Since 2005, every now and then there was an announcement of a new scalable
rechargeable battery idea (often by a professor at a major university,
or backed by professors at major universities who’re friends), followed
by a startup, followed by wild excitement, followed by early investors,
followed a few years later by unspecified technical problems, followed
by restructuring, followed by bankruptcy. Just in the last few years
this happened to: Aquion Energy’s saltwater battery, Alevo’s stealth
operation, LightSail compressed air storage, ViZn Energy’s flow battery,
and A123 Systems lithium-ion battery. (Note: Before going bankrupt, A123
Systems, Alevo, Aquion Energy, Better Place, and Fisker together raised
over $5 billion U.S. Better Place and Fisker, weren’t battery companies,
but charging station and car companies).
Here are some more startups: Natron Energy, NantEnergy, NeoSun, Primus
Power, Sakti3, UniEnergy Technologies, are also still around. All are
mainly research shops awaiting their big break. One such startup,
Ambri, has gone through all those stages except the last. Their
idea is, basically, the reverse of aluminum electrolysis; it started
with magnesium and antimony—two dirt-cheap metals that are widely
available—so if it could be made to work it could be done at
But it’s not just startups trying to survive on a few tens of millions
of dollars; big companies have gotten into new batteries, too. For
example, General Electric sunk perhaps a billion dollars on Durathon,
an internal push to replace lithium-ion batteries with their sodium-ion
(sodium-nickle-chloride with molten salt) batteries. But they started
in 2010, when lithium-ion was $1,000 a kilowatt-hour. By 2015, when it
dropped to $350 a KWh, they gave up. (By 2016, it was $273 per kWh. By 2019
they sold the entire parent subsidary, GE Transportation, to Wabtec.)
“Wabtec and GE Transportation complete merger,”
Railway Gazette International,
February 25th, 2019.
“Lithium-Ion Battery Costs and Market,”
Bloomberg New Energy Finance,
Why did lithium-ion drop in cost so fast? Easy: phones and electric
vehicles (and behind them, more than anyone else, Apple and Tesla). As
those markets mushroomed, demand escalated, so research on improving
them focussed. Now hundreds of millions of dollars a year at Panasonic,
LG Chem, and Samsung, (also Mitsubishi and Saft), go into improving
battery performance. However, it’s being optimized not for grid-scale
battery use, but for phones and cars (and laptops). So the emphasis
has been on chasing expensive, low-weight, small-size, batteries whose
capacities fade, not low-cost, long-life, fade-free batteries. Improving
one thing often means paying for it by reducing something else so that
intensive research doesn’t transfer to grid scale.
For reliable power, what we need is rechargeable gigawatt-scale batteries
that we could place anywhere, to store energy when the sun shines then
give it back when the sun doesn’t. To be cheap enough for deployment
they have to last for many years (ideally, decades), recharging over
and over again, with low capacity-fade. For that, lithium-ion likely
won’t cut it, and may never. It’s expensive (although cost has been
falling unexpectedly fast with wider use, but, as mentioned, that’s for
low-weight, small-size, fade-free batteries). Also, lithium has a
fire-risk, and recharge potential drops below useful levels too fast. Its
rare elements (lithium and cobalt) may also be a little too local to only
a few sensitive nations (China, the Republic of the Congo). (Why wean off
oil only to get addicted to lithium or cobalt?) Also, there’s too little
of it compared to plentiful stuff like aluminum or magnesium. In general,
rare, toxic, and costly elements are, a bad idea. So the search is on
for grid-scale rechargeable batteries that are cheap, long-lived,
and easy to build anywhere.
The tried-and-true way to do grid energy storage (grid-scale rechargeable
batteries) with reasonably low loss per recharge is to use hydroelectric
dams (this is pumped-storage hydroelectric). Almost 96 percent of the
world’s grid scale battery power is of this type. We can often get back
as much as 80-85% of the energy put in. Problem is: there are few places
on the planet that have the right geological features to make it possible
at gigawatt scale. To make it work, you need two dams near each other
but also at different heights (high enough so that it’s worth while
linking the two with a channel into which you put pumps and turbines).
When grid power is cheap you pump water from the lower dam up to the
upper dam, and when power is dear, you let water run back down through
the turbines to generate electricity.
A startup, Quidnet Energy (founded 2013), is trying to drill wells next
to a dam and force-pump water from the dam down the wells, then run the
water in reverse through a turbine to recover some of the energy used.
This might alleviate the problem, if they can get the recovery percentage
high enough and the cost to drill plus equipment low enough.
If you have a mountain, a similar idea is to put a railroad on it. Fill
a train with rocks and, when you have cheap power, pull the train up the
mountain; then, when you need power, let it run down again. A startup,
Energy Vault (founded 2017), is trying to do something similar with AI
software controlling a multi-headed crane. When grid power is cheap,
it stores that as potential energy by stacking heavy blocks into a giant
tower; then when power is dear again, it releases it by lowering blocks
to the ground.
“SoftBank to invest $110m in brick tower energy storage start-up,”
August 15th, 2019.
If you have a big mine, pump compressed air in, then let the air
out again through a wind turbine. All such cases need some special
geological feature: two nearby dams, a mountain, a mine. Also, they must
have no other use. (For example, water in the dam can’t be needed for
irrigation.) Failing that, you go with combustion-turbine (natural gas
or coal), or hydroelectric or nuclear power plants, which idle when solar
or wind is plentiful, but are on hot-standby to ramp up and take over to
handle load-shifting and replace the missing sun or wind. (Such plants
are called ‘peaker,’ ‘peaking,’ ‘load-shifting,’ or ‘load-following’
plants.) That costs far more energy than running at normal capacity.
A Nontechnical Guide,
PennWell Books, 2006.
Too-rapid deployment of solar (and wind) recently led to a special case
(as happened in California because of tax breaks and mandates, plus
China flooding the market with cheaper panels). Lunchtime supply began
to far exceed what it once was. To avoid massive surge, which would
destroy all equipment, many peaker power plants need to be throttled
back since demand doesn’t also increase to consume supply, and there
was no way to store the energy oversupply (so it was just dumped). Then
as dinnertime approached, all the oversupply went away, which meant that
those idling plants then needed to ramp up again to meet peak demand. This
led to a ‘duck curve’ of ever-more-defined duckieness as solar (or wind)
deployment rose, and also ever more stress on the system. The upside,
though, is that the width of peak demand narrows, so if we had a grid
storage solution that could outlast the ever-shorter peak, both the
thing causing the problem (increased solar) and the thing producing the
solution (grid-scale batteries) could work in tandem to smooth out grid
power and reduce the need for peaker plants. This made grid storage
batteries even more attractive.
“Overgeneration from Solar Energy in California:
A Field Guide to the Duck Chart,”
P. Denholm, M. O’Connell, G. Brinkman, and J. Jorgenson,
National Renewable Energy Laboratory,
Solar is a potentially much larger supply than wind, but, like wind,
it’s variable, and we want power anytime, not just when the sun’s high
and there’s no cloud, storm, or snow. Without batteries, we solve that
problem today with peaker plants. But that can burn even more
fossil fuels than not having solar (or wind) at all. If such plants
were running all the time, instead of being on hot-standby, they would
be more efficient.
