Battery state-of-the-art

Distributed energy production and storage is the ultimate form to minimize losses and peaks on the grid.  In an ideal world, solar and wind energy do not require fossil fuel backups (especially not as much as they do- see how carbon taxes won't help renewables here).  In the ideal world, renewables can store when they produce, and then supply that stored energy when they do not produce to their capacity (which happens 70-90 percent of the time).

But this vision is destroyed by the reality that exists for the present and the foreseeable future.  The fact is that batteries, even the most advanced technologies being worked on today:
  • -cannot supply even an hour's worth of electricity at a time at a large scale,
  • -cannot last for reasonable lifetimes under repeated daily charging and discharging cycles,
  • -use non-renewable materials and are not easily/cleanly recycled,
  • -are outrageously expensive,
  • -and have other problems such as difficulty smoothing out rapidly varying production, etc.  For instance, a single cloud can wipe out solar production by 60% in 2 minutes.

This does not mean that we should not continue pursuing advanced storage materials and methods.  Developments in battery technology are important on so many levels- from the potential to change the landscape in large scale energy generation down to the batteries used in cell phones.

As an example of the current state-of-the-art in battery storage technology, Duke Energy recently implemented a $44 million dollar 36 MW battery backup system for a wind farm in Notrees Texas, thanks to a matching government grant from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA).  For a sense of scale, 1 MW powers roughly 1,000 homes.  It's not a particularly "green" battery, since it is a hazardous lead-acid type.  It was promised to provide the 36 MW for 40 minutes at a time, but once implemented it was actually lasting for FIFTEEN MINUTES according to the Department of Energy.  It isn't disclosed in the news releases, but the battery is designed for a 5-10 year lifetime.  It is probably closer to 3 years in practice.  Let's give it the benefit of the doubt of a full 10-year lifetime and a daily 15-minute full 36 MW discharge...

The cost of this electricity comes to over 134 cents/kWh, just for the battery cost alone, not including the cost of generation.  This is higher than the residential cost for electricity in any state in the United States, including Hawaii.  In fact, it is over 13 times the average U.S. cost, at 9.8 cents/kWh.  And, what good does an additional 15 minutes of electricity do on a cloudy, windless day?  It doesn't run hospitals, it doesn't keep your fridge cool, it can't supply essential government or business operations.  At that cost, why not implement modular nuclear batteries like those proposed by UPower that run 24/7 for 30 years, and are estimated to cost about 22 cents/kWh?  Meanwhile, those backup natural gas or coal generators are kicking on and pumping out carbon and other polluting emissions.  The saving grace from our renewables ventures is cheap domestic natural gas-- saving our economy from the wide-reaching detrimental effects of expensive energy prices.  Maybe the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act should have funded modular nuclear energy.

Given that batteries simply cannot provide a reasonable backup-- either by capacity or by cost measures, now or in any near future-- for wind and solar, why are we rushing to implement "renewables" that currently must require fossil fuel backup?  Without storage, renewables are tied to fossil fuels, and that means carbon emissions and pollution.  Nuclear is the only way to eliminate emissions and help the environment while being cost-effective and recyclable (see France).



    Has some good potential for long term storage solutions. But the main point that even the best batteries, even with vast improvements in capacity, cannot store MW's worth of power for more than a few minutes is exactly right. Let's say that our batteries become 10 times more efficient in capacity and 10 times less expensive. The 15 minutes becomes 150 minutes, just over 2 hours, and the cost becomes 13 Cents / KWH, which is still quite high for the length of time it can actually backup for.

    The best energy backups are other energy sources, either Chemical (natural gas) or Fission. Fission is by far the best in terms of size, impact on the environment, and

  2. The most important use of advanced batteries will be EV's. Nuclear + EV (overnight charging) is a great match.

  3. There seems to be nothing worse than nuclear power, just think of long-term damage that is done, how do we take care of the waste for 300,000 years?

    1. We can care for the waste in several good ways.

      1. Burn it in a Nuclear reactor and make a lot of electricity or useful heat.
      2. Process out the valuable materials and then burn the remainder in a Nuclear reactor.
      3. Bury it in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
      4. Bury it in Yuca Mountian
      5. Bury it in the desert areas of the Ocean - see Power to Change the World for a full discription.
      6. Leave it where it is in safe casks for the next 100 years and let our children use it for #1 or #2.
      7. Ignore it since everything that is left over after about 30 years is so mild that it can't hurt you. The longer that it takes for the radiation to go away the weaker the radiation source.

