Solar Power Works Even When the Sun Doesn’t Shine… Batteries Are a Game-Changer

Solar panels adjacent to an elementary school in Antelope Valley. © Dave Lauridsen for The Nature ConservancySolar panels adjacent to an elementary school in Antelope Valley. © Dave Lauridsen for The Nature Conservancy

By Lynn Scarlett, Global Managing Director for Public Policy, The Nature Conservancy

Dr. Robert Ballard, the celebrated explorer most famous for discovering the wreckage of the Titanic, lives for the moments when something critical he thinks he knows about the world is shown to be wrong—like the day he and his team went in the submersible Alvin to investigate the mid-ocean ridge at the bottom of the ocean. They didn’t expect to find much beyond deep sea volcanoes and the like. They knew that at more than 2,000 meters below the surface, the light necessary to create photosynthesis and sustain living organisms was non-existent.

But when they reached the hydrothermal vents that shoot out sea-water that has been superheated from its contact with the hot crust of the earth, they found life where they thought it shouldn’t have been—strange, giant tubeworms and pale white clams with red, gelatinous innards. It turns out that in the heady brew of high heat, methane, hydrogen sulfide and other chemicals at the bottom of the ocean, life can be based not on photosynthesis but chemosynthesis.

© Gamechangers© Gamechangers/TNC

These moments when what we thought we knew is usurped by what is discovered are cause for wonder and celebration. They make us exclaim, “How cool is that?!” And so it is right now in the energy sector. We’re seeing a lot of new technologies and new ideas that are changing what we thought was possible. In this first part of a three-part blog series, I’ll examine some of these “game-changers” in renewable energy, and what they mean for powering our future.

In this first installment, I want to summarize how batteries are changing the viability of renewable power sources.

The need for batteries alongside renewables is highly intuitive, readily observable in one’s own reality: the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. And given that, how can we rely on solar and wind power to meet our ever-present, daily energy needs? We don’t have the capability to store electric power at the scale needed to overcome this problem—or do we?

We all are very familiar with batteries as portable, on-demand energy storage devices. Many of us built that battery with copper wires and a potato in science class. But energy storage technology, especially at the industrial scale, has come a long way in a short while.

And while we’re not there yet, we are moving more swiftly than we initially expected. In January 2015, experts were estimating that batteries would finally be cheap enough and big enough and effective enough to be competitive by 2030. But that was before Tesla flipped the switch on its gigafactory in January 2017. The facility, when completed, will be the world’s largest factory, and will employ nearly 10,000 people on a permanent basis in the process of constructing cheap lithium-ion batteries that will power Tesla’s first mass-market automobile, its “Powerwall” line of home batteries, and utility grade storage capacity like the power packs it built for Southern California Edison, the region’s primary electricity supplier, to provide up to 20 megawatts of back up to alleviate brownouts.

© Gamechangers/TNC© Gamechangers/TNC

And while lithium-ion is perhaps the most advanced battery technology readily available in the marketplace, dozens of researchers and startups are working on new technologies that may be cheaper, safer and easier to scale. A startup created in 2012 is working on “anode-free” batteries that will double the storage capacity of traditional lithium-ion batteries. A Spanish company is marketing a battery that charges 33 times faster and has five times the capacity of a lithium-ion battery, while displaying none of the degradation in charging potential over time. Flow batteries, which store energy in an electrolyte solution, are being developed by General Electric and Lockheed Martin. Other researchers funded by Ford Motor Company are working on a garnet-based technology for solid-state ceramic batteries that has higher energy density than lithium-ion technology with almost no chance of catching fire.

The cost of storing power in batteries has come down significantly, roughly half in the last five years. It’s not quite at the $100 per kilowatt hour cost that experts say will make batteries feasible without raising consumer electricity rates, but with continued research and investment, most experts agree that we will eventually get there. So while storage technology isn’t at a place right this minute where America could cost-effectively meet much of its energy needs with renewable energy sources, that day may not be too far off. With an influx of capital and a little of that “can do” spirit that America is famous for, an energy future powered predominately by renewables is solidly within our grasp.