Monday, February 27, 2017
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Storage: Renewable Energy's Achilles Heel
Jacob Fattal, Publisher

The current global focus on generating renewable energy has continually focused a spotlight on the problem of storing it. Battery technology lags far behind semiconductor development, and in fact has not advanced significantly in decades. The potential benefits are many. According to the journal Energy and Environmental Science, the reduction of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels would save the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars annually in associated public health costs alone.

Renewable energy — solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal — all require an efficient system of storage that can smooth their output when the source is irregular; at night, a solar-powered home relies on a backup system of batteries, or a connection to the power grid. Current battery backup technology, such as Tesla's Powerwall, a modified version of the lithium ion batteries installed in the company's cars, are simply cobbled-together assortments of the batteries found in our laptops and smartphones.

So far, lithium ion technology, although vastly better than the old nickel-cadmium batteries, has not proven effective enough for large-scale use. And because lithium is so volatile, there's always the danger of fire. For the amount of power generated by a field of wind turbines, other solutions are needed. Ingenious systems are being used today, though they are far from perfect and are at best, terribly inefficient. Besides electrochemical storage, energy is stored mechanically in flywheels, in underground basalt formations full of compressed air, and in water pumped from a low reservoir to a higher one, which is then allowed to run back down through a hydro turbine generator.

These systems, while seemingly simplistic, still cost roughly twice as much money to store energy than the actual cost of delivered power. It seems that the world of energy storage has been hamstrung, waiting for the next development to appear. Certainly there are teams of people working on batteries, many universities in the U.S. have created wildly futuristic contraptions, such as lithium-air batteries from Dallas University, or gold nanowire batteries from the University of California Irvine. Earlier this year, scientists at Pohang University in South Korea even developed a stainless steel battery with a thin-film electrolyte, which promises to keep a smartphone charged for a week at a time.

These incremental steps in battery technology, however, are not full-scale solutions to our dilemma of storing what we generate from renewable energy sources. As Tesla completes its Gigafactory in Nevada and begins to produce more lithium ion batteries in a year than the entire world produced in 2013, I am reminded of the company's namesake, Nikola Tesla, the father of hydroelectric power, and wonder whether he would think the extravagant factory a leap forward, or a shocking example of excess.  

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