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Smart Green Policy
Smart Spending Could Yield an Energy Storage Breakthrough

The U.S. government is pouring billions of dollars into energy research in the hopes that scientists might discover new technologies to more sustainably keep the lights on for future generations, and as Reuters reports there’s growing hope that researchers are close to an energy storage breakthrough:

Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which funds projects meant to transform energy markets, has made huge strides over the last few years on next-generation batteries that could make electric cars and renewable energy cheaper and more accessible, Ellen Williams said in an interview this week…Williams said her agency has helped kickstart a dozen high-risk projects based on newer technologies that could soon outperform Tesla batteries. […]

Batteries are in a “Wild West” phase, said Colin Wessells, chief executive of Alveo Energy, a San Francisco area startup developing a high power, long lifecycle battery technology for renewable energy and microgrids, or localized groupings of energy providers.

Only five energy grid storage batteries have been commercialized as researchers and budding entrepreneurs race to bring new technologies to market, he noted. Wessells, whose company has ARPA-E support, said huge manufacturing advances will speed up the commercialization of battery products.

ARPA-E is ramping up its efforts in the coming years as part of a project called Mission Innovation, conceived of in the weeks preceding last December’s Paris climate summit and spearheaded by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Coalition. That coalition exacted promises from 20 countries—including the United States—to double research and development funding for new energy technologies by 2021, and partnered those 20 countries with some of the world’s richest individuals. The sums pledged as part of this project are massive—the United States alone has said it would spend $12.8 billion on these kinds of projects over the next five years.

Too many greens get caught up in the trap of advocating for the subsidization of current-generation renewable energy projects, neglecting to understand that in doing so they’re consigning governments to continue propping up technologies incapable of competing with fossil fuels on their own merit while diverting valuable funds away from the pursuit of more lasting solutions. Energy storage is a critical piece of the renewables puzzle. Unlike coal or natural gas or nuclear power, solar and wind farms can only contribute power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing—which is to say, intermittently. Power grids, unfortunately, need more consistency than that. Until we have a cost-effective way to store renewable energy when it’s plentiful to use it when it’s not, renewables have a fairly hard ceiling on the amount of power they can supply. Gates’ focus on R&D is both smart and necessary, and it could pave the way towards a greener future.

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