“Grid-Scale Battery Storage:
Frequently Asked Questions,”
T. Bowen, I. Chernyakhovskiy, P. L. Denholm,
National Renewable Energy Lab. (NREL),
“The Potential for Energy Storage to Provide Peaking Capacity in
California under Increased Penetration of Solar Photovoltaics,”
P. Denholm, R. Margolis,
National Renewable Energy Lab. (NREL),
The problem of energy is simple: we want to live as well as possible as
cheaply as possible; we never want to face it, but
we’re cheapskates. These days, renewables
like solar have good odor—they’re ‘clean,’ they’re ‘unlimited,’
they’re cheap (or even ‘free’), so only politics must be keeping us from
much more of them. But little of that is true. Yes, there’s politics
(there’s always politics) and, yes, they’re easier to start and build out,
so they’re easier to scale, but all options have costs; all are limited;
none are ‘clean.’ Gathering energy, whether it’s from the sun, the wind,
the waters, or whatever, then getting it to do work—that is, getting
power from that energy—takes factories and tools, which we have
to design and make. Like wind, solar is a dilute and variable energy
source that’s far less efficient than fixed and concentrated sources
like coal or oil—or even better, uranium or thorium. Solar panels have
to reverse that to concentrate energy again to be useful. Making those
panels means digging stuff out of the ground, refining it, shaping it,
transporting it, installing it, running it. Even just choosing where to
put it means sacrificing land we might otherwise use for growing food,
or something else. Everything has a cost. No power system can be ‘clean,’
nor ‘unlimited,’ nor ‘free.’ We pay in money, we pay in opportunity,
we pay in effluent and planetary destruction, and we pay in lives—not
only other species but also our own. In choosing among options, all we
can do is learn a bit more about them then decide which set of costs
we’re willing to pay, now and in the future.
The problem with ‘clean’ and ‘unlimited’ energy sources is that: 1/
They aren’t ‘clean.’ To build a wind farm or solar farm or hydro dam
or whatever, takes energy and raw materials—cement, steel, cobalt,
lithium, whatever—which means mining and fabrication. Without stored
energy already saved to do the work, that takes energy and raw materials,
which burns fuels. For example, ‘load-following’ electricity (peaker plants)
add 12 percent of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Smelting iron
and steel adds five more percent. Making cement means burning limestone,
which adds a further four percent. Everything we do has a cost.
“Net-zero Emissions Energy Systems,”
S. J. Davis, N. S. Lewis, M. Shaner, S. Aggarwal, D. Arent, I. L. Azevedo,
S. M. Benson, T. Bradley, J. Brouwer, Y.-M. Chiang, C. T. M. Clack,
A. Cohen, S. Doig, J. Edmonds, P. Fennell, C. B. Field, B. Hannegan,
B.-M. Hodge, M. I. Hoffert, E. Ingersoll, P. Jaramillo, K. S. Lackner,
K. J. Mach, M. Mastrandrea, J. Ogden, P. F. Peterson, D. L. Sanchez,
D. Sperling, J. Stagner, J. E. Trancik, C.-J. Yang, K. Caldeira,
2/ They aren’t ‘unlimited.’ Even if such things were dropped from the sky
by space aliens, we’re already maxed out on hydro (there are only so many
rivers), there’s only so much wind, there’s only so much biomass—and
we’re already at the stage of cutting down forests to feed biomass into
biomass burners, which makes no sense, and so on. Solar is our long-term
Statistical Review of World Energy 2018,
2018, page 50.
Energy and Civilization:
The MIT Press, 2017, page 397.
“Europe’s Green-Fuel Search Turns to America’s Forests,”
J. Scheck, I. J. Dugan,
The Wall Street Journal,
May 27th, 2013.
Today’s solar and wind (and tidal) farms exist not because they pay but
because of laws and mandates to discourage old technology, and government
subsidy to encourage new technology (Germany, Spain, Denmark, the United
States, the United Kingdom, elsewhere). That’s tax payer will and money
at work to juice the market to try to get the technology developed more
quickly than it would otherwise. It doesn’t yet pay. But it will.
Solving the grid-scale rechargeable battery problem is important
because without it, all the ‘clean’ (or ‘green’) schemes—solar
(photovoltaic or solar thermal), wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, biomass,
ocean thermal...) and all the ‘clean’ electric vehicles, and such, don’t
mean much—except even more carbon dioxide and more over-production.
Today (directly or indirectly) they all really run on fossil
fuels—natural gas, coal, or oil—or hydro or nuclear power.
Finally, there’s the question of what else we pay for our power besides
money (whether out-of-pocket, or via tax) and carbon dioxide in the air.
Incidents like Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima get a lot of
media attention, but deaths per terawatt from nuclear is by far the lowest
among all power sources. Coal is by far the highest. Solar (at least
rooftop solar) (and wind) is also not the lowest. Nuclear is—by far.
“How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt? We Rank The Killer Energy Sources,”
June 10th, 2012.
Solving the problem is about gaining knowledge about the space of
possible solutions as we grope around in the dark. Likely, all the
people licking their wounds now from all the failed attempts over the
past couple decades will be circulating around and eventually some will
put their heads together and create a new network which will struggle to
get funding and finally solve it. Evolution is blind.
Here’s the problem from the consumer end (not residential but commercial,
industrial, or municipal). You’re mayor of a small town, or CEO of a
company, or manager of a factory, and cost of grid power is going up
(and perhaps surges, or brownouts, or maybe even blackouts, are either not
uncommon or are increasing). That cost is high only during the daytime,
when demand is high. It’s always much lower late at night. So what you
want to do is arbitrage the cost down (buy low, sell high). Essentially,
you want a gigantic UPS, plus surge protector. So you’re looking into
plopping down some money on a newfangled grid-scale battery solution
(sort of like cloud storage, except for energy). Problem is, the field
isn’t stable yet, there are many tiny companies with many solutions, and
the tech is based on exotic science you don’t understand.
You aren’t a scientist, and none of these potential battery companies
have been around long enough to have a proven track record (many have
already tried and died, so all the ones out there now are so new and
fragile that none have much income, so none have been around long enough
to be through IPO to offer stock on the stock market). Plus, choosing
any one would be an enormous spend, since it would mean lock-in for 10-
to 20- years. What happens if you choose wrong and it goes belly-up?
It’s too big a spend, too much risk, and too little information for you
to decide anything.
Besides, you have no serious push to move off grid power. The government
hasn’t mandated any change, and has no tax credits for storage use. This
is just something you’d be doing to reduce your long-term spend on
electricity (and also ensure no brownouts or surges). So it’s sort
of like buying insurance, plus lowering costs over time (that is, if
the battery company you pick survives, and if grid power continues to
climb in price, like in California, Texas, Florida, Hawa’ii, and so on,
but not Tennessee). So why take a risk? No one’s going to fire you for
not doing anything since no one else understands the situation,
either. So the battery companies keep dying on the vine, propped up only
for as long as their investors have patience.
Now a startup, Prisma Energy Solutions (founded 2017), claims to have
found a way to break the logjam. Their plan to solve your dilemma with
a lease program so that you can rent-to-buy instead of having to buy
outright. Or just keep leasing until the market stabilizes and you know
what shakes out. So you can join their program, then lease the service
for only 5 years at a time, not 10 or 20, and don’t have to choose any
particular company. Also, the battery companies get income, so they get
to survive and develop the tech instead of going under all the time.
(BEGIN GUESSWORK: Prisma MUST be pooling battery companies somehow,
perhaps like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), so that, if any
one, or a few of their contracted companies, do fail, lessees still get
guaranteed power from the pool). Perhaps they stack them in shipping
container trucks and back them into loading bays to just jack into a factory
or business directly. Dunno how else they could make it work... where
are they gonna find the money to lease so many expensive experimental
batteries? that’s like the very earliest form of RAID hardware, except
for power and at GIGAWATT scale! or maybe they’re also buying used car
batteries as backup for the backup? a market is developing for used
tesla batteries, for instance, so perhaps they’re making racks of them
as backup in case too many companies fail?)
In 2017, California put 396 stacks of Tesla batteries to use for 80
megawatt-hours backup at the Mira Loma substation in Ontario, California.
The array can power 15,000 homes for over four hours. That’s enough to
get over most peak shortfalls.
“Rows of Tesla batteries will keep Southern California’s lights on
during the night,”
January 30th, 2017.