The US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, believes the advances being made in storage technology means that the country will be completely decarbonised by the 2050s.
A global race, seen initially in Europe and the US is leading to a rapid acceleration in innovation that may dispense with the need for nuclear and thermal power by that time according to the technology’s backers, as the Achilles heel of intermittency will no longer impact on the overall effectiveness of renewables.
Surges of excess power will instead be stored for use later at times when the sun sets, and consumption peaks in the early evening.
“Storage is a huge deal,” says Ernest Moniz, the US Energy Secretary and himself a nuclear physicist. The Daily Telegraph reports that he is now confident that the US grid and power system will be completely “decarbonised” by the middle of the century.
The US Department of Energy is funding 75 projects developing electricity storage, mobilizing teams of scientists at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the elite Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge labs in a bid for what it calls the ‘Holy Grail’ of energy policy.
You can track what they are doing at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). There are plans for hydrogen bromide, or zinc-air batteries, or storage in molten glass, or next-generation flywheels, many claiming “drastic improvements” that can slash storage costs by 80pc to 90pc and reach the magical figure of $100 per kilowatt hour in relatively short order.
According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writing in the Telegraph, development of storage has reached a place where the question is ‘no longer whether this form of back-up power will ever be commercially viable, but whether the inflection point arrives in the early-2020s or in the late 2020s.’
One of the variants generating such optimism at the moment is an organic flow battery at Harvard that uses quinones from cheap and abundant sources such as rhubarb or oil waste. It is much cheaper and less toxic than current flow batteries based on the rare metal vanadium. Its reactions are 1,000 times faster.
Professor Michael Aziz, leader of the Harvard project, said there are still problems to sort out with the “calendar life” of storage chemicals but the basic design is essentially proven.
“We have a fighting chance of bringing down the capital cost to $100 a kilowatt hour, and that will change the world. It could complement wind and solar on a very large scale,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
Italy’s Green Energy Storage has the European licence. It is building a prototype with the Kessler Foundation at Trento University, backed by EU funds. “We have a chemistry that is ten times cheaper than anything on the market,” said Salvatore Pinto, the chairman.
“We are speaking to three utilities in Europe and we will install our first battery as a field test next year,” he said.
Lockheed Martin and Pacific Northwest labs are both working on their own organic flow batteries, while others are developing variants with designed molecules.
Consultants Mckinsey estimate that the energy storage market will grow a hundredfold to $90bn a year by 2025.
The US is not holding back on investment in the sector. In March over $1.25bn in private follow-on funding has been received by ARPA-E projects for new energy technologies. ARPA-E was founded in 2009 as part of US President Barack Obama’s economic-stimulus package.
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