      When you say that there is long term damage. I would guess you are thinking of potential cancers developing. Have you ever studied the cancer potential of radiation as compared to nearly any other common chemical? Like the stuff we put under our sinks or in our cars? You will find that Radiation is MUCH MUCH lower - a very weak carcinogen as compared to many of our common safe chemicals. In fact, check out this site.

    2. Gene, the problems of waste management, proliferation, and meltdown, were technological problems decades ago. Those technological problems have been solved. Now those issues exist primarily as political problems, that is, problems with real solutions which remain unimplemented primarily because they are hindered by bad legislation and/or by people whose primary motivations are political in nature.

      Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) technology is one example of modern technology providing real solutions to these early problems. IFR technology allows us to burn virtually all the actinides out of the nuclear fuel, with all reprocessing done on-site. This eliminates the problem of proliferation and cuts the volume and lifetime of waste radically. IFR reactors are also physically incapable of melting down, because the reactor goes sub-critical if the fuel gets too hot, which allows the fuel to cool before damage is done.

      I highly suggest you read Gwyneth Cravens' "Power to Save the World". Join us in promoting a cleaner, safer future for the whole human race!

    3. Gene:

      Factoid: the longer the half life (for any particular isotope), the less intense its radiation. It's like draining a water tank--a dribble versus a stream. The scariest outputs of nuclear power are the fission products with short half-lives that get into the atmosphere when you have an accident without containment such as Chernobyl.

      I second Colin's recommendation of Cravens' book, and also recommend the new *Why We Need Nuclear Power*, written by Michael H. Fox, a radiation biologist retired from Colorado State. He writes extensively on radiation health hazards and waste storage. If it were up to him, Yucca Mountain would already be receiving waste. He lives in Colorado where background radiation is particularly high (Colorado has the 11th highest life expectancy in the U.S.), but points out that almost all people living on the surface of the Earth are constantly receiving background radiation, a lot of it from uranium, which is a very common metal. The highest average dose of radiation for an American, by far, comes from medical diagnostics and treatment. Check out Fox's book for some real facts about radiation exposure and dose.

    4. Gene:

      Here's some toxic decay time figures for different kinds of waste:

      Nuclear reactor fuel, BWR: 20,000 years
      Nuclear reactor fuel, Actinide: 240,000 years
      Nuclear reactor fuel, from Thorium-cycle LFTR: 300 years
      Cadmium, element in solar panels: Infinite
      Indium, element in solar panels: Infinite
      Mercury, element in solar panels: Infinite
      Molybdenum, element in wind turbines: Infinite
      Gallium, element in solar panels: Infinite

  4. Two-axis-concentrated solar power -- big dishes -- is hard, but it gives heat that can be really useful. One of the things it can do is drive this process:

    2 Fe3O4(s) ---> 2 Fe3O4(l) ---> 6 FeO(l) + O2

    When the ferric oxide cools, it usually disproportionates into iron and magnetite.

    So heaps of iron oxides are one way a very large central solar power station could smooth out its output, not only over day and night, but over winter and summer.

  5. Batteries are awfully expensive. I've a blog where i calculate the sort of numbers you give. It's more-or-less the same argument but I show my work: If you wanted to, you could copy my math, or you could link to me. An advantage of the link is that I also have stuff about battery safety and about chaos. Good work

  6. Batteries are expensive, but not quite as bad as is suggested here. The Duke Energy battery is targeted at power quality (e.g. frequency regulation) improvement rather than bulk energy storage. In this case, 15 minutes of storage is enough time to let the fossil fuel backup plants respond to the line transients. For comparison, this is not a function that a normal nuclear plant is designed to perform.

    For an actual bulk energy storage application, note that reports that lead-acid batteries cost about $0.21/Watt-hour. Consider a 5 hour battery for use with a solar PV plant. This system would extend the output of solar energy through the evening peak period, and eliminate power quality problems (sudden changes in output), as well as allowing some load following. The battery would cost just $1.05/W. Assuming $2/W for PV and 10 hours of sunshine (it would be nearly constant with 1-axis tracking), and 75% battery efficiency, charging the battery will require 5h/10h/.75= 67% more PV: $2/W*(1+.67) = $3.34/W for PV which is $4.39/W total.

    When placed in a sunny location, this would be a useful addition to most generation portfolios, especially one that was dominated by nuclear power (e.g. if nuclear already supplied 70% of the load, the PV+battery would be much a better addition than another nuke). Granted this system is still too expensive (given its likely 30-40% capacity factor), but only by 30% or so, not 10x.

