Following a 2020 summer of blackouts, the darkest since early this century, California is hoping that it can avoid replays in the future by investing in batteries. Big batteries. That are expensive. And come with significant energy storage limitations.
Bloomberg News is reporting that by August, there will be 1,700 megawatts of new battery capacity across the state— “enough to power 1.3 million homes”—connected to the grid. “In theory,” it should be enough to prevent another emergency, such as the 2020 outage, in which more than 800,000 homes and businesses lost power.
But what of the more distant future, say about 25 years from now, when California will be by government mandate running entirely on renewable energy sources that by their nature require battery backup power?
Whatever officials think will be needed in battery storage to meet that 2045 deadline is likely not enough, unless they’re familiar with, and are acting on, the 2016 MIT and Argonne National Lab analysis, which found “the marginal value of storage diminishes as more energy storage capacity is deployed.”
In other words, the simple doubling of the number of batteries won’t double the output of available power. Put another way, California is going to need an enormous volume of storage, which means mountains of dead, no-longer-useful, environmentally lethal batteries will accumulate over time.
Furthermore, as the Bloomberg article acknowledges, batteries have fundamental “time and cost” limitations.
For instance, MIT Technology Review said that while “lithium-ion batteries seem like the obvious choice” for storing energy produced by fluctuating wind and solar, “they are far too expensive to play a major role,” and “don’t last nearly long enough.”
“If we plan to rely on them for massive amounts of storage as more renewables come online—rather than turning to a broader mix of low-carbon sources like nuclear and natural gas with carbon capture technology—we could be headed down a dangerously unaffordable path.”
Little has changed since that article was posted in July 2018. The cost of backing up New York City with battery power at utility scale, energy author and consultant Todd Royal says, “would cost $6 to $8 trillion based on current daily electricity consumption” of 32 megawatts. Imagine the cost of backing up a large portion of the 75 gigawatts California currently consumes daily. Now think again of cost when the state’s population hits roughly 50 million at nearly the same time the renewables target date arrives.
One should expect costs to fall as technology improves. But advancements in storage have been mostly wrung out. While lithium-ion batteries’ energy density did indeed double between 1995 to 2005, from “2005 and 2015, the energy density of the technology has gone from 580 to 676 watt-hours per liter, an increase of just 16.6%,” Greentech Media reported in 2016.
“The evolution of lithium-ion batteries is rapidly coming to an end,” said Greentech Media, paraphrasing the comments of Wolfgang Mack, vice president of business development at Menlo Park-based Capacitor Sciences, who warned that realizing “the remaining 13% of the commercially achievable cell limits will be costly and slow.”
Then there’s the “time” factor. While some batteries can store energy for four hours, “the average duration of utility-scale lithium-ion battery storage systems is 1.7 hours,” according to the federal government. Philippe Gauthier, a science journalist and “degrowth” activist, says the limitations of battery capacity are “essentially” an “insurmountable” obstacle.
The proliferation of batteries also increases our accumulation of hazardous waste. They degrade quickly, says Royal, which means that “by 2030, more than 10 million tons per year of batteries will become garbage.” China alone expected to pile up 500,000 tons of dead batteries last year.
That last figure was provided by the research of the Manhattan Institute’s Mark P. Mills, who also notes that the mining necessary to harvest resources for battery components will “radically exacerbate” environmental challenges. This is, in part, because 80% to 90% of the rare earth minerals needed for battery manufacture are in China, says Royal, where environmental protections are “basically nil.”
The hurdles that have to be scaled to reach a green energy utopia are high. Cost and reliability are hardened boundaries to batteries’ potential, and their green “cred” is tarnished by naked mineral extraction, as well as manufacturing, which isn’t possible without extensive oil and natural gas consumption. Batteries are ideal for powering cell phones and toys. But there are legitimate questions about the extent of their contribution to our future energy needs.
—Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.