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How Close To A Viable Energy Storage Solution Are We?

Both the energy and transportation industries are on the brink of a revolution — if someone develops the right electricity storage device.

For the automobile industry, the better the battery, the more electric cars will take to the road. For the electricity grid and its users, improved storage devices make intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar, more dependable sources of power and could enable them to take market share from the established utilities.

Batteries storing energy near places of consumption might reduce the need for transmission lines. Energy storage near centers of consumption can support micro-grids that can operate independently of the existing electric grid. Obviously, if the right storage at the right price existed, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

Not long ago, editors of The Economist, focusing on one storage device, gushed that “the lithium-ion battery is the technology of our time.” Around then, Steve Huntoon, a veteran energy lawyer and consultant, shredded the notion that lithium-ion batteries would meet large-scale grid needs. But he did that in Public Utilities Fortnightly, not a likely read for Economist editors. At her deathbed, Gertrude Stein supposedly asked, “What is the answer?” and when nobody answered, she then asked, “What is the question?” If lithium-ion is the answer, what is the question?

It may not matter whether the new storage devices provide a more economical solution. Early adopters of new technologies are often motivated by a social or environmental vision. They did not buy electric lighting when it was introduced for economic reasons. Nor the iPhone. Nor the Tesla. Women did not stop buying fur coats because of a mink shortage, either. Cultural norms change and smart business people either produce products for those new norms or they create the new norms with a spectacular new product.

Consider, too, that technology is not the device itself, as Thomas Hughes, the historian, pointed out, but rather a system designed to produce a solution, and that system includes the technical (the tool), sociological, cultural and economic components. The steam engine, for instance, was developed to get water out of mines, but its further development required an environment of mining, commerce, science and finance. Successful storage technology requires the right support from industry and the right messages from customers.

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