Is the Battery Rush Distracting Us From Better Energy Storage Options for the Grid?
Batteries are helping the grid everywhere from Aliso Canyon to South Australia. But some are concerned that battery-based storage might not be the universal panacea that evangelists believe.
Launching the Tesla Powerwall in 2015, for example, Elon Musk claimed: “The size of the batteries needed to transition all of the United States to being solar with batteries…is a very tiny amount.”
Musk seemed to indicate that batteries can take care of all the world’s renewable energy intermittency needs — a view that was reinforced by Tesla and others’ successful bids for battery storage plants to make up for lost gas generation in California and Australia.
However, this view ignores the fact that batteries are poorly designed for cheaply storing the vast amounts of energy needed for communities and industries to ride through long-term lulls in renewable generation.
“The challenge is how to replicate the low-cost service that fossil fuels provide, but in a decarbonized system,” said Richard Heap, executive analyst at the Energy Research Partnership, a U.K. government and industry advisory body.
Other researchers, such as Dr. Björn Peters, head of energy policy at the German employers’ association Deutscher Arbeitgeber Verband, claim the cost of battery storage needed to deal with once- or twice-yearly anticyclones is prohibitive.
Writing on his blog, Peters said: “If a homeowner wanted to be independent from the electricity network all year round, a storage system with several thousands of kilowatt-hours in capacity would be necessary, pricing itself out of range for most of the population.”
Focusing too heavily on battery storage may risk sidelining more effective and cost-efficient ways of dealing with grid challenges, according to Heap.
“A system approach that considers the role of all decarbonized energy vectors may come up with a much cheaper way of addressing the rare event, that may also overcome the local grid issues,” he said.
The risk of not planning for “rare events” was illustrated in the South Australian power cuts last year.
After storm damage to transmission lines caused 456 megawatts of wind generation to shut down, a smelter operated by the industrial giant Alcoa lost power for the first time in 30 years, causing the aluminum in production to solidify.
Ben Davis, vice president of the Australian Workers Union, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the damage was “incredibly serious. Aluminum smelters are not built to have power outages. They have to be constantly running. They have to keep the liquid alumina hot.”
The incident put the plant at risk of closure and prompted an AUD $30 million (USD $23 million) government bailout in January.