The Mind Boggling Promise of Energy Storage

December 30, 2013

A well connected individual in the EV industry told me the other day, “There are three kinds of liars. Liars, damn liars, and battery salesmen.”
Having said that, he went on to relate how, despite all the hype, false promises, and vaporware we’ve seen in recent years, it appears that serious people now believe we are on the cusp of transformative energy storage technology in wide use – tech that will make electric cars with performance comparable to gasoline, at a price point the middle class can afford, within this decade.

Welcome to the days of miracles and wonders.

ABB Conversations:

We are now in a transition period where battery prices are dropping by 20-30% each year. The consequences for the automotive industry are mind boggling.

About a century ago the nascent automotive industry started out by producing electric vehicles. Even big names such as Porsche started their business on a pure-electric basis. In the hundred-year hiccup that followed we have burned billions of tons of fossil fuel, but the clean times of pure electric are returning.

The trigger to this all is simple: affordable batteries. Just as the television business was turned upside-down by the prices of flat-panel TVs in the 90’s and similarly the solar business by plummeting panel prices in the decade thereafter, we are now in a transition period where battery prices are dropping by 20-30% each year. The consequences for the automotive industry are mindboggling.

Battery prices are the main cost drivers of electric vehicles. Last year Volkswagen stated that it would be possible to manufacture a 100% electric vehicle more cheaply than a car with a combustion engine within three years.

Three years ago it was a challenge to produce an electric vehicle with a 300km range for an affordable price. Well, we have seen what happened to the stock price of Tesla Motors after the successful introduction of the Tesla-S – a 300-km range electric vehicle, which is outselling Porsche and Audi in California at the moment.

In China there is an additional market driver: megacity air pollution. The large metropolitan areas are turning into smog centers and the Chinese government has decided to invest massively and switch quickly to e-mobility. The result is the establishment of tens of new companies to produce e-bikes, e-cars, e-buses and batteries.

With the arrival of long-range affordable electric vehicles the challenges to the charging infrastructure increase proportionally. Charging power must go up, both at home and in public charging stations.


WASHINGTON — Solar power is growing so fast in California — with installations by customers increasing tenfold since 2006 — that it is turning the state’s power system upside down.

In a twist that is being closely watched by power companies around the country, California utilities will install massive banks of batteries and other devices to store the power surplus created by solar panels in the afternoon, when the sun’s rays are strong. The batteries are then to begin discharging power into California’s electric grid in the early evening, around sunset, when the solar generation of energy dies down but demand rises as millions of people get home and turn on air-conditioners, televisions and other electricity gobblers.

The new system is the opposite of an idea utilities have considered for years: Use batteries to store power at night from traditional sources, like natural gas and coal, and run them down in the peak heat of late afternoon.

“It is the reverse of the way we’ve always thought of storage,” Gregory Reed, director of the Electric Power Initiative at the University of Pittsburgh.

The relatively new idea of using batteries — which could be bundled in packs, each about the size of an 18-wheel truck trailer — to store electricity during the day and discharge it in the evening is aimed at coping with rapid changes in supply and demand. The expense of the batteries, possibly in the billions of dollars for California, has limited their use.

But booming solar power in California has changed the equation and made the California Public Utilities Commission take a different path.

At the end of October, the commission ordered the utility companies it regulates to install some form of energy storage equipment — exactly what was not specified — in the first mandate of its kind in the country. A critical purpose of the storage is to allow generators, which in California run largely on natural gas, to keep operating in the late afternoon, when the output from solar panels eliminates the need for their electricity.

With so many solar panels in California, “we may find ourselves in periods of time when we have oversupply, overgeneration,” said Clyde Loutan, senior adviser for renewables integration at the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s grid. That is just as destabilizing as shortage, he said.


Battery storage technologies seem to be the hot topic wherever you look in the energy industry. Germany is investing heavily into domestic storage, California has a huge mandate, and the market for peak-shifting and storing production is gaining the interest of consumers, “prosumers” and network operators alike.

In Germany, many believe that the only way to provide the amount of storage needed for a nearly fully renewable grid in the long term is through chemical means. Right now, there are a number of projects that are seeking to apply electrolysis to turn excess output from wind and solar and other generation into hydrogen and methane.

At the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Dr. Gunter Ebert says hydrogen and methane are the only options for large-scale “season storage.” A battery can provide some short-term storage capacity, maybe up to 50 gigawatt-hours, as can pumped hydro, but “we need a tremendous amount of long-term storage — up to 70 terawatt-hours,” according to Ebert. “That can only be done with hydrogen and methane.”