    Lead-acid batteries are not a great solution, but more modern replacements like NGK's sodium-sulphur battery and Ambri’s liquid electrode/liquid electrolyte battery do have promise.

    1. Yikes, $.21/W-h? I double-checked your link, and that's what it says! That's $210/kW-h. 21,000 cents/kW-h. That's astronomical. 2100 TIMES that of normal electricity cost, and doesn't include generation. and it's for lead-acid.

      Good point that we need some smoothing for fossil fuel backups. Many ignore that they are forced to function in a very dirty/inefficient way currently with intermittant renewables.

      Agree that solar could be interesting as a peaking supplier.

    2. But if you can use a battery, say 300 days a year for 5 years, that brings it down to 14 cents/kW-h. Awfully high on top of the cost of generation, but thinkable.

    3. NGK advertises a 15 year life expectancy for their batteries. Their secret is that they uses liquid electrodes, and a ceramic electrolyte. Normal batteries wear out because the solid electrode material is repeatedly dissolved and re-plated (in not-exactly the same way); some batteries have plastic separators that degrade also. The NGK cell has neither problem.

    4. Here is the NGK link:

  7. NGK's sodium sulphur batteries work, but they are expensive, bulky and only last 15 years. They also catch fire. NGK has numerous such batteries built in Japan and after one of them burned down the company had to get back to the drawing board about what went wrong. Such fires are very expensive and damage the clean green image.

    Besides, the amount of storage needed in order to let variable renewables compete with nuclear comes to about 1 week of storage. Even with one week of storage, outtages at the end of a period of low winds and overcast skies are not guaranteed. (Such periods happen quite frequently over continental Europe, which is documented in all *serious* grid studies for the region.)

    Anyone can do the numbers on what it would mean to provide Europe's energy grid with 7 days of NaS storage. That would require a ~600 GW system with 168 hours of storage. Assuming a cost of 500 dollars/kWh (which is low compared to actual delivered NaS system recently installed in Texas, which was closer to 750 dollars/kWh) the cost of the "Europa-NaS" would come to an astronomical 50.000 billion dollars. That is fifty thousand billion dollars. Dividing by 15 years of service life, the yearly cost becomes over 3.000 billion. That is: three thousand billion dollars. Each year, for European citizens. That is over 8000 dollars per capita, per year, which comes down to about $20.000 per household, per year.

    What I think needs to be made crystal clear for all concerned citizens is that chemical energy storage *cannot* substitute for fossil fueled backup. There is no hope of this. None. At all.

    Even when assuming that the cost of bulk chemical storage would be 50 dollars/kWh, which is what at least one MIT scientist is stating as a credible target for research and development, the cost for the "Europe battery" would still be 5 thousand billion, or over 300 billion dollars each year, or ~2000 dollars per capita per year. Even this figure is way, way beyond anything that European citizens will agree to pay for. (note that this 2000 dollars per year is only for storage, it excludes the cost of the *thousands of gigawatts* of solar and wind energy systems that are proposed by Greenpeace as necessary for europe.

    Therefore, hoping that battery storage will make variable renewables independent from fossil fuels is complete rubbish. Lunacy even. It is an insult to intelligence itself.

    Sustainability guru's and talking heads who suggest it *is* a possibility should be taken to task for it in a rigorous and unrelenting way, otherwise the intelligence of the concerned citizen has no hope of being brought to the required level enabling effective participation in the debate about energy and our future.

  8. California's governor and legislature love batteries, pv solar and windmills, nuclear is a bad word and every effort is underway made to stall develop and use California's abundant natural gas. For an in-depth review of California's energy policy please see:

  9. You talk about a lead acid battery.. which is the worse type of battery for grid backup. A Sodium–sulfur batteryis a far better solution.for that .

  10. As of today, in the real world of alternative energy electrical "storage", like Solar-on-the-Grid, there is no practical economic storage solution. California claims that Solar now generates 5% of electrical requirements. Unfortunately all this solar electricity is generated between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM. Since California now has a Service Based economy rather than a Manufacturing based economy most of that mid-workday generated electricity is surplus. California's energy demand peaks after normal working hours when solar power is shutting down. California utilities are now asking solar generators slack off mid-day generation. The "hot button" fad today is "storage". If and when a practical cost effective storage solution is developed it will only further increase the cost of solar power.

  11. So glad I stumbled on this blog post! I'm going to post a link to you on my blog because I think this is such a great post on radiation.


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