Battery breakthroughs jump start renewable energy

Battery breakthroughs jump start renewable energy

Battery breakthroughs jump start renewable energy
Photo courtesy of AllGrid Energy of Australia

Remote Australian communities often use diesel generators for power. They’re expensive to run and emit pollution and greenhouse gases. Even people who don’t rely entirely on generators use Australia’s power grid, which is mostly fuelled by polluting, climate-altering coal. Now, one company is showing that supplying Australia’s energy needn’t be expensive or polluting.

AllGrid Energy produces 10 kilowatt-hour solar-power batteries that take advantage of Australia’s abundant sunlight and growing demand for solar panels. Their lead-acid gel battery is less expensive than Tesla’s lithium Powerwall, also available in Australia. Many AllGrid systems are sold in indigenous communities, providing affordable energy independence.

It’s an example of the rapid pace of renewable energy development — one that clears a hurdle previously confronting many clean-energy technologies: their variable nature. One advantage of fossil fuels is that they’re both source and storage for energy; renewables such as wind and solar are only sources.

Levelling the playing field for renewables

Many argue that because solar and wind energy only work when sun shines or winds blow, and output varies according to cloud cover, wind speed and other factors, they can’t replace large “baseload” sources like coal, oil, gas and nuclear. But batteries and other energy storage methods, along with power-grid improvements, make renewables competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear power — and often better in terms of reliability, efficiency and affordability.

With right storage, renewables could replace fossil fuels

With storage and grid technologies advancing daily, renewable energy could easily and relatively quickly replace most fossil fuel–generated electricity. In Canada, Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator contracted five companies to test a number of storage systems, including batteries, hydrogen storage, kinetic flywheels and thermal systems that store heat in special bricks. Ontario is aiming to get about 50 per cent of its installed generating capacity from renewable sources by 2025.

The main renewable-energy storage methods are thermal, compressed air, hydrogen, pumped hydroelectric, flywheels and batteries. Some are better for large scale and some for small scale. As electric cars become more popular, their batteries could be connected to grids to supply and balance power, which could offset costs for owners. Harvard University researchers have been working on a flow battery that uses abundant, inexpensive organic compounds called quinones rather than expensive metals.

Advantages of renewables over fossil fuels

Renewable energy with storage has a number of advantages over fossil fuels. It can discharge power to the grid to meet demand more quickly and efficiently, and it’s less prone to disruption, because power sources are distributed over a large area, so if one part is knocked out by a storm, for example, other parts keep the system running. Many fossil fuel and nuclear power systems require a lot of water for cooling and so can be affected by drought, and nuclear power systems are expensive and take a long time to build. Clean-energy technology also creates more jobs than fossil fuel development.

Because renewables don’t pollute or create greenhouse gas emissions, they also help lower costs for health care and the ever-increasing impacts of climate change. Although every energy source comes with consequences, the damage and risks from mining, processing, transporting and using coal, oil, bitumen and uranium, and from fracking and other extraction methods, are far greater than for clean energy. And fossil fuels will eventually run out, becoming increasingly expensive, difficult to obtain, and ridden with conflict as scarcity grows.

US could cut CO2 from electricity by 80%

Rapid storage-technology development will place renewable sources at the forefront of the global energy mix in coming years. Many renewables are already being deployed even without storage. A recent report showed the U.S. could reduce CO2 emissions from its electricity sector by 80 per cent relative to 1990 levels within 15 years “with current technologies and without electrical storage.”

The study, by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of Colorado Boulder and published in Nature Climate Change, concluded that grid improvements, including a new high-voltage direct-current transmission grid, could deliver low-cost clean energy throughout the country to match supply and demand.

Still, storage offers many advantages. With the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, governments need to provide incentives for rapid renewable energy development and deployment. Considering how quickly computer technology and other human inventions have advanced, it’s easy to see that barriers to a clean-energy shift are more political and psychological than technological.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.


About Dr. David Suzuki

David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. He is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way.

5 thoughts on “Battery breakthroughs jump start renewable energy

  1. Compressed air or other gases are subject to Boyle’s law, and are highly inefficient ways of storing energy. Heat is produced, a lot of it in compressing it, as a bicycle pump will demonstrate, and that heat is wasted.

    Batteries that need lithium as part of their chemistry are perhaps not the way to go long term, and they are still large and use up a lot of non-renewable resources. Tesla wall-power is just a marketing scheme to sop up production from that giant plant nearing completion in the Nevada desert, where water is scarce and now needed to run the plant. Now there’s an example of illogic in production.

    As Dr. Suzuki points out, the Aussies use regular lead acid batteries for storage, and such systems have been in use for decades. No need for Tesla necessarily.

    I appreciate where he’s coming from, but there’s still a long way to go to get from here to there, a better future. Let’s hope we make the right decisions as we travel the path.

    I really do not get Japan’s infatuation with hydrogen either – like normal grid electricity it is a conveyor of energy, rather than a primary source. To produce it, you strip the carbon from natural gas, requiring energy to do so, and it is notoriously subject to leakage due to its minute molecule size – it can leak through metal walls. Quite what the advanntage to kit is beyond me.

    Anyway, I’m just a retired engineer. Just need to add a few notes of caution here and there as the more wonderful flights of fancy are floated before their time, while recognizing the need we need to do a lot more than mark time at present. Let us proceed down sane avenues.

    1. A voice of reason.
      The experience of installing about $1000.00 worth of solar lighting in my cabin in Northern Ontario is instructive. With careful and sparing use of two or three CFL lights, it was just possible to see well enough to cook and eat, and read a bit if the lights were carefully positioned. Any other use of power would exceed the capacity of the system.
      The cost of replacement batteries every few years was far more than the cost of fuel to run a generator for the period of time we were there and needed power. The generator could produce all the power we could use and cost a little over half what the solar power sysyem did.
      Perhaps things are 30 or 40% better now, but the improvements that are required for this sort of thing to work in the real world are orders of magnitude, not a few percent.
      I’m another engineer, and my belief is that we’re playing “You Bet Your Civilization” with climate change, and that unless clear-headed decisions are made – and soon – we’re guaranteed to lose.
      There’s really no alternative to nuclear power that has the remotest chance of producing enough power when it’s needed to get us through. Thorium looks like the best bet. It’s an unattractive fact, but as far as I can see, a fact it remains. It’s very nice that unicorns fart rainbows, but there are no unicorns.
      On an even cheerier note, nothing in the way of power generation will help if we can’t find a way to reduce the impact of our species as a whole, which means managing a reduction in population to perhaps a quarter of the current number or less.
      I would dearly love to be shown realistic arguments that all this is not the case, but I haven’t yet seen anything that amounts to more than wishful thinking. (For example the DC power transmission system that will no doubt do wonders transmitting solar power when the entire continent is in the dark.)

    2. Geothermal.
      It’s right beneath owr feet, its green, and we have the technology today to develop it.

      1. …and Geo Thermal is what should be in place instead of Site C. Unfortunately Billy Bennett succeeded in having his way. I’m sure Liberal cronies and Corporate sponsors had a party.

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