Most renewable energy proponents are earnest and well-intentioned, but proceed on a series of false premises, most notably that Solar and Wind energy can outright displace "base load" brown power (the steady flow of power that comes from coal, nuclear, natural-gas plants). It cannot, for the simple reason that solar and wind sources produce variable power (no sun, no power, no wind, no power) and customers demand reliable (non-variable, hence, base load) power when they plug in their alarm clocks. Some have said the grid can be reconfigured, and gas-turbine or other hybrid blends on smart networks can be optimized to enable full-scale solar and wind renewable base-load replication (source), but I've yet to see hard evidence of that, even in Germany, the world's leader in Solar PV installations, though this is encouraging.
Note, for that matter, 2012 press on California rejecting big solar projects absent electricity storage, which is projected to foment a market boom if perfected. To try and prop the sector up, many cite of some sort of new battery storage project which, as this fellow explains, is just political magic aimed at extracting more government if not utility subsidies. In fact, I suspect this "new" battery is just another subsidy-suck or marginal improvement over existing battery tech, and not a breakthrough product. And the German uptick in battery storage reported here is more a function of government-caused, inflated electricity prices than any cost-feasibility inhering within battery storage.
But I'm always hopeful for a breakthrough innovation, especially electricity storage for the homeowner, something easy and compact like what's being built into his inverter, or maybe this, if not this (Bill Gates is investing in it, that's saying something). One university is now offering a graduate degree in energy storage technology. All pursue the "Holy Grail of Solar," and I'll be interested in seeing the net cost of this molten salt (concentrate solar thermal plant) energy storage that just came online in October, 2013. Click here for more on that.
Without a way to store solar/wind-generated electricity, some say renewable energy is of inferior value to utilities whose customers demand that electricity always flows from their outlets when they turn their TV on. Utilities thus have to find a way to "firm" (de-variable-ize) renewable (solar, wind) energy without a storage device, and lately that means widening grid management and mating the renewable (green) power with a brown (ex: gas turbine) source to create a hybrid system like this and this (I'm hoping for positive reports on the cost-feasibility of these hybrids). As this piece explains, it's complicated and some form of electricity storage is indispensable. Read this and this, too. The Germans have bored in on this policy-wise, and this piece claims they're succeeding, for the moment, without such storage, though others question German's choices.
Opinion is divided here. This May 28, 2013 Donn Dears post rails against the cost of integrating renewable (wind, solar) electricity into the existing grids. Donn concludes that we should abandon wind and solar because really, they just don't work when grid-integration costs are considered. Here's a grid operator's response:
There are other proposals out there, and here is a sub-page on Solar Power's Variability Problem. But no national "variability solution," whether based on cost-feasible electricity storage or not, has yet appeared on the American landscape. And overseas you'll find little more than wishful-thinking pieces like this, which speaks of decentralized Solar PV and "self-sufficient" PV owners but never explains what kind of electricity storage is being used (the linchpin to any self-sufficient power system). October, 2013 update: Governments are now mandating (and some are subsidizing) electricity storage, and this piece discusses the concept of it being part of a smarter-grid strategy.
Understand, there's plenty of talk about an electricity storage solution (including grid-based-energy storage), but I've yet to find an existing, successful example (August 2012 update: maybe this? September, 2012: here are the latest pursuits). Instead, I've found only hopeful interest groups and White Papers like this one, which (true to the liberal-green bent of mind) describe "drawing-board only" solutions yet call for subsidies anyway. There are also hopeful "test projects" like this, or the "15-minute capacity" configuration shown in this video (and I'd like to see the cost data on it). Too, consider these passages from that paper, which describe how complicated it can be just to produce and manage base load (e.g., coal-plant-generated) power:
California’s renewable energy goals [33% of all the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy by 2020] therefore complicate the already difficult task of providing consumers with electricity to meet their varying demand. This process involves electric power system operators forecasting electricity demand and then scheduling and operating numerous power plants to meet fluctuations in demand. Utilities therefore build and operate a variety of power plants, starting with “baseload” plants that serve the large constant demand for electricity. These often include nuclear and coal-fired power plants, which typically run at full output. When demand starts to increase on a day-to-day basis, utilities use load-following “cycling” plants, usually fueled with natural gas. And when demand peaks (typically in the middle of the afternoon due largely to air conditioning use, with the highest annual peak occurring in the afternoon of the hottest day of the year), utilities use “peaking” units. These facilities tend to run one percent of the year or less – a few hundred hours per year – and are often fueled by natural gas in California.
