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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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  • Jim__L

    Once again… is breakthrough tech in the cards? If it’s not in the cards near the top of the deck, then this is more wasted effort.

    I’m not saying it isn’t worthwhile to draw a few more cards, and if Bill Gates wants to spend his money on this, that’s entirely up to him. But convincing the government to earmark public money for something that may be 25 years in the future (like fusion) until something (we know not what) happens in one or more peripherally related fields… that’s not a wise allocation of resources, period.

    • Fat_Man

      It is a waste. There is no new physics, and no new chemistry that could be the basis of a breakthrough.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Governments have a track record of failure in picking the winners of tech races. I’m reminded of Japan’s MITI memory chip domination program that was utterly crushed by a coalition of chip businesses. The real breakthrough ideas get developed by the smart money venture capital firms (which costs the public nothing), not by mediocre rent seeking scientists working on government grants. So $12.8 billion will be wasted over the next 5 years with nothing to show for it.

  • SLEcoman

    The problem isn’t that battery technology needs development; it needs multiple engineering breakthroughs. Tesla’s much touted 10 kwh Powerwall unit allows a homeowner to purchase the capability to store the energy equivalent of 0.3 gal of gasoline for $7,000.

    To get an order of magnitude improvement in performance, an engineering breakthrough is required. For example, the transition from horse drawn carriages to automobiles increased land transportation speed from 5 mph to 50 mph. The transition from propeller driven to jet powered airplanes allowed speed to increase from 300 mph to 3,000 mph. Note how the time period between order of magnitude engineering breakthroughs tend to be substantial. Note also that a demonstrated order of magnitude improvement in performance does not necessarily translate into an order of magnitude improvement in commercial applications. The transition from propeller driven to jet driven commercial airliners did not allow speed to increase from 300 mph to 3,000 mph, but from 300 mph to 600 mph.

    An engineering breakthrough in battery performance would allow a homeowner to store the energy equivalent of 3 gal of gasoline for $7,000. That’s still not anywhere near close to being competitive. Assume there is another engineering breakthrough. Now a homeowner could buy the ability to store the energy equivalent of 3 gal for $700, which still isn’t competitive.

    Let’s remember that with all the improvement in battery performance over the last decade, we still haven’t come close to an order of magnitude of improvement in battery performance.

    Expecting that research will yield a 100+ times improvement over present battery performance in the next 30 years is not a good bet.

    Want better

    • Fat_Man

      The Tesla battery packs are composed of thousands of type 18650 lithium-ion cells. The cells are cylinders with a diameter of 18.6mm × and a length of 65.2mm (which makes them a bit larger than AA cells (14.5 × 50.5). They are very common. They are used in laptop computers and other consumer electronic devices.

      The cells operate at 3.6 – 3.7 volts (depending on the exact chemistry), and have a capacity of between 1.5 and 3.4 Amp hours, or 5.4 and 12.6 Watt hours. These numbers are fixed by the cell chemistry and size. The size of the cell must be limited to allow sufficient heat dissipation during charging and discharging.

      Tesla’s 85 KWh battery pack has 16 modules each of which has 74 parallel stacks of 6 cells mounted in series. The 16 modules are connected in series to produce ~350 Volts. The 74 stacks allow a sufficient amperage to obtain the desired power level. Remember that 1 KWH = 1.35 hp. There are a total of 7,104 cells in the pack.

      Can you get higher voltages? Not without different chemistries. Ones that nobody knows about yet, and which most likely do not exist. High Amperage? Not without packing more reactants into a tighter space, which produces very difficult problems with heat dissipation.

      Will there be improvements. yes, but small ones in dribs and drabs. Will there be a breakthrough? Not without the discovery of new physics and chemistry. Since our current knowledge of the sciences was set a century ago, and a lot of very smart guys have spent a lot of time and a lot of money looking for new and different ones, and have not found any, it seems most unlikely.

      • SLEcoman

        Great post. But I have one quibble. a kWh is a measure of energy; horsepower is a measure of power. Thus, 1.0 kW = 1.34 hp. 1.0 kWh = 1.34 hp-hr = 3,412 Btu. For comparison purposes, 1.0 gallon of gasoline contains ~124,000 Btu

        • Fat_Man

          Right you are. That is what I get for typing comments at 1:00 am instead of going to bed like a sensible person. My apologies.

          • SLEcoman

            I get upset too when a political scientist doesn’t do a scientific ‘sanity check’ before publishing an article congratulating governments and private investors on chasing a chimera.

        • Fat_Man

          I used the edit function to fix it. Thanks.

      • Andrew Allison

        Thank you for the wonderful encapsulation (gas-equivalent of alternative energy storage) of how utterly cost-ineffective current alternatives are.

    • Ofer Imanuel

      If you can have a battery good enough to store several days worth of electricity for a reasonable size house, you make solar panels able to function with no utility connection.
      I have a good size house, which consumes, as per my electrical bill ~30kWh / day. If I had battery size of 90kWh, I would be able to live with no utility connection (well, not perfectly).
      The point is, that a 10+ times improvement is a game changer. Can’t argue that a 100+ times improvement isn’t better.

      • Fat_Man

        1. There is no order of magitude improvement avalable in existing battery technology. The chemical and physical constraints are too tight.

        2. You can buy 70 and 100 KWH battery packs from Tesla, at about $250 per KWH. I think you are probably looking at a minimum 10 year payback time, which is more than the expected life of the batteries.

