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Energy Storage Breakthrough Only a 'Couple Years Away'

CleanTechies caught up with Maurice Gunderson, senior partner of energy and materials at CMEA Capital, for some energy storage perspectives.
CleanTechies:  You were an investor in A123 Systems. When will bulk storage arrive?
Maurice Gunderson:  Bulk storage needs a little bit of definition. The kind of thing that A123 is doing is here now, and that’s a very high power storage for grid stabilization. And that makes sense in a lot of parts of the country. I make a distinction between that and very large bulk energy storage, which is intended to store power for very long periods of time, such as from wind turbines, and then release it over relatively long periods of time.
So the answer is there’s no real good battery solutions yet, but there’s a lot of smart people and a lot of money working on the problem and we’re going to see things emerging here within the next few years. The really practical ways to do very large storage right now come down to pumped storage. If nature gives you a canyon and environmental considerations don’t stop you from damming it up, you can make a very nice pumped storage facility. But that only exists when it occurs naturally. So there’s not a lot of places where you can count on building out new capacity of that type.
CleanTechies: So where are things headed over the next year?
Gunderson: In terms of what is deployable in the next six months, we’re talking about tried and true technologies, which are a start. But not the big breakthrough that we’re looking for. The big breakthroughs are going to take a couple of years. If we talk about 2014, 2015, there will be new, really interesting products on the market that are not quite out of stealth mode, yet.
CleanTechies:  Will they be consumer-oriented, grid oriented?
Gunderson:  They’ll all be grid oriented. I think automobiles for grid storage makes no sense at all. That’s a concept that’s been raised many times over the years. It’s not a silly idea. But it falls apart on the first level of running the numbers for three reasons:  the first reason is that cars aren’t really very long-life things. We think of them as durable goods, and by the accounting definition, they are durable goods, because they last more than one years.
But really, they only last a limited number of hours: 100,000 miles at an average of 40 miles an hour is only 2,500 running hours. So maybe you can rely on the new car to last 2,500 to 5000 hours. You know there’s over 8,000 hours in a year, and the reason we put up with such short lifetimes for cars is that they spend almost all of their time parked. A bathroom fan is 50,000 hours. A kitchen refrigerator is 100,000 hours.
Cars are very, very short lifetime devices.  The most expensive part of an electric vehicle and the most life-limited part of an electric vehicle is the batteries. So if you give the batteries a second job, if you will (then) while the car is parked, which is most of the time, you are very quickly going to use up the useful life of the batteries, which are already very expensive and the only way to overcome that is to make them more expensive by over-sizing them. So from an economic standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense because it wears out the most expensive and life-limited part of an already life-limited product very fast.
Reason number two is that if you decide to make a car able to be both charged and to sell electricity back to the grid, it increases the cost of the power electronics in the car. Now the battery charger, which originally only had to take current from the wall socket and use it to charge the battery, now has to be a bi-directional device and therefore much more expensive, more than twice as expensive than if it was just the charger. So you end up adding additional cost to the electrical part of a car.
And then the third reason is one of convenience. Most of us drive our personal cars because we want the convenience. If I drive my car into the office and park it and I do that because I need the flexibility to be able to go out there at any time of the day and drive to an appointment. If I went out there and found out that the car had sold its fuel and therefore couldn’t be driven, that would kind of shoot holes in the convenience side.
CleanTechies: What do you think of the California bill that mandates an energy storage component to the renewable portfolio?
Gunderson:  First of all, I talked to the Attorney General’s office about this a couple of months ago. I think it’s a great idea. I don’t really think we need it much because would there be practical storage technologies, the utilities will quickly adopt them without having been forced to.  But it certainly goes in the right direction and I think the time frame is practical and the 5 percent number is also practical. And it certainly points everybody’s attention at the value of large-scale grid storage, so I think it’s a good idea.
photos: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, CMEA Capital

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Derek lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, fungi, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves fresh roasted chiles, peanut butter on everything, and buckets of coffee. Catch up with Derek on Twitter, Google+, or at his natural parenting site, Natural Papa!


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