In a Word, Storage

What turns a trend from trendy to established? In the energy industry it can be any number of things, from a technology breakthrough, to a new market, to forces of nature. The shale gas boom in the U.S. is the most well-known example of a technology trend that has changed the economics for all power generation. The accelerating development of variable renewables and electric vehicles has developed a market for advanced battery technologies. In some places, especially those that have experienced destructive weather events, the need for greater infrastructure resilience is advancing the trend toward more local and microgrid power.

In February, I attended two events focused on the future of the energy industry to scope out what trends are more or less likely to change the power sector. Researchers in academia and industry are exploring many intriguing technologies, from new power electronics and sensors to unusual schemes for ocean power, but in the near to midterm, the most likely game-changer is storage.

Looking out to at least 2040, it’s obvious that central station power plants and the interconnected grid will continue to form the backbone of electricity supply and delivery systems in developed countries. But the look, operational features, and components of that grid will change—in some cases a lot faster than you might expect. Two types of storage—energy storage and carbon dioxide (CO2, or “carbon”) storage—are needed and are slowly being deployed. But first, a few words about the people behind storage and other energy technology breakthroughs.

Change Agents

One of the most positive takeaways from the ARPA-E Summit and the MIT Energy Conference was the attendees’ enthusiasm and intelligence. Some of the companies and research projects represented at these events are being led by “mid-century” folks who have the ever-youthful energy of entrepreneurs and scientific explorers. There were also many undergraduate and graduate students who understand the importance of all forms of energy to both individual lives and societies. The interactive power system of the future that the attendees of all ages envision includes cleaner sources, more efficient use, and greater flexibility. As they bring that future to life (and they will, because they take “disruptive” technologies as the norm, and because there is increasing consumer demand for the capabilities they are developing), traditional generation sources, operating practices, and economics will continue to be challenged. That will be scary, but it is inevitable if everyone everywhere is to enjoy the benefits of both electrification and a livable environment.

The largest growing market for electricity is in developing nations, and that’s where some of the upstarts are testing out new technologies and business models. As those become established, the localization of emerging technologies will bring more competitors into the industry, which is also an inevitable trend. As the theme of this year’s MIT Energy Conference signaled, we live in an era of “Global Energy Shifts.”

Storing Carbon

Before you store CO2, you have to capture it. That alone is complicated and costly, as you’ll see in our next issue. But capturing carbon is just the first step. In order to have any effect on climate change, you have to store that carbon reliably, indefinitely, at scale, and affordably. That’s an even thornier challenge. Nevertheless, panelists at both future-focused events agreed it is necessary.

For example, speaking at the MIT event, Dirk Smit, chief scientist for Shell Global, said Shell sees climate change as the “single largest driver” to change its business over the next few decades. Shell thinks carbon capture and storage (CCS) “is a very viable alternative” when “enabled by carbon pricing,” which the company is in favor of.

Storing Energy

Panels at both events addressed the growth of distributed energy resources (note that they are not all “generation”), from rooftop solar to energy storage to demand response. Several companies are ramping up to aggregate these resources from commercial, industrial, and even residential customers to help grid operators smooth out demand peaks and manage variable generation. Though improvements in all these areas are being pursued, storage technology poses the greatest challenge and payoff.

We’ll be covering storage technologies in more detail in the May issue, but as just one brief example of how the ARPA-E program has assisted the development of more effective and efficient energy options, consider the first liquid metal battery, developed by Ambri (which has also received support from nonprofits, Bill Gates, and French energy company Total). The advantages of Ambri’s technology include low cost, long lifespan, “earth-abundant” materials, modular design, and low manufacturing costs. This year it plans to test five prototypes at its Massachusetts manufacturing plant.

Scale and Significance

Today, neither carbon storage nor energy storage constitutes even 1% of our electricity system. To achieve the desired results, CCS will need to achieve massive scale, but energy storage is another matter.

Think about the percentage of storage space in your home. As people in developed “consumer” economies get older, they tend to accumulate more stuff that requires storage. If you’ve ever moved from a house with a basement or attic to a home with neither, you understand the value of even small amounts of storage. Similarly, electricity storage has always been nice to have, which is why we’ve used batteries (invented by Professor Alessandro Volta in 1800) in so many applications for so long, but now it is becoming necessary for a more-complex grid with more “stuff”—multiple types and sizes of generation, bidirectional power flows, sensors, and what is being called the Internet of Things. As with household storage, the role of storage at various points on the electricity grid may be small, but it’s significant. ■

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is editor of POWER.