10 Questions with Energy Storage Expert Imre Gyuk
Imre Gyuk has been the program manager for energy storage in the Energy Department’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE) for over a decade. He was recently recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries, or NAATBatt. We spoke with him about the importance of energy storage and what we can expect to see in the future.
1. What is energy storage?
The idea of storage is all around us. Books are stored knowledge. Money is stored value. Food is stored. We find storage everywhere, except, until recently, in the electricity business. By-and-large, electricity is still consumed as soon as it is produced, like food in a primitive hunter-gatherer society: hand-to-mouth.
Energy storage is a vessel to store energy to be used at a later date. Energy storage provides energy when it is needed, just as transmission provides energy where it is needed.
2. Why is energy storage important?
The traditional grid works as a one-way flow from generation to load, and it is relatively predictable. But then we started to get increasing amounts of renewables. Renewable energy sources are variable, and the flow is bi-directional. The grid doesn’t like fluctuations.
We are also getting increased digitization in industry. We are going from analog to digital. Analog is very forgiving; digital needs exquisitely precise input in frequency and voltages and so on. Any fluctuation may produce an equipment outage, and these outages are immensely expensive. So we need a more even supply of electric energy.
The modern grid needs buffers such as demand response and storage, to integrate renewables more easily and stay balanced.
3. How did you get interested in this field? What were you working on before you started your work in energy storage?
It’s a long story. I’m a theoretical physicist, and I started out exploring the wonders of elementary particles — those ultimate constituents of the material world. I did some research on groundwater flow, which led me to water resources. And that got me increasingly interested in sustainability.
I then taught environmental architecture for a number of years: exploring how a building interacts with its environment causing minimal disturbances to that environment. Then I returned to physics again and taught at the University of Kuwait. Kuwait is a desert country and presents more examples of environmental stress and more challenges to sustainability. I became interested in the interplay between environmental degradation and societal collapse. Many civilizations collapsed or imploded, and I believe much of that is due to overexploitation of scarce resources.
Eventually I returned to the U.S. and joined the Department of Energy.
4. You became the program manager for the energy storage program 13 years ago. How has the field changed since then?
When I started the OE program, energy storage was in the realm of dreams and visions. There were less than half a dozen projects. Now, a decade later, storage has become one of the hottest fields in the electricity business. And our effort with the National Labs is right at the root of that. Now our global energy storage database lists over 1,400 projects worldwide!
5. When we talk about storage, we talk a lot about batteries. How do energy storage batteries compare to the AA batteries in a flashlight?
Batteries for stationary grid operations need to be rechargeable. They can absorb energy from the grid, and they can give it back. Your flashlight battery starts charged, and then gives off its energy until the current is too meager, and then you throw it away. Storage batteries for the grid must sustain thousands of cycles.
They’re also bigger. We’re talking thousands to millions of watts, instead of a few watts for your flashlight.
But otherwise, it’s all electrochemistry. All batteries consist of electrolytes, a membrane in the middle and electrodes for the flow to go in and out.
6. What can we expect to see in terms of new innovation in storage technology in the next 5-10 years?