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  • Over the past decade, prices for solar panels and wind farms have reached

  • all time lows, leading to hundreds of gigawatts worth of new renewable

  • energy generation.

  • As the saying goes though, the wind isn't always blowing and the sun isn't

  • always shining.If, for example, it's a beautiful sunny day and we've got a

  • super abundance of electricity, we can't use it.

  • The question of how to firm renewables, that is, ensuring there's always

  • energy on demand no matter the time of day or weather, is one of the

  • biggest challenges in the industry.

  • We need a good way to store energy for later.

  • And the main option right now is lithium ion batteries.

  • You see them in products like Tesla's home battery, the Powerwall and

  • utility-scale system, the Powerpack.

  • But though lithium ion is dropping in price, experts say it will remain

  • too expensive for most grid-scale applications.

  • To get to battery for the electrical grid, we need to look at a further

  • cost reduction of 10 to 20x.

  • Right now, lithium ion batteries just can't store more than four hours

  • worth of energy at a price point that would make sense.

  • Plus, they pose a fire risk and their ability to hold a charge fades over

  • time. To address this, there's a cadre of entrepreneurs experimenting with a

  • variety of different solutions.

  • Now we're seeing flow batteries, which are liquid batteries, and we're

  • seeing other forms of storage that are not chemical or battery-based

  • storage. And each has serious potential.

  • We looked at materials on the periodic table that were actually going to be

  • cost competitive from day one.

  • Primus Power's flow battery is a workhorse.

  • Thermal energy storage has a pretty unique opportunity to be extremely low

  • cost.Our solution will last 30 plus years without any degradation in that

  • performance.Which technologies prevail remains to be seen.

  • But one thing is clear.

  • For renewables to truly compete with fossil fuels, we need to figure out a

  • better way to store energy.

  • From 2000 to 2018, installed wind power grew from 17,000 megawatts to over

  • 563,000 megawatts.

  • And solar power grew from a mere 1,250 megawatts to485,000 megawatts.

  • And it's not stopping there.

  • Renewables are expected to grow an additional 50 percent over the next

  • five years.We know today that solar P.V.

  • and wind are the least expensive way to generate electricity.

  • In particular, the price of solar photovoltaics has plummeted far faster

  • than all forecasts predicted, after China flooded the market with cheap

  • panels in the late 2000s.

  • All the Wall Street analysts did not believe that solar was going to ever

  • stand on its own without subsidies.

  • Well, a few years later, even the most conservative analysts started

  • realizing that actually solar was going to become economic in most parts of

  • the world pretty quickly.

  • And as solar has gotten cheaper, so too have lithium ion batteries, the

  • technology that powers electric vehicles, our cell phones and laptops.

  • And thanks to improved manufacturing techniques and economies of scale,

  • costs have fallen 85 percent since 2010.

  • Now, wind or solar plus battery storage is oftentimes more economical than

  • peaker plants, that is, power plants that only fire when demand is high.

  • Tesla, for example, built the world's largest lithium ion battery in

  • Australia, pairing it with a wind farm to deliver electricity during peak

  • hours. But this doesn't mean lithium ion is necessarily economical for

  • other grid applications.

  • We don't really see the cost structure coming down to the point where it

  • can serve those tens to hundreds of hours applications.

  • Basically, the market is ripe for competition.

  • There are dozens of chemistry being looked at today.

  • There are hundreds of companies working on scaling up and manufacturing

  • new battery technology.

  • Lithium ion has done remarkable things for technology, but let's go to

  • something far better.

  • One of the main alternatives being explored is a flow battery.

  • Unlike lithium ion, flow batteries store liquid electrolyte in external

  • tanks, meaning the energy from the electrolyte and the actual source of

  • power generation are decoupled.

  • With lithium ion tech, the electrolyte is stored within the battery

  • itself. Electrolyte chemistries vary, but across the board, these aqueous

  • systems don't pose a fire risk and most don't face the same issues with

  • capacity fade. Once they scale up their manufacturing, these companies say

  • they'll be price competitive with lithium ion.

  • Hayward, California-based Primus Power has been working in this space since

  • 2009, and uses a zinc bromide chemistry.

  • So far it's raised over $100 million dollars in funding, including a number

  • of government grants from agencies like the Department of Energy and the

  • California Energy Commission.

  • Primus's modular EnergyPod provides 25 kilowatts of power, enough to power

  • five to seven homes for five hours during times of peak energy demand and

  • for 12 to 15 hours during off-peak hours.

  • Most systems use multipleEnergyPods though, to further boost capacity.

  • The company says what sets it apart is its simplified system.

  • So instead of two tanks, which every other flow battery has, Primus only

  • has one. And we are able to separate the electrochemical species by taking

  • advantage of the density differences between the zinc bromine and the

  • bromine itself, and the more aqueous portion of that electrolyte.

  • To date, Primus has shipped 25 of its battery systems to customers across

  • the U.S. and Asia, including a San Diego military base, Microsoft and a

  • Chinese wind turbine manufacturer.

  • It expects to ship an additional 500 systems over the next two years.

  • Future customers are either independent power producers that are doing

  • solar plus storage at utility-scale or larger commercial enterprises.

  • Also operating in this space is ESS Inc, an Oregon-based manufacturer of

  • iron flow batteries, founded in 2011.

  • Its systems are larger than Primus Power's.

  • They're basically batteries in a shipping container and they can provide

  • anywhere from100 kilowatts of power for four hours to 33 kilowatts for 12

  • hours, using an electrolyte made entirely of iron, salt and water.

  • When we came into this market, we wanted to come into it with a technology

  • that was going to be very environmentally friendly.

  • It was going to be very low cost.

  • It didn't require a lot of volume on the production line to drive down

  • costs.ESS is backed by some major players like SoftBank Energy, the Bill

  • Gates-led investor fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and insurance

  • company Munich Re.

  • Having an insurance policy is a big deal, since it will make risk-averse

  • utility companies much more likely to partner with it.

  • So far, ESS has six of its systems, called Energy Warehouses, operating in

  • the field and plans to install 20 more this year.

  • It's also in the process of developing its Energy Center, which is aimed

  • at utility-scale applications in the 100 megawatt plus range.

  • That would be 1,000 times more power than a single Energy Warehouse.

  • We're planning to be at 250 megawatt hours of production capacity by the

  • end of this year, which is probably a little over 10 times the capacity we

  • had last year. And then eventually getting to a gigawatt hour of production

  • capacity in the next couple of years.

  • So far, key customers includePacto GD, a private Brazilian energy supplier,

  • and UC San Diego.

  • But for all their potential, flow battery companies like Primus and ESS

  • Inc still aren't really designed to store energy for days or weeks on end.

  • Many of those flow battery technologies still suffer from the same

  • fundamental materials cost challenges that make them incapable of getting

  • to tens or hundreds of hours of energy storage capacity.

  • Other non-lithium ion endeavors, such as the M.I.T

  • spinoff Ambri, face the same problem with longer-duration storage.

  • Form energy, a battery company with an undisclosed chemistry, is targeting

  • the weeks or months-long storage market, but commercialization remains far

  • off. So other companies are taking different approaches entirely.

  • Currently, about 96 percent of the world's energy storage comes from one

  • technology: pumped hydro.

  • This system is pretty straightforward.

  • When there's excess energy on the grid, it's used to pump water uphill to

  • a high-elevation reservoir.

  • Then when there's energy demand, the water is released, driving a turbine

  • as it flows into a reservoir below.

  • But this requires a lot of land, disrupts the environment and can only

  • function in very specific geographies.

  • Energy Vault, a gravity-based storage company founded in2017, was inspired

  • by the concept but thinks it can offer more.

  • And so we wanted to look at solving the storage problem with something much

  • more environmental, much more low cost, much more scalable, and something

  • that could be brought to market very quickly.

  • Instead of moving water, Energy Vault uses cranes and wires to move35 ton

  • bricks up and down, depending on energy needs, in a process that's

  • automated with machine vision software.

  • We have a system tower crane that's utilizing excess solar or wind to drive

  • motors and generators that lift and stack the bricks in a very specific

  • sequence. Then when the power is needed from the grid, that same system

  • will lower the bricks and discharge the electricity.

  • This system is sized for utility-scale operation.

  • The company says a standard installation could include 20 towers,

  • providing a total of 350 megawatt hours of storage capacity, enough to

  • power around 40,000 homes for 24 hours.

  • Some of our customers are looking at very large deployments of multiple

  • systems so that they'll have that power on demand for weeks and months and

  • whenever it's gonna be required.

  • The company recently received110 million dollars in funding from SoftBank

  • Vision Fund, and it's building out a test facility in Italy as well as a

  • plant for India's Tata Power Company.

  • But some say the sheer size of the operation means it just can't be a

  • replacement for chemical batteries.

  • Sounds very simple. However, the energy density in those systems are very

  • low. And so that's where we believe chemical-based storage still has an

  • advantage in terms of a footprint.