great example. Before and after both involve the same stuff, the same machines. What was added were new rules and new information that allowed those rules to be followed. That type of information, the kind WattTime is providing, is a result of computing power and algorithms unavailable even a few years ago.

In the end, just as much as money or policy, it is information that will accelerate the clean-energy transition.

Supplying clean power is easier than storing it

Cutting emissions relies on energy-storage technology coming of age

It sounds simple:  lift heavy blocks with a crane, then capture the power generated from dropping them. This is not an experiment designed by a ten-year-old, but the premise of Energy Vault, which has raised $110m from SoftBank, a big Japanese tech investor. The idea has competition. A cluster of billionaires including Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Ray Dalio and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son are backing other schemes to capture power. A firm incubated at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, wants to store electricity in molten salt. Such plans hint at one of the power business’s hardest tasks. Generating clean power is now relatively straightforward. Storing it is far trickier.

Solar and wind last year produced 7% of the world’s electricity. By 2040, that share could grow by over five times, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental forecaster. The trouble is, a lull in the wind leaves a turbine listless. Clouds have a habit of blocking the sun. That means that solar and wind cannot, on their own, replace coal and gas plants, which produce continual power reliably.

One answer is to store power in batteries, which promise to gather clean electricity when the sun and wind produce more than is required and dispatch it later, as it is needed. In 2018 some 3.5 gigawatts of storage was installed, about twice the amount in 2017, according to Bloombergnef, an energy data firm. Total investment in storage this year may reach $5.3bn, it estimates. As this grows it could drive an extraordinary expansion (see chart). However at present only about 1% of renewable energy is complemented by storage, reckons Morgan Stanley, a bank. There are still plenty of hurdles to clear.

The most common method of storage so far has been to pump water into an elevated reservoir at times of plenty and release it when electricity is needed. This type of hydropower is not the answer to providing lots more storage. Building a new reservoir requires unusual topography and it can wreak environmental havoc.

Batteries offer an alternative and availability should improve as electric cars become ever more popular. “The whole production supply chain for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles is gearing up,” says Andrés Gluski of aes, an electricity company, “so we’re going to piggyback on that.” As greater demand led to greater manufacturing scale, the cost of batteries dropped by 85% from 2010 to 2018, according to Bloombergnef. That makes batteries cheap enough not only to propel mass-market electric cars but for use in the power system, too.

And as electric cars become more widespread their batteries could serve as a source of mobile storage, feeding power back into the grid, if required, when the vehicles are parked and plugged in. With the right infrastructure in place, fleets of electric cars could substitute for new dedicated storage capacity.

Batteries do a variety of things. A firm called Sunrun sells residential solar panels paired with batteries, a particularly appealing proposition for Californian homeowners desperate for an alternative to fire-induced blackouts. Within the broader grid, batteries can act as a shock absorber to deal with variations in supply from one minute to the next. Other uses include shifting electricity supply from the day, when solar panels often produce a surfeit of power, to the evening, when demand rises.

The growth of storage is becoming a headache for old-fashioned power generators that rely on gas or coal. NextEra Energy Resources, which builds clean-power installations, is increasingly pairing large solar farms with batteries. aes, which has battery-storage facilities in 21 countries and territories, runs a scheme in Hawaii that combines solar with storage to meet peaks in demand. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean-energy research group, warns that solar and battery projects, combined with measures such as smarter appliances to control demand, may turn gas-powered plants into stranded assets.

Nevertheless, the battery industry faces several barriers to broader deployment. To start with, if a battery overheats it can catch fire, producing gases that might explode. In the past year installations in South Korea have caught fire. A fire and explosion in April damaged a storage site in Arizona run by Fluence, a joint venture between aes and Siemens, a German engineering giant. The causes are still under investigation. As the industry matures, safety measures are likely to become more rigorous.

