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Battery power boost to renewables

February 21, 2017, by Kieran Cooke

renewables wind turbines

Winds of change … a storage system for energy generated by renewables is closer to being realised. Image: Sheila Sund via Flickr

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Researchers have moved one step closer to the dream of the renewables industry: batteries that can store large amounts of energy cheaply for extended periods.

LONDON, 21 February, 2017 It is the holy grail of the renewable energy sector – a cheap and efficient battery system that can store energy generated by renewables such as wind and solar.

These days there are few who doubt the potential of renewables, except those diehards on the extreme of the fossil fuel industry.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the main body monitoring developments in the global energy sector, renewables are surging ahead.

Investment in renewables

In 2015, investments in oil and gas – fossil fuels that, along with coal, are the main drivers of global warming – declined by 25%, while energy produced from renewables rose by 30%.

Renewables are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels in many sectors: according to the IEA, in the five years to the end of 2015 the price of solar energy dropped by 80% and wind power by a third.

Fast-developing countries – China and India, in particular – are investing millions of dollars in the renewable sector.

The big problem with renewables development has been storage. In order to operate a commercially viable power plant, a reliable flow of fuel is needed. In the case of oil, coal or gas this is relatively straightforward as supplies can quickly be replenished.

Because we were able to dissolve the electrolytes
in neutral water, this is a long-lasting
battery that you could put in your basement”

In the case of nuclear, as long as there is a readily available supply of uranium isotopes, power can continue to be generated.

Solar and wind power supply is far more varied – dependent on sunshine and wind speeds – and cannot be stored or used in the same way as so-called conventional fuels.

For years, scientists have struggled to develop storage systems capable of handling the peaks and troughs of renewable power so that an even supply can be guaranteed.

Researchers at the John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University in the US say in an article published in ACS Energy Letters that they have now developed a long-lasting flow battery capable of storing renewable power that­ could operate for up to 10 years, with minimum maintenance required.

A flow battery is a cross between a conventional battery and a fuel cell. Flow batteries store energy in liquid solutions in external tanks and are regarded as one of the primary ways of storing renewable energy. The bigger the tanks, the more energy can be stored.

But flow batteries are costly. Most use expensive polymers that can cope with the potent chemicals inside the battery.

Battery capacity

The battery’s components and materials, such as membranes and electrolytes, have to be frequently replaced in order to retain capacity.

The Harvard team modified molecules used in the electrolyte solutions to make them soluble in water and so vastly increase the battery’s ability to retain power.

Because we were able to dissolve the electrolytes in neutral water, this is a long-lasting battery that you could put in your basement,” says Roy Gordon, a professor of chemistry and materials science and a leading member of the research team.

If it spilled on the floor, it wouldn’t eat the concrete and, since the medium is non-corrosive, you can use cheaper materials to build components of the batteries, like the tanks and pumps.”

Reducing the cost of the battery is vital. The US Department of Energy says that in order to make stored energy from wind and solar competitive with fossil fuels, a battery needs to be able to store energy for less than $100 per kilowatt hour.

If you can get anywhere near this cost target then you can change the world,” says Michael Aziz, another lead researcher in the battery project and a professor of materials and energy technologies at Harvard.

It becomes cost effective to put batteries in so many places – this research puts us one step closer to reaching that target.” – Climate News Network

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  • err… see here: (touch of commercially minded hype by these Harvard chaps perhaps?)

  • Kieran – while I’ve little hope of this comment being published before your article has begun being sedimented into the growing archive, it seems worth writing at least for the chance of your reading and considering its perspective.

    The quote of how a $100/kwh battery “Would change the world” seems to me radically overstated for several reasons.

    First, it can be argued that renewable electricity could address a mere tenth of the AGW problem, given not only the CO2 outputs of concrete production and deforestation but also the other GHG outputs of a host of industrial and agricultural industries, as well as the coming loss of the cooling “Fossil Sulphate Parasol”, as well as the self-reinforcing warming of the 8 Major Interactive Feedbacks – of which 7 are widely reported in the literature as already accelerating, with several each having the potential to dwarf current anthro-GHG outputs,

    Second, while battery storage will make good economic sense for Intermittent renewables to allow say a 24hr supply from a turbine or PV collector, beyond that their viability must diminish exponentially, since the more rarely they are called on due to ‘unproductive’ weather, the longer they’ll take to recoup their costs and the more expensive their output. In short, they cannot provide energy security at the level of say a worst-case week-long widespread unproductive weather event, since such an event is too rare for them to ever earn back their capex.

    Third, the quite bizarre reseach funding priorities over the last 30 years have resulted in well developed Intermittent technologies – that cannot provide energy security and so cannot actually threaten the primacy of power-on-demand technologies such as nuclear and gas CCGT – This has been at the expense of sufficient funding to achieve similar cost reductions of the novel ‘Reliables’ – such as Geothermal, Solar Thermal, Offshore Wave and Micro-Hydro – while historic Reliables such as Tidal Barrage (with costs at La Rance of about 18 euros/MWH for the last 30 years) have been almost totally starved of project funding worldwide. Since these otions can, and will someday, compete with the baseload supply of fossil options, it would seem naive to assume that – despite the vast financial profits involved – the neglect of the Reliables’ R,D&D has been just ‘accidental.’

    And now we have Battery storage getting heavy research investment and being hyped as getting renewables beyond the intermittency hurdle, – thus again undercutting any pressure for the rational investment in the Reliable supply options, – when in fact Battery Storage cannot and will not provide energy security and so poses no terminal threat to nuclear and gas.

    I doubt the strategic goal of the fossil lobby since 1980 has ever been to try to prevent the shift to renewable energy; their strategists are rather more astute and will have focussed on a series of fall-back positions maximizing the period in which their industries are profitable. From this perspective the research of high capacity low-cost batteries is but the retreat from one front to another in the long campaign to delay the loss of their prime baseload market to the advent of the Reliable renewables.

    I doubt you need any lesson from me on the medacity of the nucluear industry, but there is one sequence of events worth noting in particular as indicating the accuracy of the above analysis. You’ll no doubt recall the late Walter Marshall, nuclear engineer promoted to head the CEGB, he who totally falsified the nuclear fleet’s accounts to the point that when it came to privatization the city rejected them and he was sumarily fired ? Perhaps you may also recall how in 1983 he launched out of the blue the building of the planet’s largest wind turbine on the Shetlands ? He was under no apparent pressure to do so, but it did offer the immediate advantage of splitting the Green movement down the middle as turbines began to appear on beloved landscapes, while it also meant that the rural vote was effectively deterred from joining forces with the greens in their virulently anti-nuclear power campaigns. Yet there was a further influence arising from Marshall’s initiative. At the same time as he was routinely cooking the books of the nuclear fleet, he was also sending whatever data he chose on the Shetland turbine’s performance not only to the Ministry of Energy in Whitehall but also to its counterpart in Brussels. – The result was that both these centres of power put the priority focus of research funding into the most intrusive and most intermittent of all of the renewable energy options – greatly to the benefit of the survival of the nuclear industry.

    If these views are of interest I’d be grateful if you could email me as I’d much appreciate your thoughts on them.

    All the best,

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