Utilities must also keep additional power plants in reserve in case of an unforeseen rise in demand, the sudden outage of a power plant or transmission line, or other unexpected events. These facilities are referred to as “operating reserves,” and they can also provide utilities with other key ancillary services that can protect the grid from random fluctuations forecasting errors, and other contingencies.
“The Power of Energy Storage” at 8-9 (footnotes omitted). See how much is involved just using brown-power sources to keep consistent electricity flowing through your outlets?
Now watch how complicated it gets when those same power companies try to blend renewable energy into that power grid:
Greater deployment of intermittent renewable energy technologies from wind and solar power will require grid operators to upgrade and adapt the existing system to integrate more renewable energy and balance the fluctuation in supply. A United States Department of Energy (DOE) report indicated that supplying 20 percent of the nation’s electricity with wind energy (300 gigawatts) would require approximately 50 gigawatts of new peaking plant gas turbines just to compensate for the variability of wind power. The CAISO projects that the expansion of wind energy production in the state to meet the 20 percent RPS will require an increase in what is known as “load-following energy” of 870 to 1050 megawatts per day. The load-following energy is necessary to compensate for the decrease in wind production during the daytime. An additional 700 to 1,500 megawatts per day will then be required to “ramp down” load-following energy production as the wind increases in the evening. The average production hike over the year will be 100 megawatts per day, with some days requiring up to a 30 percent increase, depending on the wind output.
“The Power of Energy Storage” at 9 (footnote omitted). See that? Even with renewables in the mix utilities must still blend a lot of brown (gas turbines, and lately natural gas prices have been falling due to record U.S. production of it).
The rest of the paper simply expatiates on how cost-feasible electricity storage could be blended into a mass-energy grid, but of course never does say how and when such storage (i.e., the type that makes any sort of economic sense) will come about. Here's another "envisioned solution" column that in no small part rests on the hope of cost-feasible "electricity storage." Here's one that calls for more solar power. My question: Is it really that simple? If so, then how come this idea hasn't taken off?
Like virtually every “green-movement” document available today, “The Power of Energy Storage” is fueled by hope, not reality. That wouldn't be bad, except that pure hope (not reality) winds up driving government policy, taxation, rate-making and spending decisions. That, in turn, leads to subsidies (grants, tax credits, etc.) for renewable power that no one actually wants because it costs too much, because it produces only unreliable -- variable -- power that can't be firmed/smoothed into reliable, base-load power without cost-feasible electricity storage.
Hence, economical electricity storage is the lynchpin to the entire renewable energy debate (over whether to subsidize it or not). It is the Holy Grail for Solar PV. And until that Holy Grail is found (click here for hopeful battery-development news), we need to resolve whether Solar PV is a fool's errand -- at least on the utility-scale level -- which is precisely why this book is focusing on how it can make economic sense as a wealth-generator at the individual, "Joe Six Pack" homeowner-scale level, though even that quest is ridden with vexing policy questions.
Until cost-feasible electricity storage happens -- either at residential or utility-scale level -- the only way Solar Photovoltaic power (what Georgia's four "subsidy farms" deploy) will ever begin to make sense is to get its cost down for 100 million individual homeowners to buy, install, and consume their own power (in which case you'll see everyone running their appliances during the daytime, thus creating an extra, conservational benefit and obviating "Time of Use" power pricing).
That many consumers effectively lowering their electricity needs to near-zero will enable smart-grid-power-smoothing (yes, this is part hope, too), so that electricity-output-depressing clouds over one part of the landscape can be offset by electricity-producing sun over another. The grid can real-time compensate and thus smooth net electrical flow, and peak-load daytime power needs can be more realistically supplied by solar power. I'm not even sure that will work, but such "horizontal solar asset management" certainly seems worth investigating. More ideas on this can be found here ("That challenge seems to be creating an opening for a different form of power, solar thermal, which makes electricity by using the sun’s heat to boil water. The water can be used to heat salt that stores the energy until later, when the sun dips and households power up their appliances and air-conditioning at peak demand hours in the summer."), and here. A really smart fellow airs many useful policy ideas here, though he focuses on "demand-side" management (remake appliances and mass-consumer behavior to tailor consumption in a way that optimizes the use of variable power). Here's an example of research in low-cost electricity storage and a video about it.
But those are all "on paper," and not available now. Meanwhile, note the outlandish fantasizing going on here. Money quote: "Combine solar panels all over the state with wind farms off the coast and in north Georgia, plus energy storage through pumping water uphill, spinning flywheels, heating salt, compressing air, etc. and pretty soon you've got baseload from renewable energy.” That's just fantasy-land thinking; you'll note the author does not even begin to explain how such a titanic undertaking could be cost-feasibly completed anytime soon.
Here's more of the same from that source: “What if the wind and sun fail at the same time, due to cloudy still days? Maybe keep a few dirty power plants around as backup power. We've got plenty of coal plants for that already. With real renewable energy, we could close most of them down, and we don't need any biomass plants. We do need solar.”
Maybe? The author evidently believes that coal plants can be flicked on an off like a hallway light. He also seems to believe that coal plants, which cost tens if not hundreds of millions to construct, can economically sit idle “until needed” and then, magically, capture all their needed (to be cost-feasibly run) revenue stream while “grey-day-activated." Of course, that's just silly, and typical “surface thinking” by an intellectually lazy greenie -- which only hurts the cause of Solar power.
Here's another hopeful piece on renewable energy that bears the same flaw. The author wants subsidies (FITS, etc.) for renewable energy (for Japan) without spelling out any realistic, cost-feasible way to store the electricity generated by it. At best peak-load can be addressed, but that doesn't dramatically lessen the need for base-load (brown power) plants that, let's face it, can't be easily switch on and off and can't be economically "stopped" for 5 sunny/windy days without also providing for their lost revenue stream. These basic shortcomings are routinely ignored in these renewable energy articles, although this one at least starts to supply some realistic numbers (yet, note the constant government-money backing assumed for almost every energy storage method described).
September, 2013: The Germans are now subsidizing home solar PV electricity storage. Does this make economic/ecologic sense? Money Quote:
December, 2013: I've got my eye on this liquid metal battery company (see the founder's video here, and a November, 2013 updating article here).
September, 2013: "An IMS Research report forecast that the market for storing power generated by solar will soar — from approximately $200 million in 2012 to $19 billion by 2017." (Source).
August, 2013: A new "grid storage battery" in development in Japan. (Source).
July, 2013: A new website dedicated exclusively to electricity storage. Here's one on batteries.
May, 2013: New battery for smoothing out renewable-generated electricity on the grid. Zinc-air batteries.
Underwater compressed air systems
April, 2013: Converting excess electricity (from wind, solar) to gas -- smart because it temporary converts excess electricity to gas, to then be burned for electricity later on. (Source).
March, 2013: An interesting piece on hydro-based, pump storage in the U.K.
Here's a video I found in December, 2012 about a super-capacitor development (fast charge like a capacitor, stores energy like a battery) that the proponent claims could be game-changing. We've heard that before. March 2013 update on super-capacitors here.
Here's a December, 2012 piece saying hey, 99% of US power can be renewable sourced -- if hydrogen and other electricity storage is available. Big if, eh? July, 2013: Storing Hydrogen In Solar Cells.