In the meantime, the industry will have to cope with a patchwork of other rules and regulations. South Korea has offered incentives for storage, in part to create a market for its domestic battery-makers, which are among the world’s leaders. Some states in America, such as New York and New Jersey, have mandated storage to help reduce emissions. In others, America’s federal electricity regulator is trying to open markets to storage, but the details of how that will work in practice are unclear. In Britain, batteries are deemed “generation assets”, which exposes storage developers to extra fees and costs, says Michael Folsom of Watson Farley & Williams, a law firm.

Even if electricity regulations were smoothed, lithium-ion batteries would eventually reach their limits. Breakthrough Energy Ventures (bev) is a fund backed by Messrs Gates, Ma, Dalio and other billionaires to invest in transformational technologies. The cost of lithium-ion batteries is falling quickly, but to store power for days let alone weeks “lithium-ion is never going to get cheap enough”, says Eric Toone, bev’s head of science.

Alternatives include flow batteries, that use electrolytes in tanks of chemical solution, as well as mechanical means such as Energy Vault’s falling blocks. Hydrogen can also be made using clean power and turned back into electricity in gas-fired power plants or fuel cells. In the future liquefied gases might provide a solution (see article). Unlike solar panels, which have become standardised, different batteries are likely to serve different purposes on a grid. “All batteries are like humans, equally flawed in some specific way,” says Mateo Jaramillo, who led storage development at Tesla, an electric carmaker.

Mr Jaramillo now leads Form Energy, a firm that is developing an electrochemical alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Investors include bev and Eni, an large Italian oil and gas firm. Mr Jaramillo declines to predict when his work will be commercialised. But the goal is clear. “If you can develop a long-term storage solution,” he says, “that’s how you retire coal and that’s how you retire natural gas.” SOURCE

Batteries not included: Canada unprepared for demise of fossil fuel era

NDP must push minority Parliament to accelerate transition to a green economy

Image result for ricochet: Batteries not included: Canada unprepared for demise of fossil fuel era

The federal election results suggest that the first priority of the NDP must be electoral reform to bring to an end the politics of fear and the strategic vote, which favours the Liberals and Conservatives alike.

The second priority must be to engage Canada, for the first time, in an urgent migration to a green economy. The Liberal record on shifting to clean technologies is nothing short of insignificant, one of the worst records among developed countries. Meanwhile, China, and to a lesser extent, the European Union and California, are changing global economic, energy, and transportation paradigms.

Canada missing out

Canada has promising opportunities to be a part of a revolution in which batteries become the new oil. The country has both extraordinary lithium supplies in Quebec and an auto industry in Ontario. But while other countries are cashing in, Canada’s lack of government support for the research, development, and manufacturing requirements has thus far kept us out of the picture.

In order of importance, based on 2018 data, Australia is the world leader in lithium production at 51,000 tonnes, followed by Chile at 16,000, China at 8,000, and Argentina at 6,200.

It is heartbreaking that Canada is not on the preceding list because, in the next decade, there will be exceptional growth in the electric vehicle and energy storage battery markets. In 2020 alone, more battery manufacturing capacity will come on stream than the total capacity available in 2016. Global demand for batteries will double in five years and rise tenfold by 2030.

Electric vehicles are already the largest single market for batteries.

Lithium-ion markets are expanding faster than most projections, not only because of the growth of the electric vehicle market, but also because of energy storage associated with renewable energy production. Energy storage addresses the intermittent production of energy from solar energy and wind power, stockpiling surplus production for use during the low power-generation periods. The energy storage growth rate may become exponential since renewables, combined with energy storage, can now be delivered at less expense than the old formula of maintaining fossil fuel peaker plants for the time periods when energy demand is high.

The current principal obstacle to the growth of the lithium market is a shortage of supply at the production end. Hyundai’s and Kia’s production of electric vehicles cannot accommodate demand because of a lack of batteries. That is, automakers that outsource their battery inventory are at the mercy of a handful of electric vehicle battery manufacturers. The top five manufacturers responding to increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries, in order of production output, are LG Chem, CATL, BYD, Panasonic and Tesla.

