October 16th, 2014 by Zachary Shahan
This article is part of the ‘Think Further Thursday’ series, sponsored by Fred Alger Management, Inc. For more ‘Think Further’ content and videos, visit thinkfurtheralger.com.
In 2064, solar power and wind power will be have become so cheap that fossil fuel or nuclear power plants will be ancient relics of another era. However, solar power and wind power don’t come without any challenges. The electricity grid of the past century has never been ideal, not in the least, but it especially doesn’t work with renewables. We need very responsive energy storage or quick-ramping electricity generators of another sort in order to fill in when renewable electricity generation doesn’t match supply. Well, that or massively overbuild and simply dump/waste excess electricity.
To take back one step and get to the basics of why this is important, here’s a quick fact: electricity going into the grid and electricity coming out of it must match almost identically. If they don’t, then we get brownouts and blackouts.
For frequency regulation and grid stability, at the moment, fossil fuel power plants often have to be “spinning” (turned on and burning fuel) in order to fill in for renewables when they are not generating enough electricity. Furthermore, something needs to drop off the grid if there is an oversupply of electricity. Fossil fuel power plants are really not ideal options for complementing renewables. For one, we simply can’t keep burning fossil fuels at a high rate and retain a livable planet. In addition to that, they are not made to ramp up and shut down very quickly, and they will never be made to do so.
Batteries, on the other hand, are a perfect fit for these needs.
Take a look at these charts from Younicos, a German energy storage startup I recently visited on a cleantech tour of Germany, for a better visual understanding of how battery storage compares to conventional power plants used as backup:
Energy storage will eventually be used much more instead of fossil fuel power plants for frequency regulation and grid stability, and I’m convinced the type of energy storage used for much of this will be battery energy storage. The challenge, currently, is knowing which battery companies will lead the way. There are many larger players out there, and then there are startups like Ambri, Eos Energy Storage, Aquion, and ViZn. They are all aiming to be the provider of the lowest-cost, most-effective battery storage solution for the grid (and, in some cases, also electric vehicles).
While it’s still hard to pick the winners within this battery storage market, I can’t see a future in which this battery storage market doesn’t explode… in a good way, not in a fire and destruction kind of way.
Grids will be changing in other ways as well. We will still have large grids, but they won’t be nearly as dominant. Microgrids with cost-competitive battery storage will be common, and in places where utilities don’t adapt fast enough, off-grid households and communities will primarily rely on battery systems for their energy storage. The common threads through all of them will be: 1) a lot more renewable energy, and 2) a lot more battery storage.
It’s an exciting time! We are in the midst of what many consider a second industrial revolution — the cleantech revolution. From a renewable-centric grid to electric cars, a central element of that revolution is the humble battery.
This is the first article in a series on “The Changing Grid.” Check in again for more coming soon.
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