When three scientists won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for their work on lithium-ion batteries, The New York Times was one of many outlets that drew the connection between improved energy storage and the fate of our planet: “By storing electricity generated when sunlight and wind are at their peak, lithium-ion batteries can reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy sources and help lessen the impact of climate change.”
This perfectly articulates the gauntlet we face today. How can we transition to using solar and wind to power the world when the sun isn’t shining and the air is still? The answer is to improve energy storage technology, which requires time, careful research, and expert engineering that goes beyond the scope of most other challenges we face today. Because of this, the path to meeting this objective cannot rely on uncertain venture capital raises or traditional fundraising models. As public awareness around the challenge of energy storage grows, we need public funding and support to help this sector of the energy industry rise with it.
The State of Green Energy
Today, many individuals, homes, and businesses benefit from wind and solar energy, and innovations and improvements in these fields are promising. Furthermore, interest in climate change has grown in the past several years, and I’m not just talking about Greta Thunberg’s voyage across the Atlantic. Research by Pew found that concerns about climate change have broadly increased since 2013.
In this rapidly evolving environment, it’s hard not to feel like we’re on the brink of making a huge breakthrough, if only we can innovate and execute fast enough. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s July 2019 report, “Operating utility-scale battery storage power capacity has more than quadrupled from the end of 2014 (214 MW) through March 2019 (899 MW). Assuming currently planned additions are completed and no current operating capacity is retired, utility-scale battery storage power capacity could exceed 2,500 MW by 2023.”
These numbers herald major developments in the energy storage industry, and much of this is driven by the need to get better batteries into consumers’ hands faster. But that doesn’t mean the pace of research has changed. Consumer products from AirPods to pacemakers have set a new high bar for wireless charging and electric battery life. And that is where we find our current limit.
Electric Vehicles Have Gone Mainstream
One of the most exciting changes in the past decade is the arrival of affordable electric vehicles (EVs) in the consumer market. Prius drivers and early Tesla adopters have ushered in a new age in which cities and towns have to think about their charging infrastructure for EVs.
In 2018 alone, EV sales exceeded two million units globally—an increase of 63% year-over-year—but there are still significant barriers to EV adoption. On the road, EVs remain limited by the energy they can store and where the next available charging station is located. And this significantly hurts their appeal to drivers who are used to traveling with the assurance that there will be a gas station waiting for them at the next exit. As major corporations such as Amazon work with EV manufacturers including Rivian to develop new fleets of electric delivery vehicles, it’s reasonable to hope that these fleets will bring increased incentives for public investment in charging infrastructure for EVs across the country.
How Public Funding Can Break Down Barriers
Startups regularly develop software and products that break down barriers using an agile development model that allows them to pivot and accelerate week to week. They typically steer toward investor-driven goals and work to satisfy a board of experts (or venture capitalists) who’ve been promised a certain return on investment. But this unpredictable model does not sufficiently support engineering the new technology we need. In this space, innovation takes time to reach the market. Grants are more in tune with this cadence than traditional investment or startup funding strategies.
In January 2018, President Trump issued an executive order seemingly designed to reduce American dependence on a list of imports including lithium, which is critical to U.S. energy storage production. The following year, the Trump administration laid out its vision for American energy storage by 2030, which signaled its intention to bring battery production back to the U.S. Whether focused on national security or global sustainability, these are great signs that there may be more doors opening for energy storage researchers seeking public support.
As energy storage improves consumer experiences with EVs, portable electronics, and medical devices, we’re getting closer to creating storage solutions that will improve the efficiency of the utility grid nationwide. To get to this independent and sustainable future, energy storage research and development needs the stability of public investment today. ■
—Francis Wang, PhD is CEO of NanoGraf, an advanced battery material startup whose patented silicon-graphene anode technology enables longer-lasting, higher-energy, and higher-power lithium-ion batteries.