And battery supply is also a function of research and development, with many automakers hesitant to invest in their own battery production because of the need to keep pace with technological improvements.

This is comparable to a conventional automakers not having in-house expertise on internal combustion engines and no production capability for these engines. Tesla has an advantage in this regard. It has an exclusive arrangement for research and development and its own, and the world’s largest, battery production capacity in collaboration with Panasonic. MORE

 

How a new class of startups are working to solve the grid storage puzzle

Form Energy, Antora, and others are trying to develop very cheap, very long-lasting storage to clean up the electricity system.

Conceptual illustration of a battery made out of a rubiks cube puzzle
NICOLÁS ORTEGA

Here’s the problem: Solar panels and wind turbines are cheap, clean, reliable sources of electricity, right up until they’re not. The sun sets; the wind flags. They can’t power an electricity grid alone.

Coal and natural-gas plants can fill in the gaps today. But as climate regulations shutter more of these carbon-spewing sources, there will eventually be days or even weeks each year when renewables won’t be enough to keep the lights on. Something else will need to step in.

Form Energy is convinced that that something could be a battery. But it’d have to be a battery unlike any the world has seen.

To be as cheap, reliable, and flexible as natural gas, such a battery system would have to cost less than $10 per kilowatt-hour. Today’s best grid batteries, large lithium-ion systems, cost hundreds of dollars per kilowatt-hour (precise estimates vary). It could take decades even for that price to drop below $100.

It’s a huge leap. But Form’s founders think they could hit that target by developing big batteries that rely on extremely cheap, energy-dense materials. “We think we can get there,” says MIT professor Yet-Ming Chiang, cofounder and chief scientist at Form. “We think we can match technology to those requirements.”

A low-cost, long-lasting form of energy storage that could be built anywhere would be about the closest thing to a silver bullet for cleaning up the power sector. It would make the most of the sharply declining costs of solar and wind, without many of the environmental, safety, or aesthetic problems raised by other ways of balancing out fluctuating renewables.

The grid storage conundrum

Form, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, seized the attention of the battery world when it was created in 2017. Chiang is one of the world’s top battery scientists. He’s published hundreds of scientific papers, holds more than 80 patents, and has cofounded six startups. Several have earned valuations of more than $1 billion, including A123 Systems, which makes lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

Form’s CEO, Mateo Jaramillo, previously assembled and led a business unit of Tesla that sells battery systems for homes and is now building some of the largest grid battery projects around the world. To date, Form has raised around $50 million from Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Italian energy giant Eni, and others.

Photograph of the form energy team
The founding team of Form Energy. COURTESY: FORM ENERGY

A wave of earlier grid storage companies failed (See “Why bad things happen to clean-energy startups”). Form is just one of several that have recently raised funds to take a fresh crack at the problem.

The main storage need on the grid today is known as “intraday storage.” It provides quick bursts of electricity for a few hours to smooth out mismatches between generation and demand throughout the day and at least into the early evening.

A growing amount of that storage comes from lithium-ion batteries, which also power phones, laptops, and electric cars and are steadily getting cheaper and more powerful. The amount of grid energy storage installed globally rose almost 150% last year to six gigawatt-hours, according to research firm Wood Mackenzie. That’s nearly double the average rate during the preceding five years, and lithium-ion systems accounted for most of the increase.

Tesla, for instance, plans to build hundreds of its new three-megawatt-hour Megapack battery systems in Moss Landing, California. The project, which includes other energy storage developers as well, would replace a trio of decades-old gas plants at the site run by Calpine, a large American power company.

Telsa's grid battery plant in Kauaʻi, Hawaii.
Telsa’s grid battery plant in Kauaʻi, Hawaii.

COURTESY: TESLA

Meanwhile, a growing number of renewables developers, like Recurrent Energy and First Solar, are proposing giant solar farms coupled with huge battery storage systems, enabling the plants to continue delivering electricity for hours after sunset.

But the sun and wind don’t just fade for hours; sometimes they dip for days or weeks. If we want to shift mainly to renewables, we’re going to need a lot more storage that can last a lot longer.

With today’s battery technology, the costs would skyrocket, says Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton who researches energy systems. It would require banks upon banks of lithium-ion batteries, many of which might be used only a few times a year. We’d also need to build more solar and wind farms to generate enough surplus electricity to charge them. (See “The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid.”)

The economics crumble in this scenario. “If these assets are supposed to lie idle for three-quarters of the year, you’ve just jacked up the effective cost by 4X,” says Don Sadoway, an MIT chemist who cofounded Ambri, which has developed a liquid-metal grid battery that lasts about an hour longer than lithium-ion ones.

But it’s actually even worse. We’d need to overbuild renewables and storage to meet demand during the rarest events: the prolonged ebbs in sun or wind that happen every few years, maybe even once a decade.  

Regions don’t have to solve this problem entirely through storage. Meeting just a small share of total demand through other means would ease the cost targets that storage companies would need to reach, other research shows. That could include nuclear reactors, hydroelectric power, natural-gas plants with systems that capture carbon emissions, or long-distance transmission lines that can balance out renewables across time zones. But those options are politically unpopular, expensive, geographically constrained, or all three. Batteries have the advantage of not particularly bugging people.

We need to think about these future problems today because the necessary technologies could take years if not decades to develop. Areas with large shares of renewables, like California and Germany, already produce more solar or wind power than the grid can use during certain periods, undermining the economic incentives to build more. Many more regions are beginning to realize there’s a yawning gap that some technology will need to close if they hope to eliminate fossil fuels.

Form’s approach

Developing cheap, long-duration batteries has stumped researchers for decades, mainly because the metals and chemicals that have worked best so far are expensive. Using them to meet longer storage needs means stacking up more and more of them. Form is guarded about its how it’s trying to sidestep these challenges, but part of the company’s approach is clear from a paper Chiang and colleagues published in the journal Joule in late 2017 (see “Serial battery entrepreneur’s new venture tackles clean energy’s biggest problem”).

All batteries contain two basic components: an electrolyte, usually a liquid chemical, and a pair of electrodes, the anode and the cathode, which are made of different materials (often, though not always, metals). Charged atoms, known as ions, carry current through the electrolyte between the two electrodes as the battery charges or discharges. In lithium-ion batteries, the electrolyte is some compound of lithium mixed with other chemicals.

In the 2017 paper, Chiang and his colleagues highlighted the potential of an “air-breathing aqueous sulfur flow battery.” A flow battery starts to get around the cost problem by separating the electricity-delivering components of the battery, including the electrodes, from the energy storage part, the electrolyte.

A standard flow battery has two different electrolytes, known as the catholyte and the anolyte, each of which can be stored in big, easily swapped tanks. So if you want more storage, you can just add larger tanks while those other pricey parts, including the electrodes, remain the same.

To make it really inexpensive, though, the electrolytes filling those giant tanks need to be cheap as well. The key to the flow battery in the Joule paper is to use a sulfur-based solution as the anolyte. Sulfur is among the most abundant elements in the earth’s crust as well as a by-product of fuel refining, so it’s extremely cheap and can store a lot of energy.

“Based on the charge stored per dollar, sulfur was more than a factor of 10 better than the next best thing,” Chiang told me in 2017.

Altogether, the chemical costs in such a flow battery could be as low as $1 per kilowatt-hour, according to the study.

When I spoke to Chiang last August, he confirmed that sulfur “is definitely still part of our road map.” He said it’s the approach they’re using in a project funded by the Department of Energy’s moonshot ARPA-E program. But Form says it’s now developing “multiple chemistries,” though it won’t say what the others are.