Here's an August, 2011 piece detailing the latest electricity storage options -- bottom line is it's more hope than reality, for now. I don't see much better here (November, 2011).
Understand this: "Currently, the EIA says, about 23% of U.S. electricity is generated by burning natural gas; by comparison, about 45% comes from coal and just 3.6% comes from all non-hydropower renewables, i.e., wind, solar, geothermal and waste. The U.S. now appears to have a 100-year supply of natural gas, says the American Petroleum Institute, citing the work of the Potential Gas Committee, a nonprofit group of industry experts." (Source). Cheap gas-powered electricity will be the biggest nemesis to Solar PV. Money quote: "Natural-gas-fired electricity now costs about 84 percent less than solar, and it cuts carbon-dioxide emissions compared to conventional coal by 30 percent to 50 percent." So, Americans can be lazy and waste energy again -- cheap and abundant, for the least painful method.
Low-cost electricity storage, then, is indispensable for Solar PV, wind, wave, and any other renewable (variable) energy technologies. That is what must be open- and crowd-sourced right now. Because as of July, 2012, it's still struggling. That is what I'm encouraging all of my friends and fellow investors to focus on, because it is the pivotal, history-altering point for green power, and for the planet. The DOE has heard the call and is dropping $30 million of our money into research on this (still, my litmus test for any new technology is this -- if private venture capital won't risk its money, and thus inventors go to government bureaucrats to risk our money, isn't that telling us something -- that no sane investor believes in what's being presented, so only spend-o-crats spending Other People's Money will take that risk?).
November, 2012: A comprehensive article on grid electricity storage.
October, 2012: Here's the latest data on electricity storage in the U.S.
Here is some more discussion on the variability problem.
Here, by the way, is an electricity storage vendor: A123 (but check my "Boondoggle Watch" page for crater/bankruptcy info). See also this article/video with very useful Comments at the end.
Here are articles I've found about future technological possibilities in this area:
A short article on stored-electricity economics.
An interesting piece on the math and physics of batteries.
Molten Salt Storage (I'm really looking forward to an outside auditor's full accounting on this undertaking, including cost-per-watt storage and retrieval that fully accounts for the value of the energy lost just by sending it through this storage medium). More on that here and here ("That challenge seems to be creating an opening for a different form of power, solar thermal, which makes electricity by using the sun’s heat to boil water. The water can be used to heat salt that stores the energy until later, when the sun dips and households power up their appliances and air-conditioning at peak demand hours in the summer."). Again, however, private capital does not believe in this. Hence (from that same article): "The Energy Department seems to agree: in September it gave SolarReserve a $737 million loan guarantee for its project in Nevada. The plant will generate 110 megawatts at peak and store enough heat to run for eight to 10 hours when the sun is not shining." The other big player mentioned in that article: Brightsource Solar Thermal Energy Storage. Here's a later article linking Brightsource and Solar Tower projects to molten salt electricity storage.
Here's another article on Concentrated Solar Power, utilizing Molten Salt Storage, to flatten the spikey variability of solar-based electricity -- the kind that requires "grid balancing" costs. Here's an April 2, 2012 update (be sure and watch the video -- very well done, seems too good to be true).
No good analysis about electricity storage is complete without an understanding of energy efficiency (i.e., how much energy is lost extracting it from one source and delivering it to another). Here's a nice piece on that concept.
Wind-To-Hydrogen Storage (same comments -- let's see third-party confirmed cost data on this; watch for any private venture capital backing this -- if you see only taxpayer dollars then it fails the practicality litmus test). Related: Germany invests in hydrogen storage
Vanadium Battery Tech touted as better than Li-Ion batteries.
Here's a related topic, this one including load-management to address the variability problem.
