Now that President Joe Biden has thrown down the carbon-free grid gauntlet, a flock of of boo-birds has been circling the Intertubes to argue why the goal year of 2035 is totally unrealistic. So was the invasion of the Capitol Building by an organized mob aiming to murder members of Congress and the Vice President, and that happened just a few months ago, so now anything is possible. More to the point, large scale energy storage is the key that opens the door to full and rapid decarbonization, and a new nickel-hydrogen rechargeable battery is the latest formula to step up to the task.
Secret Weapon For A Carbon-Free Grid: Follow The Energy Storage Money
The nay-sayers probably make some good points about the goal of a carbon-free grid by 2035, but instead of running through those, let’s focus on the follow-the-money factor.
The renewable energy field has been attracting investment dollars from fossil stakeholders for a number of years now, which is nothing new. With the notable exception of ExxonMobil and several others, leading global oil and gas producers have begun pivoting to wind power, solar power, and EV charging, as well as energy storage.
Denmark-based Ørsted is a particularly good example. The former DONG oil and gas company is remaking itself into a renewable energy showcase, one example being a new offshore wind manufacturing hub collaboration with New Jersey (yes, that New Jersey), which will give Ørsted a hand in offshore wind development all up and down the US Atlantic coast. Energy storage is also a featured element in the company’s future plans.
To be clear, the pressure is on for oil and gas giants to stop pussyfooting around and start kicking their clean tech activity into high gear. In the meantime another big-dollar area of the fossil business has begun to stir among oil and gas energy services firms, which have skill sets and supply chain connections that apply to renewable energy.
Governor Jon Bel Edwards of Louisiana, for example, is happy to point out that his home state’s sprawling oil and gas energy services industry fostered the nation’s first and only commercial scale offshore wind farm into being, the Block Island array of five wind turbines off the coast of Rhode Island.
Edwards’s list of Louisiana-based firms includes Aries Marine Corp. and Falcon Global LLC for maritime services, Keystone Engineering to assist with design, and Gulf Island Fabrication to build wind turbine foundation jackets and pilings.
The Stirring Of The Energy Storage Giant
That brings us to the global energy services company Schlumberger, which can take the credit for a good deal of the oil and gas drilling that has gone on in the world since its founding in 1926.
Last summer Schlumberger announced a net zero decarbonization plan for 2050 to deal with emissions from its customers’ drilling operations, which doesn’t exactly sound like Schlumberger intends to get out of the oil and gas services business any time soon.
At an online energy conference last week, Schlumberger CEO Oliver Le Peuch further quashed the notion of a quick transition by mapping out a decarbonization timeline that hinges on keeping Schlumberger’s core oil and gas business up and running far into the future.
On the other hand, Le Peuch also had some really, really nice things to say about energy storage.
He launched into the topic by taking note of the company’s new investment in a “uniquely differentiated battery technology,” which we’ll get to in a sec. But first, get a load of where Le Peuch sees energy storage fitting into Schlumberberger’s future:
“This [energy storage agreement] is another step in the build-up of our new energy portfolio, and it represents a unique path to enter a market with significant growth and promising technology differentiation,” he said. “With this latest addition, we have made strategic investments in most of the domains identified in the end-use efficiency and conversion sector of the energy industry.”
“For perspective,” Le Peuch added, ” If we capture a little more than 1% of this total market sector over the next decade or so — the resulting business would equal the oil and gas business of Schlumberger as it stands today.”
Reading between the tea leaves, that means if global governments finally get serious about clamping down on oil and gas production as well as coal, Schlumberger anticipates a quick pivot into the energy storage-as-service business.
New Energy Storage Technology For The Carbon-Free Grid Of The Future
That’s a big if, but didn’t Le Peuch did say within “the next decade or so?” He did! Perhaps he knows something that critics of the carbon-free by 2035 goal don’t know.
That brings us to that new energy storage agreement upon which Schlumberger is banking.
For those of you new to the storage topic, the thing to keep in mind is that lithium-ion batteries are currently the leader of the pack for large scale energy storage, aside from hydropower and pumped hydro storage.
Lithium-based battery technology is constantly improving, but other formulas are also need to achieve rapid decarbonization. For one thing, Li-ion batteries are only good for a few hours of use at a time. That’s suitable for many uses cases, but it still leaves many others in the lurch, especially when kilowatts are needed for a full day, or longer.
The other thing has to do with supply chain diversity. One underlying issue that got us into this hot mess of a global fossil energy economy is over-dependence just one pathway, consisting of digging fossils out of the ground and burning them. Similarly, relying too heavily on lithium for energy storage could lead to environmental and social consequences that could be avoided if other battery technologies were included in the mix.
Schlumberger’s New Energy branch has taken care of that, with the newly announced storage agreement with EnerVenue.
Ener-who? If that name doesn’t ring a bell, join the club. EnerVenue is new to the CleanTechnica radar, having hit the startup button in 2020. However, don’t let the fresh face fool you. The company’s lead researcher and Chief Technology Advisor is Dr. Yi Cui of Stanford University (follow the link for a long list of awards and recognitions), and its formula of choice is the the tried and true nickel-hydrogen battery, such as that used in the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station, among others.
“Nickel-hydrogen batteries have completed more than 200 million cell-hours in orbital spacecraft and more than 100,000 charge/discharge cycles,” EnerVenue points out.
So, why is this outer space battery of the future only just now making an appearance on Earth? Good question! Reducing costs, scaling up, and engineering a system that enables high production volume are three issues that generally bedevil businesses seeking to bring NASA-style technology down to the ground.
A few years ago energy storage observers seemed convinced that Li-ion batteries would soon replace nickel-hydrogen for outer space use. Whenever that happens, apparently there will be plenty of other places to park the batteries. Various researchers have been hammering away in the nickel-hydrogen battery area in recent years, and EnerVenue seems to have found one of the golden tickets.
Who’s First To Dip A Toe In The Large Scale Nickel-Hydrogen Battery Field?
EnerVenue claims a 30,000-cycle lifespan over 30 years or more without degradation, as well as other performance qualities including durability under extreme hot and cold temperatures, for its new nickel-hydrogen battery.
Zero risk of fire or overheating and zero need for maintenance or operating care are two other features, in addition to the use of materials that are low cost, not toxic, and easy to recycle.
We’re about how to find out how it all works in real life. Hong Kong’s public utility Towngas has signed up to use and distribute EnerVenue’s batteries as part of a broader energy storage and renewable energy plan, so stay tuned for more on that.
As for where all the hydrogen will come from, well, if nothing changes it will probably come from steam-reformed natural gas. In other words, if EnerVenue takes off like a rocket, that will be good news for Schlumberger’s conventional gas business.
Or not, as the case may be. Schlumberger has apparently seen the green hydrogen writing on the wall, so stay tuned for more on that, too.
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Photo: New energy storage technology is needed to accelerate renewable energy adoption, photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.