Photo of Yet-Ming Chiang
Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor and cofounder of Form Energy. SIMON SIMARD

 

While most grid storage companies are focused just on the storage part, Jaramillo has also said they are exploring the possibility of “bidirectional power plants,” which would generate renewable energy on site using solar or wind, store it in big batteries, and deliver it to the grid as needed.

Other paths to long-duration storage

But an electrochemical battery, whether based on sulfur or lithium-ion chemistry or something else, is only one way of storing large quantities of energy.

In early September, a group of engineers crowded around a squat, silver cylinder about the size of a grill tank in the back of a cluttered workshop at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, nestled in the hills looking over the San Francisco Bay. Aside from their intense gaze on the adjacent computer screen, the only hint that something was at work was an orange glow visible in a tiny window near the bottom of the device.

The researchers at Antora Energy are developing a new type of thermal storage. It’s a rarely used approach that retains energy in the form of extreme heat or cold in a variety of substances, like underground rocks or ice blocks. In Antora’s case, the substance inside the tank was a block of carbon that, at that moment, was running well above 2,000 ˚C.

The hope is they could use excess electricity from solar or wind farms to heat up that material, and then convert the heat back into electricity when it’s needed. Typically in thermal storage, this is still done in the highly inefficient 19th-century style: by creating steam that drives a turbine generator. But most of the energy gets wasted as a result of mechanical friction, steam leaks, and other issues.

Antora is testing a novel thermophotovoltaic system. It’s something like a solar panel, but it converts the infrared radiation coming off a hot object, rather than sunlight, into electricity. In late September, the researchers announced that they had set a new record by converting more than 30% percent of the heat flowing to the cell back into electricity in a lab experiment. They’re aiming to achieve more than 50% efficiency.

Mechanical methods offer another approach to grid storage. That includes pumping air into underground caverns, running rock-filled trains up hills, or transferring water between reservoirs at varying heights. All of these work in roughly the same way, using spare energy when it’s available to move something to a higher elevation or place it under pressure. Then when it’s released, we can harness the kinetic energy from the escaping air or descending trains or water to generate electricity.

Indeed, pumped hydro is by far our cheapest and most abundant source of grid energy storage today. The problem is you don’t always have enough water or hills near every power plant.

Under its “DAYS” program, ARPA-E has invested more than $30 million in 12 startups or research groups trying to crack the problem of grid storage. Those include Form’s flow batteries and Antora’s thermal system, as well as Quidnet Energy’s twist on pumped hydro: the San Francisco startup’s system pumps water into the gaps between confined rocks underground, creating pressure that forces the water back up and through a generator when electricity is needed.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the Bill Gates–backed fund, has made long-duration storage one of its highest priorities. In addition to Form, it has backed Quidnet and Malta, another thermal startup that relies on molten salt as the storage medium (see “Alphabet is in talks to spin out its molten-salt storage play”). 

Meanwhile, Japanese conglomerate SoftBank recently invested $110 million in the Swiss mechanical storage startup Energy Vault, which uses cranes and wires to stack up concrete blocks when renewables are generating excess electricity. It then drops those blocks back to the ground on those same wires, using their momentum to turn motors in the cranes in reverse and pump out electricity. (This video makes the concept clearer.)  

The unconventional nature of some of these ideas shows just how difficult a problem it is for technologies to make that leap from storing a few hours’ to a few weeks’ worth of energy.

“If we’re talking about capturing, say, one month or two months’ worth of energy during the summer and having it available for one month or two months in the winter, those are gigantic sums of energy,” Sadoway says. “How many train loads of rocks do you have?”

Very big ifs

Most mechanical methods like trains or cranes require vast amounts of space. Thermal methods are inherently inefficient, since it’s hard to prevent the heat or cold from leaking away. And producing or burning most liquid fuels creates the very climate emissions we’re looking to avoid.

Batteries have the advantage of being clean, compact, mobile, and efficient. So if someone can make them cheap and long-lasting as well, they could plug into any grid. That’d enable wind and solar to provide far more of our electricity and, in turn, for clean electricity to meet much more of our total energy needs.

