The Intertubes are all abuzz this week with news that offshore wind farms in the North Atlantic could power all of humanity. That’s all well and good while the wind is blowing, but one key factor is missing from this new vision of a sparkling green future: energy storage.
Energy storage costs are still relatively high, and that’s putting a crimp on the speed of renewable energy development. The big question is whether or not costs can drop quickly enough to bump up the pace of change, and IRENA — the International Renewable Energy Agency — has some answers.
Low Cost Energy Storage On The Horizon
IRENA is out with a new report aptly titled “Electricity Storage Costs and Markets to 2030,” which lays out the case for optimism.
In a nutshell, IRENA projects that the cost of batteries for stationary energy storage systems could drop by as much as two-thirds by 2030, and if the global share of renewables doubles by 2030, energy storage capacity could triple.
In other words, growth in the energy storage market is robust enough to keep up with an acceleration in renewable energy adoption.
IRENA released the new report last week, by way of making the case for ramping up research dollars aimed at creating the next generation of newer, better, and cheaper batteries.
The urgency of new research is illustrated by taking a look at the current state of play in energy storage. According to IRENA, currently a full 96% of global storage capacity consists of pumped hydro.
That’s right, for all the bell-ringing over lithium-ion batteries and other modern technologies, plain old water is still the overwhelming system of choice.
And why? Well, mainly because it’s cheap. For example, last year India announced a pumped hydro facility initiative to install a total of 10 gigawatts of storage at various sites around the country — yes, that’s gigawatts. Here’s the economics behind the plan:
…using lithium-ion batteries to store solar power would increase the tariff of electricity by around Rs 10/kWh (US¢15/kWh) whereas a pumped storage system would result in a tariff increase of just Rs 0.30-0.40/kWh (US¢0.45-0.60/kWh). Thus, the main aim, of stabilising the grid while increasing the use of renewable energy will be achieved at a very low cost.
In contrast, earlier this year a California utility announced the world’s single largest lithium-ion battery facility, weighing in at 30 megawatts.
Don’t Forget The Flow Batteries!
Not every country has a wealth of pumped hydro resources to exploit, and that’s where the need for more research dollars comes in.
Here’s IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin enthusing over the potentials:
“As storage technology improves and prices decline, both utility-scale and small-scale, distributed applications could grow dramatically, accelerating renewable energy deployment. In this dynamic, low-carbon energy environment, now is a crucial time for storage technology.
This research demonstrates that the business case for renewable energy continues to strengthen, positioning it firmly as a low-cost and secure source of energy supply.”
IRENA’s case for optimism is partly based on the mobile energy storage marketplace, aka electric vehicles. Dolf Gielen, Director of the IRENA Innovation and Technology Centre, sums it up:
The growth of lithium-ion battery use in electric vehicles and across the transport sector over the next 10 to 15 years is an important synergy that will help drive down battery costs for stationary storage applications. The trend towards electrified mobility will also open up opportunities for electric vehicles to provide vehicle-to-grid services, helping feed a virtuous circle of renewable energy and storage integration.
Many elements factor into the falling cost of batteries, and one of them is lifecycle. IRENA also foresees that battery life could be extended by about 50% in calendar terms by 2030, and as much as 90% in terms of the charge-recharge cycle.
With total costs in mind, IRENA makes a pretty good case for flow batteries. Although up-front costs can be relatively high, according to IRENA the latest technology in flow batteries can run up to 10,000 cycles and more.
What Comes Next
You can get many more details from the full report, available as a free download. In the meantime, a number of factors have been converging to put some force behind the figures.
Aside from that big news about the potential for Atlantic wind to serve all of humanity, IRENA describes a service-based model for energy storage that dovetails with two important trends: the emergence of consumer-driven electricity options fostered in part by microgrid technology, and the urgent need for “black start” capability in the aftermath of storm damage, cyber attacks and other interruptions:
Battery electricity storage is a key technology in the world’s transition to a sustainable energy system. Battery systems can support a wide range of services needed for the transition, from providing frequency response, reserve capacity, black-start capability and other grid services, to storing power in electric vehicles, upgrading mini-grids and supporting “self-consumption” of rooftop solar power.
This is all very exciting, amirite? The good news is that here in the US, the Department of Energy is still throwing considerable research dollars behind next-generation storage and renewable energy technology.
In fact, this week the Energy Department is celebrating its annual Solar Decathalon, an award-winning global competition aimed at nurturing the next generation of energy innovators.
Unfortunately, the Energy Department has also been accommodating President Trump’s pro-coal rhetoric. The latest development is a proposal that would enable coal power plants to charge artificially high rates, in order to keep operating.
The Trump administration is also doubling down on coal with today’s Clean Power Plan announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency, in which EPA chief Scott Pruitt proposes to rescind the plan.
The proposals may slow things down for now, but they are unlikely to revive the market for coal-sourced electricity in the US.
Just last week, the owners of one of the largest coal fired power plants in Texas announced that it will close its doors.
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Image (screenshot): via IRENA.