Long-duration energy storage R&D: An opportunity for American climate leadership
The global summit currently underway in Poland has amply illustrated that humanity is not yet on track to avoid the worst consequences of carbon pollution. There are stark divisions on whether and how to significantly reduce emissions in an effective manner.
American leadership is essential to bend the curve of carbon pollution downward toward zero. A U.S.-powered international initiative to accelerate progress on a technology essential to that push — long-duration energy storage — would demonstrate that leadership.
A recent report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on the innovation agenda for deep decarbonization identified six key areas that require significant further development. One of these is long-duration energy storage. It will certainly be needed if wind and solar power continue their extraordinary growth.
One of their great features is that nature provides the fuel. But nature is fickle. The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. Energy storage would be extremely useful to tide us over during these periods, which can last for days or even weeks.
Energy technologists have been extraordinarily creative in thinking up ways to perform this task. We could store energy as heat in molten salt. We could store it chemically, in new kinds of batteries. We could store it as hydrogen gas, which can be used as a fuel. We could even store it in giant tanks of air.
Unfortunately, none of these approaches is nearly cheap or reliable enough yet to do the job on the massive scale that will likely be required to manage an electricity system with very high penetration of variable renewables.
The technologists have a lot of research and development (R&D) to do to meet the “baseload challenge” set by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, which called for storage systems to cost $5 to $30 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and operate for eight to one hundred or more hours. An August statement — meant as a boast — by the president of the flow battery company CellCube provides a sense of the challenge: “On an eight-hour storage duration, we’re at the price point of $200 per kWh.”
Advancing Through Collaboration
One critical way to advance this R&D agenda would be through international collaboration. R&D typically creates knowledge that benefits everyone; as the saying goes, there is no point in reinventing the wheel. International collaboration not only avoids duplication, it feeds creativity by allowing scientists and engineers with diverse perspectives to bounce them off one another.