Ebert’s plan is to use caverns to store hydrogen, which can then be used for vehicles or in fuel cells. Alternatively, it can be converted into methane for use in the gas grid, or it can be used for direct heat and power generation, as shown in the following graph.

The second big technology that is being looked at is compressed air energy storage, also known as CAES. The Boston-based firm General Compression last year opened a 2-megawatt/500-megawatt-hour pilot plant in Texas last year, and its representatives have made three trips to Australia this year to talk to utilities, renewable energy developers, and government representatives about their technology.
Development officer Peter Rood says CAES would work best at the utility scale with 10 megawatts to 100 megawatts. It requires below-ground storage, either natural or man-made, and could work with storing the output of wind energy, or even as a “storage bank” for thousands of rooftop and other distributed solar systems.

Rood said that CAES will help wind energy act like a flexible gas-fired power station, providing baseload and peaking generation when needed, and storing energy produced on some windy days for use later in the week — or even the month.

Another option is pumped hydro,a technology that is being pursued by the Melbourne Energy Institute and separately by the Australian National University (ANU). Australia already has some pumped hydro  (it’s a key element of the Snowy River Hydro Scheme) but the new approach looks at siting pumped hydro storage away from natural watercourses and using natural contours to situate two reservoirs at different elevations that could be used to store energy, thus negating the need to curtail output from wind farms.

Andrew Blakers of the ANU says there are numerous sites along the Eastern Seaboard, and elsewhere, that could lend themselves to pumped storage — and he is proposing that a survey should be done to identify those sites. A joint study by the engineering and consulting company Arup and the University of Melbourne Energy Institute suggested that the best approach may be pumping seawater up to coastal cliff tops, as has been done in a pilot facility in Japan (pictured below).

The irony is that pumped hydro was once built to support coal and nuclear and to ameliorate their inability to ramp up quickly to meet changes in demand. Now those energy sources will be used to absorb and manage changes in supply. The MEI/Arup investigations found the benefits included stabilizing and reducing wholesale electricity prices
, increasing the spread of renewable energy, reducing the need to expand electricity transmission, and improving grid operations.

That means it would not only be able to mimic the services delivered by gas turbines, but it would also be able to compete with even combined-cycle gas turbines as gas prices head above $10/MMBTU.

“I think there will be a pretty compelling case to build wind plus storage,” he added, noting that a lot of thermal generation is aging, and a renewables-focused energy system will need storage and other ancillary services, such as frequency, that such a system could provide.

General Compression is working on a model that will provide around 20 megawatt-hours to 40 megawatt-hours of storage for each megawatt of peak power production. For a 100-megawatt wind project, the ideal would be to have a facility that could deliver between 200 megawatt-hours and 400 megawatt-hours of storage. CAES would be able to deliver this at a quarter of the price of battery technologies, according to Rood.


And the week before Christmas, the Pentagon transported 13 Nissan Leafs to a Southern California Edison charging facility in Pomona as part of a $20-million program involving dozens of vehicles at Los Angeles Air Force Base and the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake.

The Pentagon hopes to eventually employ the technology at bases across the country, which could jump-start mass production of the chargers and software involved.

“We’re looking to determine if we can make electric vehicles cost-competitive with conventional vehicles,” said Camron Gorguinpour, executive director of the Defense Department’s Plug-In Electric Vehicle Program. The department pays about $200 per month to lease a Nissan Leaf. Using a vehicle to store energy, he said, could generate enough revenue to offset most of that cost.

“You could pay close to nothing for the lease,” he said.

13 Responses to “The Mind Boggling Promise of Energy Storage”

  1. The Nissan Leaf vehicle to home system is made by Nichicon. It is a combination fast charger and home backup supply.
    In California and Germany, high rooftop solar penetration results in daytime load reductions resulting in the “duck” demand curve. As a result, daytime electric rates become lower “off peak”. This facilitates a new development. The grid allows solar owners to charge their cars at work via the grid. The EV user charges during off peak rates at work, drives home with a near fully charged EV, and powers the home during peak evening demand. Ultimately, this trend will reduce evening peaks and lower utility rates. This is a triple boon for EV owners if they employ the V2H unit. Lower peak electricity rates, better EV payback, and home emergency back up. The perfect solution for solar storage.

    • It’s a solution, but not what I would call a “perfect” solution. Cars still need batteries, which, for now, are expensive, heavy and use lithium. There is not enough lithium on Earth to provide for everyone on the planet to have a lithium car battery.

