Our planet is in a race to electrify everything, to convert to renewable energy in an effort to decarbonize the world and limit the impact of climate change.
Often, in covering this shift, we focus on the story of the alternative energy sources that will get us there, primarily solar and wind.
And yet, a less discussed but no less important ingredient in this transition will be energy storage.
Solar and wind are variable energy sources, meaning they do not consistently produce power all day (and night). Which is why we need storage.
Big batteries, like Australia’s Hornsdale Power Reserve, offer an increasingly viable way to store power when there’s extra to spare, so that it can be served up when these variable sources are not generating enough.
They’re new, cheap and amazingly effective. And they owe their rise, in part, to Elon Musk and his science-based swagger.
How Elon Musk brought battery storage to Australia
Elon Musk promised to build a giant battery in 100 days...or it would be free.
In 2016 a huge storm wreaked havoc across South Australia, bringing down the entire grid and leaving 1.7 million people without power. Though emergency crews brought the grid back to life in 24 hours, the blackout became a hot political issue.
Some tried to put the blame on renewable energy, but others rightly believed what the grid needed was resiliency: battery storage, so that in the event of another storm, the energy created by renewables would be ready to step up. Enter the world’s most reported-on tech mogul, Elon Musk, who promised, live on Twitter, to build a giant battery in 100 days...or it would be free.
Tesla managed this feat in 62 days, to the surprise of the battery skeptics.
And the Hornsdale Power Reserve, which came online in 2017, showed that the lithium-ion superbattery was faster, cheaper and more effective than anticipated.
The key thing about Hornsdale was its response speed: when other generators trip up or drop in frequency, Hornsdale can react and supply power in milliseconds.
In less than a year, the Tesla battery had slashed grid costs by 90 percent.
Needless to say, its success has ushered in a wave of big battery production, which is essential in our furious race to transition to intermittent power sources that require this kind of backup.
How does the battery work, and why was it so game changing?
High-capacity battery arrays are really just the same battery technology we’ve always had, except at hyperscale. The combination of rapidly decreasing costs and rapidly accelerating performance is what has made all the difference.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory suggests that lithium battery prices will fall by 45 percent by 2030. In other words, batteries are fast, cheap and only getting better.
Alternative energy sources, growing in capacity by leaps and bounds every year, can produce tons of power, but that power needs to be stored for moments when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Renewables and batteries are a match made in heaven.
Unlike nuclear and large-scale hydroelectric, battery backup facilities tend to get built in months, not years.
As a bonus, these huge battery arrays can be built relatively quickly. Just as Musk’s team was able to get the Hornsdale Power Reserve built in just a couple of months, other new facilities have come online relatively quickly.
Unlike some types of power, like nuclear (which often takes decades and billions to build) and large-scale hydroelectric, battery backup facilities tend to get built in months, not years.
Renewable energy and climate change
As the world grapples with increasingly intense climate change–induced weather emergencies, grids need increasing backup power capacity to handle this volatility.
Huge weather events (like the severe cold snap in Texas in February 2021) will send power systems reeling, as most were built with a much more modest range of energy demand in mind.
The energy crisis in California means the grid struggles to maintain power, often resorting to brownouts during the state’s ever-worsening heat waves, when people crank up their AC units to fight the temperatures. Here, too, a wave of huge battery builds will help the state address these needs. The Gateway storage facility near San Diego is now the world’s biggest battery farm.
And Saudi Arabia is building a battery that will soon supplant Gateway as the world’s largest, powering huge resorts with 24-hour renewable power.
How big batteries help alternative energy sources go mainstream
Before the rise of the big battery, many fretted over this problem of intermittency, aka the downtime when wind and solar were not generating.
We now know that backup storage solutions are plentiful and cheap. And this knowledge has changed how we build power sources.
We’re now at a point with batteries that means renewables can replace small- to medium-sized natural gas generators, explains Ray Hohenstein of energy storage company Fluence in an interview with publication Yale Environment 360. “Now we’re able to truly build these hybrid resources — solar, storage, wind — and do the job that was traditionally done by fossil fuel power plants,” he adds.
The negative side of batteries
Batteries also present huge environmental and human rights challenges that need to be overcome.
While touted for their cost and efficiency, batteries also present huge environmental and human rights challenges that need to be overcome. Extracting lithium is extremely water-intensive and pollutes the soil and air.
Labor standards in precious minerals mining, according to a 2020 UN report, are far from optimal. Developing countries pay the cost in degraded environments, exploitation and child labor. What’s more, recycling these precious metals represents a whole new hazard, one also often borne by developing nations.
Meanwhile, estimates are that about 12.85 tonnes of EV lithium-ion batteries will go offline in the next decade. So while the promise of big batteries is compelling, we need to make strides in combating the humanitarian and ecological downsides.
Industry recognizes the recycling challenges and opportunities of the impending battery boom, but we’re in a race to be ready. Companies like Li-cycle, which recycles lithium-ion batteries while maintaining a very low carbon footprint, are at the vanguard of an effort that we’ll need to massively ramp up in the coming years.
Battery alternatives for electricity storage
Energy storage is going to grow 15x in the next 10 years and batteries are going to play a huge role in this transition.
While we know that energy storage is going to grow fifteen-fold in the next 10 years and that batteries are going to play a huge role in this transition, we also know that batteries aren’t the only option. Pumped hydro storage and underground pumped hydro storage are expected to rise in usage in the coming years as well.
It’s generated by using surplus energy to pump water and let it flow through turbines, producing electricity. “It's also 80 percent efficient and can make use of existing hydroelectric infrastructure, enabling the expansion of green energy in places like Quebec,” writes the CBC.
A battery of options
At the end of the day, what the rise of big batteries shows us is that we have storage choices — which means the argument that wind and solar are not reliable just doesn’t hold water any more. “Energy storage is actually the true bridge to a clean-energy future,” says Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association.
This realization means we have more options. And options are what we need in our efforts to bring down the world’s emissions as quickly as possible.
Big batteries won’t solve all our problems, but in the race to decarbonize, they certainly help us charge forward. Sorry, I could not resist.
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