Hoping for "The Big Battery Breakthrough"
Here's the government's March 1-2, 2012 "Summit" on Utility-Scale Electricity storage. Bottom line: Spending our money on hopefulness: "Energy storage is becoming recognized as an important technology option contributing to renewable integration and grid stability. There is a portfolio of technologies available for use in a wide spectrum of applications. Building on previous work funded by DOE, the $185M ARRA stimulus grants have scaled up storage projects by an order of magnitude. This presentation will discuss new projects in the areas of wind integration, frequency regulation, distributed storage, and compressed air energy storage, as well as a number of new cutting edge research projects." Why am I reminded of "The National Science Institute" from "Atlas Shrugged"?
A call for uniform state laws regarding electricity storage.
Boondoggle news in this sector: Ener-1 files for bankruptcy.
And now A123 may be circling the drain. Money Quote:
Note the AES Li-Ion mega-battery system featured here.
Cost-feasible electricity storage could actually increase the use of brown power, this column says.
Progress in Lithium Ion batteries noted here. And here's an experiment on using Li-ion for grid storage. World's largest Lithium Ion storage facility here.
My bottom line: I am encouraging the brightest minds out there to focus on this one critical area of renewable energy. The first person to solve the problem wins the instant-zillionaire prize. The problem? Invent an electric storage device that Joe Six Pack can - like an electric water heater for his home -- buy at Home Depot and easily install in his closet or garage. It will store all the unused power flowing from his rooftop or backyard Solar PV array so that he can use it at night if not sell any excess to his local utility for reverse meter credits. It must cost no more than $2000 and, like a water heater, require very low maintenance. It must last for no less than 20 years and require no water or special permitting (just like buying an electric water heater for your home, for example).
I would also encourage an open (non-proprietary) design so that it can web-presented and thus fetch the benefit of crowd-sourcing (ideas and suggested improvements from all over the world, much like the route taken by Linux and other open-source software). Here's an example of crowd-sourcing in this area.
My Bottom Line for fellow Visioneeers and green investors to consider:
I’m not informed enough yet to put my money down on the electricity storage technology. You can see from reading above that there are many different approaches toward The Holy Grail of renewable energy.
But my vision for “Joe Six Pack” (hence, 100-million-unit sales) is that, just as he can buy a uniform energy storage (propane tank for his home grill) pretty much anywhere and exchange them, he’ll want the same for an interchangeable, plug-n-play “energy cube,”something like this, to go with plug-n-play Solar PV panel kits.
Hence, there must be availed, in the mass-market channel: Interchangeable plug-n-play Solar PV panels + energy-storage packs (cubes, whatever). Those two components will form a mass market for grid-tied, residential/rural Solar PV on the hundred-million (think TV sets, water heaters, A-C systems) scale. That market's Take-off Price: A 10KW, grid-tied Solar PV system for $9995 out of the Home Depot “Solar Aisle,” plus $1995 for an "energy cube" that can be snapped in and out of a garage or closet storage unit and swappable (like propane tanks for grills).
That is the investment channel I want to cultivate.
Which means inventors must invent to the price point of the market.
I represent the “Joe Six Pack” price point: $1-$2/watt Solar PV systems installed, with self-storage of all power I generate so that I may self-consume it, then sell any excess into a grid that actually wants my power and is not legally forced to buy it.
10/12: Grid-scale electricity storage in development, but still seems not cost-feasible.
9/12: Read this article on the sheer quantity of electricity consumed by data storage centers worldwide, and the amount of electricity that's wasted in the process. Imagine the cost-savings in that sector alone if someone perfected cost-feasible electricity storage.
8/12: Found this lead in one of the comments to this article. My question: Is it for real or just a gag? 20-year life, it claims. I'm fantasizing here: mount it on the wall next to my inverters, no maintenance, no fire hazard and cost $2000 or less. Hell, then I'm investing!
7/12: Here's what a Korean firm is doing in this sector (right, short on specifics).
7/12: West Virginia University's High Capacity Electric Storage Program. Here it is again.
7/12: Reversing the process -- take excess electricity generated by wind or solar and microbially convert it to methane, which is then stored. As in stored energy. Hence, methane is a form of "electricity storage."