Why Batteries May Not Be The Climate Savior We All Want Them To Be
People who talk and write about renewable energy technologies and climate change often declare that the next Big Breakthrough that is needed is in batteries connected to the electric grid. Even mainstream publications like The Boston Globe are fascinated by the possibility of a big battery breakthrough in the years ahead.
Because solar and wind generation are not constant (the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow) and don’t always match up with electricity demand, it’s become commonplace to declare that cheap energy storage is what’s needed to unlock a truly significant level of adoption of renewables in the global electric grid. Especially as solar and wind power now already often match the cost levels of incumbent fossil-fuel based generation (coal and natural gas), the availability of such cheap batteries is talked about as a “silver bullet” that would finally allow the entire system to go over to renewables.
Very smart people regularly talk up the corresponding need for big investments into battery technology breakthroughs, and very wealthy investors are listening. From high net worth individuals like Bill Gates to the biggest oil companies in the world, numerous big venture capital bets have been made around promising new battery chemistries and energy storage systems. In a period when venture capital investments into “cleantech” remain depressed, such bets on energy storage have been the exception, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars of investment.
And various governments have been listening as well. From New York to California to Ontario, very large governmental incentives programs have been put in place to encourage the deployment of batteries onto the grid, and it’s helped lead to a booming industry for “grid-scale storage”.
But are batteries actually the singular climate savior we need? The answer is actually not nearly so simple.
Let me first note that I am personally a big fan of all of the above investment, policy and innovation efforts. But I’m going to have to circle back around to explain why. Because there are some real reasons to be a healthy skeptic about both the need for — and the effectiveness of — such a strong, near-term focus on the technology.
First of all, while batteries remain costly, there are already much cheaper available alternative solutions for the same matching-renewables-to-demand problem. Namely, software-based and other “load shifting” is entirely available and vastly underutilized. This involves moving the consumption of high wattage loads to different times within an hour or within a day or even within a week.
“Load shifting” is basically about minimizing the generation capacity required by an electric system by changing the consumption of high wattage loads from when the electricity would otherwise be used, to when it is more available. Software-based load-shifting is already being undertaken in hundreds of major industrial and office buildings across the U.S., with the goal of helping the owners can save money on their electricity bill. Done right, it can have zero impact on productivity or comfort in many cases. Additionally, many users ranging from big factories to individual homeowners have already demonstrated they are happy to automatically reduce their electricity consumption if they’re paid enough to do so. All of which, if well-coordinated, can significantly free up capacity on the electric grid in the same way batteries can. But much more cheaply.