Energy Storage: The Next Big Deal

a guest post by Ken Whiteside, Director of Business Development at ONTILITY, LLC.

Energy Storage The Next Big Deal

The most exciting segment of the renewable energy industry in early 2014 is energy storage. Technological advances, driven by market demand and catalyzed by public policy, are poised to bring an array of better, cheaper energy storage solutions very soon. There are indicators all around that we are at a tipping point in energy storage.

Storage technology research has been underway for years, with stunning results. The battery in my new iPad Air is half the weight and has four times the capacity of similar batteries from three years ago. The batteries powering the new Tesla are vastly better than the one in the first Prius. But what’s that got to do with electricity storage at a massive scale? Like the impact of space travel on domestic life, technology transfer from one application to others serves as a powerful accelerator.

Research extends across the spectrum of battery technologies. The Lead-Acid Battery Research Consortium continues to discover ways to improve the performance of this venerable technology. And as is evident every time you buy a new digital device and marvel at its light weight and extended battery life, improvements to lithium-ion batteries continue at an amazing rate. According to this report from McKinsey & Co lithium-ion batteries will continue to improve for the foreseeable future.

Beyond these mainstream technologies, research is well underway on entirely new forms of batteries: A sugar battery being developed by a team of biological system engineers at Virginia Tech, while still a few years from implementation in cell phones and tablets, has already proven to have an energy storage density one order of magnitude higher than a lithium-ion battery. This technology is also significantly less expensive, using cheap organic substances instead of expensive metals, and is bio-degradable.

A flow battery, being developed by researchers at Harvard University, also uses cheap organic material instead of expensive metals. It uses quinones, a class of super-abundant organic compounds which are used to store energy in any number of green plants as well as petroleum. The Harvard team has demonstrated energy storage densities twice that of lithium-ion batteries. Flow batteries have huge potential for use with variable energy sources. They are well suited to intermittent use, can sit idle for extended periods and are readily scalable. The downside so far is the cost of the metals used in the current versions.

To move any new technology from the lab to the marketplace, a catalyst is required. Often, market forces alone push innovation to commercialization. In some cases, public policy and even incentives play a role. More on these factors as they relate to the current state of energy storage next time.

Ken Whiteside photo Ken Whiteside has been a fan of solar energy for decades. His first hands-on experience was installing solar on off-grid houses around Telluride, Colorado in the 1990’s (summer in the San Juan Mtns. - somebody had to do it). From his home in Austin, Ken writes and works for widespread adoption of solar electricity, smart energy production and use, and sustainability.

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