        3. I don’t know where you live. I live in Ohio. In the winter it is cold and dark. Our gas fired heating system must have electrcity to run its pumps. It is onething to not be able to run the A/C, but freezing to death is not an acceptable alternative.

        • White Knight Leo

          How much would improved home insulation help offset the limited utility of solar panels in the winter? I live in Florida, so I don’t really know how much insulation costs.

          • Fat_Man

            Insulation helps, but we have insulation already. The gap between inside and outside temperatures is far larger in the Winter (70°) than it is the Summer (30°). Second, days in the winter are much shorter. 9 hrs vs 15 hrs. Third, the sun is much lower in the sky, and shines with less intensity in the Winter than it does in the summer. Fourth, in the winter, snow and ice cover things and block the sun from getting to them.

          • White Knight Leo

            I knew that much about the sun and the weather; I agree fully that the technology will need to leapt at least one full order of magnitude before it’s particularly useful outside of perpetually sunny areas like Florida.
            My question was just about whether improving on insulation would do it. I’d imagine it would be much, much easier to improve household insulation by, say, 50% than to improve solar panels and energy storage, and then you simply wouldn’t need as much energy to heat a home in the winter (since your original comment referenced freezing to death as a non-alternative).
            Of course, the insane cheapness of natural gas at the moment makes the whole enterprise moot; there’s money to be had improving insulation, obviously, but the business margins would have to be pretty close to the old stuff (cost of production/market price) to make anyone switch in a world of cheap gas. Only really big structures like warehouses would see significant cost reductions from improved insulation in a world of cheap energy, and it would be hard for the installation costs to be low enough to make it worth the work.
            I’m on the same page as you, but since you are much closer to the problem I figured you had put more thought into it, and I was just trying to play devil’s advocate.
            I read about a proposal to reduce the cost of the high-efficiency photovoltaic cells: make a cell that is literally only 1/16 in², and use a cheap glass magnifier that was 1 ft². Then you could get the 45% panels (which cost about $100k per ft²) down to about $900 per 1ft² panel. It was a clever solution, but I saw the problem pretty fast: you’re focusing 1ft² of sunlight down to an area 1/900th the size, which means you’re increasing the heating factor on the panel 900-fold (same energy, smaller area). I doubted that the high-efficiency panels could survive a day at with that much heat.
            That particular experiment seemed unlikely to succeed to me, but it was a nice example of how an economic problem could, in principle, be solved cheaply. I was wondering if something similar could be done for panels in Ohio with insulation.

          • Fat_Man

            Insulation does not create energy. It can help you use energy efficiently. The problem of staying warm and comfortable during a Midwestern winter is a problem of obtaining and using energy. Solar panels cannot not create useful quantities of energy during the winter at and above 40°N.

          • White Knight Leo

            Solar panels cannot not create useful quantities of energy during the winter at and above 40°N.

            This answers my question.

          • Fat_Man

            Happy to be of service.

          • Ofer Imanuel

            I live in New Jersey, which is comparable to Ohio, have a new house with insulation, and a set of solar panels. Heat is done with gas. December and January were very weak, precisely for the reasons you mentioned.

        • f1b0nacc1

          This reminds me of some of the comments on FuturePundit where we would see confident predictions of huge efficiency increases based upon little more than press releases and wishful thinking….

        • Ofer Imanuel

          1 – I don’t see one either, but do not rule out that it is theoretically possible.
          2 – completely true – without aforementioned breakthrough. If the payback is 1 year instead of 10, this might make sense financially.
          3 – notice my escape clause – “not perfectly”. It will work where sun is plenty. Or you will need storage significantly bigger than 3 days.

          • Fat_Man

            1. There will be no order of magnitude improvement in batteries. First, batteries generate energy by reacting chemicals and extracting the energy released as electric current. The first variable is the chemicals used. There are a finite number of elements, and therefore chemicals that are usable. A number of them are not sufficiently reactive (noble gases), are too expensive (silver is ok in hearing aid batteries, but something big enough for a house is going to get out of hand), or are radioactive (put the Plutonium down son). Batteries were invented more than 200 years ago. There have always been tremendous financial incentives for making better batteries. You simply cannot expect that there will be a new combination of chemicals that will make a battery that is an order magnitude better than existing chemistries.

            But wait, there is more. The amount of energy a given battery can store is a linear function of the amount of reactants it has in it. If you want to store more energy, you must have more batteries. Batteries produce DC at fixed and low voltages. If you need higher voltages, you must either connect battery cells in series, as Tesla does, or turn the DC into AC with an inverter and use a transformer to increase the voltage, which reduces efficiency and increases cost. Also, chemistry limits the amount of energy that can be extracted from a battery in a given amount of time, i.e, power. If you need more power, you must use more cells. You also must cool the batteries adequately if you are using a lot of power.

            There is no new chemistry, no new physics, no big rock candy mountain, and no miracles. There are only tradeoffs and costs.

  • f1b0nacc1

    This article was little more than a press release…no new technology, no new physical principles, just a ‘hey, we can do this better’ statement that offered very little substance.
    Fat_Man has it right….there are fundamental physical limitations here that aren’t being discussed because they undermine the whole ‘just throw more money at it and the problem will be solved’ narrative. Perhaps we will overcome these, but there is nothing that is in the article referenced above that indicates that this will happen, and it is long past time that we stop pretending that these breakthroughs are ‘right around the corner’

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