As you likely know, on April 22, 2021 the “United States” “set a goal” of reaching “100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.” You know that because on that date (Earth Day!) President Biden issued a press release so announcing, although the document does not inform us how Biden was able to commit the “United States” to such an ambitious goal by the device of a mere press release, without any sort of affirmative action from the Congress, let alone any consultation with you.
Previous posts here have noted that there is a rather gigantic obstacle to achieving the goal of “carbon free electricity,” namely the need for vast amounts of energy storage to transform wildly-fluctuating intermittent generation from the wind and sun into steady 24/7 electricity supply. For example, this post from January 14, 2022 reported on calculations by a guy named Ken Gregory as to how many gigawatt hours of storage would be needed to balance a fully wind/solar-supplied grid for the United States assuming consumption at 2020 levels. (Mr. Gregory’s calculation was in the range of 250,000 GWH, with a cost in the hundreds of trillions of dollars.) And this post from March 27 reported on various jurisdictions (California, Australia, New York) hurtling toward a “net zero” future without ever bothering to calculate how many GWHs of energy storage they would need or how much it will cost.
But clearly the people committing us to these goals have to know that a fully wind/solar and fossil-fuel-free electricity future requires lots of energy storage. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that wind and solar produce nothing on a calm night. And indeed, if we look around at what our government is up to, we find considerable activity on the energy storage front. But there is an almost complete disconnect between, on the one hand, current efforts of small research grants and pilot programs to investigate which of various new technologies might work, and, on the other hand, a multi-hundred-trillion dollar total transformation of the entire energy economy that will supposedly be accomplished within the next 13 years using technology not yet invented let alone demonstrated at scale.
Here are just a few examples of what is currently going on our there in the energy storage world:
- The federal Department of Energy has a big program going on called the Energy Storage Grand Challenge. An article from Energy Storage News, September 24, 2021, gives a comprehensive update. Central to the program will be constructing a new research center where various alternative strategies for what they call “long duration” energy storage will be investigated for feasibility. Thus it does appear that they have at least figured out that to make a wind/solar-supplied grid last through a year, you are going to need storage that can hold thousands of GWH of charge for many months on end. Lithium-ion can’t do that. But ESN notes that not only do the “long duration” technologies not yet exist, but the research center to investigate them doesn’t exist yet either, nor has construction begun. From ESN: “The DOE is also helping to get a US$75 million long-duration energy storage research centre built at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which is expected to open by or during 2025.” So maybe we can start this basic research some time around 2025.
- And what potential technologies will be investigated? In the same article from ESN, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm weighs in: “Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm famously expressed a view earlier this year that flow batteries are “good for grid storage,” and these enthusiastic words appear to be carrying over into action.” Hey, Secretary Granholm went to the Harvard Law School, so that makes her at least as qualified as I am to opine on what kind of storage the U.S. should acquire to store, say, 250,000 GWH of energy for six months. ESN reports that Granholm’s DOE has thus just awarded some $18 million in grants to four entities investigating various aspects of these hypothetical “flow batteries.”
- In the somewhat less mythical category, here is an article from ESN just out today on the subject of zinc batteries, with the headline “e-Zinc raises US$25m to begin commercial pilot production of long-duration storage.” You only have to read a little of this to realize how totally remote from the needed capabilities these technologies currently are. “The [zinc battery] technology is being touted as a means to replace diesel generator sets in providing backup power for periods of between half a day to five days. . . . That ability to discharge at full rated power for several days potentially would take it past the capabilities of other non-lithium alternatives like flow batteries. . . . However, e-Zinc is yet to move beyond the pilot stage.” The technology to discharge at full rated power for more than “a few days” is not even at the “pilot stage.”
None of these articles, or much else from the Department of Energy, will give you much clue as to how much the deployment of any of these technologies might cost. But doing some searching today, I have dredged up a July 2019 document from the Department, with the title “Energy Storage Technology and Cost Characterization Report,” written by K. Mongird and a bunch of co-authors. This piece attempts to make cost comparisons among a large group of potential energy storage technologies, and to give cost projections for each as of 2025. The technologies are sodium-sulphur, lithium ion, lead acid, sodium metal halide, zinc-hybrid cathode, and redox flow. The authors actually attempt an honest assessment of costs, including not just the capital cost of acquiring each type of battery, but also the costs for the power conversion system (converting from AC to DC and back), the “balance of plant,” and “construction and commissioning.” The cheapest of the technologies in this analysis is lithium ion at $362/kwh, with the difference between that figure and the less-than-$200/kwh that Tesla currently charges consisting of the conversion, BOP, and C&C costs. But keep in mind that lithium ion technology only carries about 4 – 8 hours of discharge capability.
The second cheapest here is the zinc technology, at $433/kwh. Recall that Mr. Gregory calculated a storage need of about 250,000 GWH for the U.S. to back up a wind/solar system providing just the current level of electricity usage. Multiply by the $433/kwh, and you get approximately $108 trillion. If you’re planning to electrify all automobiles and home heating and cooking, you can at least double that figure. And this is the technology where they are hoping to demonstrate 5 days of discharge capability, against a need of more like 6 -12 months.