But those remain very big ifs. Some energy observers doubt Form can achieve its targets, or question how much natural gas such batteries would supplant even if they did. For their part, the company’s founders say it’s at least a decade-long project, with serious technical, financial, and market risks.

The Green New Deal Just Speeds Up The Current Green Wave. Case In Point: Solar-Plus-Storage

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, speaks as Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, right, listens during a news conference announcing Green New Deal legislation in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. A sweeping package of climate-change measures unveiled Thursday by Ocasio-Cortez drew a tepid response from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who didn’t explicitly throw her support behind the measure. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg© 2019 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

The rollout of the Green New Deal will hit some roadblocks. But its overarching theme is that the nation should go totally green by 2030 to avert the irreversible effects of climate change. It’s the latest volley in the war of energy ideas — one that must ultimately address jobs, the economy and cost.

The Green New Deal is not an “abstract” idea. Globally economies are trending toward cleaner energies — efforts initiated by public demands, improved technologies and forward-thinking policies: The sponsors are compelled to accelerate the pace — to not just help impoverished communities but to also prevent environmental catastrophe.

Think this wild-eyed? Think again. Wind costs have fallen by 67% since 2009 while utility-scale solar has dropped by 86% since that time, according to the financial adviser, Lazard. Prudence has been a virtue. But what green energy skeptics have learned is that the public incentives and the overall economics are adding up — progress that will only go forward, given that prices continue to fall while the quality continues to improve.

Getting to 100% renewable energy levels is a hard task under the best of circumstances. Step one, though, is to bring down the cost of energy storage. Once advanced batteries can be produced in sufficient quantities, the cost of manufacturing them will fall. Prices, in fact, are dropping because companies like Tesla Inc. have been investing billions into production facilities.

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These Islands Are Leading The Drive For Hydrogen Energy

Orkney – Island of the Future | Fully Charged JUN 4 2015 BYMARK KANE

Orkney is the only place in the United Kingdom that generates its entire power supply from clean energy and has become one the most promising sites for low-carbon energy research in the world. Made up of seventy islands of which less than a third are inhabited, the 22,000 Orcadians who call the island group home long had to rely on the Scottish mainland’s coal and gas power plants for its energy. In 1980, the UK government decided to invest in wind power, designating Orkney as the first place to trial the new alternate power source.

Today, Orkney is home to 700 micro wind turbines producing over 120% of their electrical needs, the archipelago has become a poster child for sustainable development

The excess energy produced has led to a debate on how to appropriately use it. Although a cable connects to the mainland, it was designed to import energy to the islands and lacks the capacity to export all of the extra electricity generated. Many Orcadians have already traded in their diesel or petrol powered cars for electric ones, and several discussions were had regarding laying down new cables to the mainland to inject Orkney’s energy into the Scottish grid. But then they had an idea: why not turn it into fuel?

The excess energy produced by Orkney’s wind turbines has provided engineers with a rare opportunity to create and store hydrogen fuel on a larger scale than previously done before. MORE

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Orkney – Island of the Future | Fully Charged

Here’s what’s on the radar for climate change in 2019

 

Blockchain is the technology the underpins digital currency and allows digital information to be distributed, but not copied. That means each individual piece of data can only have one owner.

2019 is looking like an exciting year for clean technology. Around the world, countries, cities and companies are embracing the shift toward sustainable energy — and figuring out how to turn a profit while doing it.

Look for announcements over the next year in the sectors of energy storage and microgrid systems that use artificial intelligence and blockchain. Conventional power stations are centralized and often require electric energy to be transmitted over long distances, to serve a large number of customers at once. Microgrid systems, on the other hand, are located much closer to the area they service, and can operate autonomously from the main power source.

Using smart technology, local demands can be customized, and grid disturbances like power outages can also be minimized. They can make a power grid greener, more cost efficient and more reliable. MORE