Prices for solar panels and wind turbines have hit all-time lows in the last decade, contributing to hundreds of gigawatts of new renewable energy production. Yet as the expression goes, the wind is not always flowing, and the sun is not always bright. For starters, when it’s a beautiful sunshine day, and we’ve got a superabundance of resources, and we can’t use it. There is always energy on demand regardless of the time of day, year, or temperature. For that, we need the right way of storing electricity. And lithium-ion batteries are the superior choice right now. You see them in items such as Tesla’s home battery, Powerwall, and Powerpack, and a utility-scale device.
But while lithium-ion is falling in price, experts say it will remain too costly for most applications on a grid-scale. We need to look at a further cost reduction of 10 to 20x to get to the electric grid battery. At a price point, the lithium-ion batteries can not retain the capacity for longer than four hours. Furthermore, they pose a risk of burning, and their ability to maintain a charge fades with time.
There’s a network of entrepreneurs working with several different approaches to tackle that. Now we know flow batteries, which are liquid batteries and other storage types, non-chemical or battery-based storage. Throughout the periodic table, they aimed for substances that were going to be cost-competitive from day one. The flow battery at Primus Power is a workhorse.
Storage of thermal energy has a truly unique opportunity to cut costs a bit. They claimed the solution would last 30 years plus. Quality does not deteriorate.
So, we need to find a suitable way to store the produced energy to deal with fossil fuels.
Installed wind power rose from 17,000 megawatts to more than 563,000 megawatts from 2000 to 2018. Yet solar power rose to 485,000 megawatts from a mere 1,250 Megawatts and it is ever-growing. Over the next five years, renewables are projected to grow by another 50 percent. Today we realize that the least costly means of producing power are solar photovoltaics and wind.
Solar photovoltaic prices have plunged much faster than all predictions expected since China flooded the market in the late 2000s with cheap panels. All the analysts at Wall Street did not believe solar would ever stand without subsidies on its own. Okay, a few years later, even the most skeptical observers began to understand that solar was going to get economic pretty soon in most parts of the globe.
And since solar has become cheaper, lithium-ion batteries prices have dropped by 85 percent Due to advanced production processes yet economies of scale since 2010. Wind or solar plus battery storage is often more cost-effective than peaker plants, i.e., power plants, which fire only when demand is high.
For example, Tesla built Australia’s most massive lithium-ion battery worldwide, pairing it with a wind farm to deliver electricity during peak hours. Yet this doesn’t automatically mean lithium-ion is economical for many grid applications. We don’t see the cost structure going down to the point that it can support those tens to hundreds of hours.
so, what is the Future Of Energy Storage Beyond Lithium-Ion?
Competition on the market is mature. Today, there are hundreds of chemistries being tested. Thousands of startups and tech giants are focused on scaling up and the development of new battery technologies. Lithium-ion has done amazing technical stuff, so let’s go to something even better. A flow battery is one of the critical alternatives being investigated.
Unlike lithium-ion, flow batteries store liquid electrolytes in external tanks, meaning that they decouple the energy from the electrolyte and the actual power generation source. The electrolyte is contained inside the battery, using lithium-ion engineering. Electrolyte chemistries vary, but these aqueous systems do not pose a fire hazard across the board, and most do not face the same capacity-fade problems.
These firms state that if they increase their production, they will be a market competitive with lithium-ion. A zinc bromide technology has been employed in this area by Hayward, California-based Primus Power, since 2009. It has earned over $100 million in funding so far, including tons of federal funds from agencies, including the Energy Department and the California Energy Board.
Primus’ lightweight Power Pod provides 25 kilowatts of power to serve five to seven homes during high energy consumption times and 12 to 15 hours during off-peak hours. However, most systems use several Pods of Energy to improve power further. The company is saying its simplified system is what sets it apart.
But Primus has only one, instead of two tanks that any other flow battery has. And they can isolate the electrochemical species by taking advantage of the density variations between the zinc-bromine and the bromine itself, and the more aqueous component of the electrolyte.
To date, Primus has delivered 25 of its battery systems, including a SanDiego military base, Microsoft, and a Chinese wind turbine maker, to customers around the US and Asia. It plans a further 500 devices to be delivered in the next two years. Future consumers are either small power producers doing solar plus storage at utility-scale businesses or larger businesses.
ESS Inc, an Oregon-based manufacturer of iron flow batteries, founded in 2011, also operates in this area. The mechanisms are more complex than Primus Powers. They’re batteries in a container for shipment. Using an electrolyte consisting entirely of iron, salt, and water so they can supply up to 33 kilowatts for 12 hours from 100 kilowatts of electricity for four hours.
When they entered this market, they wanted to come into it with a technology that would be very eco-friendly. That was going to be a bit of a cost. To bring down prices, it didn’t take many volumes on the production line. Some big players, including SoftBank Capital, the investment fund led by Bill Gates, Energy Ventures, and insurance firm Munich Re is supporting ESS.
