120 Gigawatts Of Energy Storage By 2050: We Got This!

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The hits just keep coming for fossil fuel stakeholders in the United States, and the blows are coming from the direction of energy storage. Lithium-ion batteries are already helping renewables compete against fossil power in some markets, and that’s just for starters. The next generation of energy storage is set to go far and beyond the capabilities of today’s Li-ion technology, as federal energy experts eyeball a goal of 120 gigawatts in storage by 2050.

energy storage solar power
This massive solar plus energy storage project in Hawaii was first tested at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

Li-Ion Energy Storage Good, Something Else Better

The advent of low cost energy storage is true gamechanger for renewable energy. About 15 years ago, experts with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory were looking at an ambitious scenario of 20% penetration. Today they’re saying that 80% or more renewable energy is doable, and 100% is conceivable.

That’s going to depend on the next generation of energy storage technology.

Currently, pumped hydro is the only opportunity for bulk storage on the market. Aside from that, lithium-ion batteries still rule the roost.

Earlier this week NREL took a deep dive into the state of battery technology and explained why the energy storage market needs to go above and beyond — and why it will, too.

Lithium-ion batteries are good as far as they go, but the nation’s thirst for seasonal and daytime air conditioning is still driving the market for natural gas “peaker” plants.

For example, a solar-plus-storage setup with Li-ion batteries can push utility costs for commercial buildings down far below grid prices, in some circumstances, but a recent NREL study found no across-the-board cost advantage.

Additionally, the cost advantage only holds during the lithium-ion battery charging cycle of about four hours.

Energy Storage: Follow The Money

The Energy Department already counts almost 700 energy storage projects in the pipeline or operating in the US. Aside from pumped hydro that includes thermal storage, chilled water (make ice at night and use it for daytime cooling), and “water-splitting” to produce renewable hydrogen, among other platforms.

For now the consensus is that plain old pumped hydro will continue to dominate in the near future:

“Pumped storage hydropower is the backbone of the nation’s storage capability. Historically, it was used to incorporate large, inflexible generation onto the power system. Currently, pumped storage is being used to help integrate large amounts of renewable energy onto the grid, serving as an enabling technology that both improves reliability and reduces costs.”

The pumped hydro bottleneck, as NREL sees it, is financial. It can take 8-10 years to build a pumped hydro facility, but today’s electricity market is moving much faster than that.

With the money in mind, the Energy Department recently kicked off a pumped hydro R&D effort aimed at cutting the construction timeline in half while reducing costs and risks.

Meanwhile, pumped hydro fans are pinning their hopes on Montana’s Gordon Butte pumped hydro system. Until now, pumped hydro design has been site-specific, requiring reinvention of the wheel with every project.

The Gordon Butte project was designed to provide for replication at other sites, potentially saving big bucks.

What About Hydrogen Energy Storage?

Yes, what about it?

Well, NREL anticipates that hydrogen storage will eventually be “the most cost-effective method for keeping and discharging at least a week’s worth of electricity.”

That certainly tops pumped hydro. The Gordon Butte project, for example, is expected to provide for eight hours of storage, which is better than Li-ion batteries but not even close to a day, let alone a week or more.

To be clear, energy storage is not one-size-fits all. Regardless of anything going on in the renewable hydrogen field, there is still plenty of room in the US electricity grid for expanding pumped hydro as well as diving into compressed air and other up-and-coming storage platforms.

Still, NREL anticipates that researchers have only just begun to tap into transformative approaches that will bring the cost of renewable hydrogen (sourced from water instead of natural gas) far below current levels.

Another advantage is that hydrogen storage does not necessarily require a large footprint.

NREL draws attention to one particularly interesting renewable hydrogen project that fits in with the wind farm re-powering trend.

Patented by NREL itself, the new system would generate and store renewable hydrogen within steel wind turbine towers.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to NREL for an update on this new hydrogen wind tower hybrid, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo (cropped): “The AES Corporation, based in Virginia, installed the world’s largest solar-plus-storage system on the southern end of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. A scaled-down version was first tested at NREL.” Photo by Dennis Schroeder via NREL.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3237 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey