CUSTER, Wis. – One of the stars of the annual renewable energy festival was lithium-ion battery technology, which is slowly making the transition from a power source for electronic devices to the primary power storage technology for hybrid vehicles and low-maintenance backup power at remote sites like cell towers.
Indeed, experts at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s gathering here stressed that storage technology has emerged as the “Holy Grail” of the renewable energy movement. While much of the focus has been on the latest engineering innovations in lithium-ion battery technology, the grassroots “personal power” movement symbolized by energy fairs like this one has more to do with what consumers can get their hands on now, said energy consultant Randy Richmond, founder of RightHand Engineering (Woodinville, Wash.).
“What’s innovative for a typical user is different than what it might be for an engineer,” said Richmond. Hence, the biggest innovation is the availability of cheaper products like lithium-ion batteries from China. “It’s innovative that I can get this stuff [and] it’s cheaper.”
Batteries based on chemistries like lithium iron phosphate are available now, “but the equipment necessary to use it on a residential renewable energy system doesn’t exist yet,” Richmond said. “I think it will happen, but the manufacturers I talk to are just now beginning to think about it.”
Widespread commercial availability of lithium-ion battery technologies for renewable energy applications like off-grid systems remains several years off, experts here predicted. Among the reasons are the entrenched market for lead-acid batteries and the high upfront cost of investing in lithium-ion technology.
“It probably will be three years before we start seeing residential renewable energy equipment available that will make use of the lithium-ion batteries that are available today,” Richmond said. “And of course the battery technology will improve, and probably three years from now we’ll see something better than we’ve got now.”
Among the emerging technologies are lithium air and nanotube carbon technologies. The latter could be used in combination with different battery chemistries. “It may triple what lithium ion does today,” Richmond predicted, but will bring it with it a new set of problems like adapting charging control equipment.
Richmond’s small company sought to demonstrate the potential returns of investing in the emerging battery technology by converting a 2001 GMC pickup truck to an electric vehicle. He replaced the truck’s lead-acid battery with a battery pack consisting of 48 3.3V lithium iron phosphate batteries placed in the truck’s bed. The result of the roughly $12,000 investment was a doubling of the truck’s range and acceleration.
One issue was consistent charging of all the batteries. Hence, Richmond said he invested an additional $3,200 in a battery management system to avoid over- or undercharging.
Projects like converting vehicles from internal combustion engines to electric drives are beginning to demonstrate the commercial viability of emerging battery technologies, but what about the larger potential of renewable energy to meet future U.S. energy demand? A study released last week by the National Renewable Energy Lab forecasts that current renewable energy sources combined with a more flexible power grid could supply as much as 80 percent of total U.S. electricity generation by 2050.
A key enabling technology for achieving that goal, the study found, was improved “grid storage.”
It seems to me that there's a market for adjustable, possibly software controlled, battery chargers? Rather than creating this long lag from the time the battery technolgy becomes available and the time these batteries can be used extensively in real systems.
"Projects like converting vehicles from internal combustion engines to electric drives are demonstrating the commercial viability of emerging battery technologies,"
How does spending $15k to convert a vehicle demonstrate commercial viability?
80% renewable by 2050? Only if we have successfully been reduced to a third-rate economy, as the greenies would like us to be.
Rather, we will hopefully have outgrown our juvenile obsession with CO2, and be harvesting our vast hydrocarbon fuel resources, which have thus far propelled our economy and standard of living, with all the benefits to health and the environment that comes with such bounty.
80% renewable by 2050? I doubt it. As of 2011, US electrical generation by source was 42.2% coal, 25.0% gas, 19.2% nuclear, 7.8% hydro, 5.0% renewables, and 0.8% oil. Hydro will not grow much, as there are already dams at every viable location. To expect a 16x increase in production from renewables is likely a pipe dream.
And that is not even considering the additional generation capacity needed to support replacing gasoline cars with EVs. Anticipating vast increases in battery capacity, leaps in photovoltaic efficiency, etc. just isn’t logical. Less than 1% of oil is used for electrical generation. Almost all of it is used as fuel for cars and trucks. Renewables currently generate about half a TWh per day, a tiny fraction of the energy from oil consumed. If EVs are the goal, then we had better start building some nuclear reactors.
"juvenile" - really? I would have said that believing we can extract all our future energy needs from a finite and dwindling resource is far worse than juvenile. The US reached peak pil in the 1970's, the world as a whole reaches peak oil somewhere between 2010 and 2020. You can make do with fracked gas and other costly alternatives for a bit, but in the end finite fuel sources (and the finite ability for the natural environment to sink CO2) will catch up with us. So - do we wait until all this comes to pass before changing course, or do we do the wise thing and change while we still have relatively cheap fuel to help us make that change?
80% renewables by 2050 sounds ridiculous unless all our other energy sources peter out by then and it's the only thing left giving us a fraction of the energy we're producing today. Love it or hate it, nuclear is the only clean and practical source that is going to be able to deliver energy in the quantities projected to be needed in the future. It's either that, or saddle up.
"A key enabling technology...the study found, was improved grid storage." At what cost?
Another key enabling technology would be practical, commercially viable nuclear fusion.
Hey, if you're going to dream, go big.
Don't forget to burn down all the forests while your at it. We as scientists/engineers know that if something produces a positive result when done at a particular scale and during a particular time, it must produce the same result at any scale and for an infinitely long period of time. That's the 3rd law of the famous scientist, Lord Makebelieve.
I agree with your reasoning regarding finite fuel sources, but I see no evidence to suggest that they can be replaced with renewables, in that most people think of renewables as solar, wind, and geothermal.
There is evidence, however, that nuclear reactors, and in particular liquid fluoride thorium reactors, could scale to meet energy needs for at least tens of thousands of years. LFTRs have low pressure passively safe cores, can burn waste from light water reactors as fuel, and makes it extremely difficult to produce bomb grade materials. Shouldn't we be focusing research funding on nuclear, since it has a far greater chance of actually supplying the needed energy?