Using an insurance scheme is a huge deal because that will make partnering with risk-averse utility providers more likely. ESS has six of its Energy Warehouses systems running in the field so far and plans to add 20 more this year. It is also building its Energy Center, which is targeted at 100 megawatts plus range utility-scale applications.
That would be a thousand times as much power as a single energy warehouse. They expect to be at a production capacity of 250 megawatt-hours by the end of this year, which is probably a little over ten times the capacity they had last year.
Main customers so far include Pacto GD, a Brazilian private energy provider, and UC San Diego. But flow battery companies such as Primus and ESS Inc are still not built to store energy for days or weeks on end, for all their promise. Many of those flow battery technologies still suffer from the same fundamental materials cost challenges that make them incapable of getting tens or hundreds of hours of energy storage capacity.
Other non-lithium ion projects, such as the MIT spin-off Ambri, address the same issue with more extended length storage. Form energy, a battery firm with unknown chemistry, targets the storage market for weeks or months, but marketing remains far away. So other firms take entirely different approaches.
Around 96 percent of the world’s energy storage currently comes from one technology: pumped hydro. It is a very straight forward program. It is used to pump water uphill to a high-elevation reservoir when there is excess capacity on the grid. The water is released when there is energy demand, driving a generator as it flows into a tank underneath.
But that needs a lot of property, disrupts the climate, and can only work in geographies in particular. Energy Vault, a storage company, focused on gravity founded in2017, was inspired by the idea but thought can give more.
And so they decided to tackle the issue of storage with something much more environmentally friendly, much cheaper, much more efficient, and something that could be put onto the market very quickly. Rather than lifting water Energy Vault uses cranes and cables to move up and down 35-tons of blocks, based on energy requirements.
They have a tower crane system that uses excess solar or wind to power motors and generators that raise and stack the bricks in a precise series. When the grid needs fuel, the same device lowers the blocks and discharges the electricity. This machine is designed for use on a utility-scale.
The company says a typical installation could include 20 poles, having a combined storage capacity of 350-megawatt hours, adequate to power about 40,000 homes for 24-hours. Some of our customers are looking at significant multiple-system installations to have the power on demand for weeks, months, and whenever required.
SoftBank Vision Fund has recently given the organization $110 million in funding. It builds a research facility in Italy and a plant for the Tata Power Company of India. But some say the sheer scale of the process means that chemical batteries can’t be a substitute. However, in these systems, the energy density is very low.
And so this is where we assume this chemical-based storage still has a footprint advantage. You can’t install a gravity-based device in town, but you will have to install it in the remote areas outside. Then thermal energy is in there. In this environment, it is already an emerging technology, but it can hold power for longer than flow batteries with a smaller footprint than gravity-based systems.
This challenge is being taken up by Berkeley, California-based Antora Power, founded in 2017. When excess energy is on the grid, this is used to heat the Antora’s cheap carbon blocks enclosed within a jar. That heat is then converted back to electricity when needed by using a heat engine.
It will usually be a steam turbine or gas turbine. Yet Briggs claims this engineering is too costly and has stopped trying out thermal storage solutions in the past. So Antora developed a novel heat engine type called a Thermo photo voltaic heat engine or short TPV, which is just like a solar cell.
Recently, Antora has been obtaining funds from a joint venture between the Department of Energy and Shell, inspired by the product’s ability to have days or weeks of storage. They believe that this already addresses a need that lithium-ion batteries will continue to not fulfill, which will allow for the next phase of renewable energy deployment on the grid.
Yet Antora and Energy Vault are still in the early days, and other innovative approaches are possible. For example, the Toronto-based Hydrostor transforms the excess energy into compressed air. And Highview Power is found in the UK, and the USA pursues cryogenic energy. That is, it uses extra energy to cool the air to the point that it liquefies.
These proposals may sound far away, but the money is flooding in, and initiatives are being piloted worldwide. Although these firms are all fighting to be the cheapest, best, and longest-lasting, they understand that this is a multi-niche market, and therefore the room for many winners. You are going to see a particular form of development in the residential and industrial areas.
A lot of this is going to be battery-based. I assume you’ll find some batteries once you get to the utility-scale and grid-scale, you’ll see other types of compressed gas and liquid air solutions, and then you’ll see some of the gravity solutions that might be scaled up.
Ultimately the demand for energy storage is expected to draw $620 million in funding by 2040. Yet, as usual, even the most innovative innovations would be hard to get to market. The initial cost of a first device is practically exponential, no matter if the raw materials were dirt-cheap. For example, government policies and incentives will still play an essential part.
There is a tax credit on the wind to get production. In the battery world, we would like to see an ITC for batteries, in the same manner, it operates for electricity. Another policy that many advocates are implementing a storage mandate, as California has done.
When we cross about 20 percent of our total storage space, we would be able to run a renewable network only. Backed with electricity, the mix of solar and wind, geothermal, and biomass will be enough to bring us through even some of these theoretically lengthy lulls.
We’re potentially moving into a world with a plethora of storage solutions with the right combination of rewards and creativity. The future should not be a mirror of the past. We have to do something radically different from everything that has been done up to now that I’m so excited about.
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