      Here is a better solution:

      World-wide sharing of solar power. The sun is always shining somewhere on the planet. And eventually, the whole planet will have a smart grid. Sunlight is a virtually unlimited and free resource. Why not link up and share it? The earth is blessed with desert regions scattered about the hemispheres, each region strategically located to power the planet.

      Electric roads, powered by solar power generated in China could power our American transportation fleet at night. And vice-versa.

      No moving parts. No lithium. No heavy expensive cars. Just connecting infrastructure we (will) already have.

      • Infrastructure (grids) is a good idea. The US grid is old and needs investment.
        How do you get lithium supplies run out? Spot shortages and growth pains, yes. But early supply depletion? Batteries will be recycled.

        • Yes – batteries will HAVE to be recycled, because there is not quite enough lithium. Current reserves would be used up in ~ 20 years if all cars went to batteries, according to M.Z. Jacobson,M.A.Delucchi/EnergyPolicy39(2011)1154–1169. [page 1163]

          Lithium seems to be the one foreseeably scarce commodity of the new energy age. Hopefully be replaced by something better.

          Nice light graphite capacitors would be nice, I suppose – that could work nicely. We are going to need batteries for some applications. But…. I am always trying to push the alternative system – away from the free market and toward cooperative, public investments.

          The way I see it, we can all pay retail for hundreds of millions of lithium batteries, and do it again every ten years. Or, we could all invest at wholesale in electric roads, which seems to me a much more cost-effective alternative.

          I think it is crucial to get out of our present mind-think that we need to find corporately-profitable ways to finance new energy, and instead see our energy future as much more simply and cost-effectively solved using public investment -> socialized energy. Ethically, we are going to need to provide electricity for billions of the poor, so cooperative international systems need to be in place anyway.

          • Thanks for the link. Jacobson is a good read. All metals must be recycled for a renewable economy. He highlights some practical problems not commonly discussed about nuclear. Making nuclear ubiquitous would have proliferation ramifications. This study includes all energy use, including transportation and space heating, supplied by electricity. It does not specifically address air transport, but biofuels and electricity to gas might address this at some of this. Ground based heat pumps and EVs come to mind, big shifts in usage.
            Public investment has a place. After all, we are using public utilities, controlled monopolies, and public roads. How to give the right signals to an economy based on limited demand? The problem now is, utilities have a profit model based on consumption and growth.

  2. The problem I have with compressed air is the energy efficiency
    lost to heating the air in the compression stage. I can envision methods to utilize that heat, green houses,??? but I have not heard that happening.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    Now reading a great book. “TERRA NOVA: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs”, by Eric W. Sanderson.

    (I’m an old-fashioned guy. I read a lot of books. I like to be able to flip pages and go back and forth as many times as needed to figure things out, and sometimes it takes hundreds of pages to properly make a point. I can “read” while laying flat on my sofa under a comforter rather than aggravating my back sitting at a computer, and naps are easy too—when the book falls out of your hands and hits you in the nose, just put the book aside and take one.)

    This book has a great message (although I haven’t finished it and it seems as if he is heading to some “pie in the sky” at the end), and gives a clear and succinct history of the use and economics of oil and how it has shaped society. Its real strength is in the graphics—it is loaded with charts, graphs, maps, etc, that visually illustrate some rather dry facts.

    One that I thought was “spectacular” was “Energy Density for Various Fuels” on p. 42. It uses an invented unit of energy called “Minutes Microwaving” (the amount of energy that a typical 1000w kitchen microwave uses running at full power for one minute).

    E-Pot will love the fact that one pound of enriched uranium has an energy density of 26,126,952 “microwaving minutes” (exactly)

    Petroleum products are in the mid to upper 300’s, and are “concentrated” and “portable”. We became addicted to them during the “cheap oil window” from 1931 to 1971. Coal is 181.

    Getting to the point of this comment, Lithium batteries of various types are only 3 to 4, and lead-acid batteries offer only 1 microwave minute per pound. I kind of knew that already but was surprised at how stark those numbers appeared in graphic form.

    I agree that the sun is the answer. We just need to figure out how to “store” the sun’s energy. Until that can be done more cheaply and efficiently, it will be hard for many to break the oil habit.

    • 1 pound of water at an elevation of 100 meters stores 0.444 microwave seconds. 28.25 microwave days are stored per Olympic pool per 100 meters.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        The chart in the book gives the value of one pound of water “at 100m dam height” as .01 microwave minutes, which converts to .6 microwave seconds.

        Whichever number is more correct is really immaterial—-they’re both quite small.

        • Maybe the author is using imperial pounds or maybe I blew the arithmetic (below). A pound of water falling 100 meters isn’t much, but water and gravity are pretty efficient if the topography is right. Turbines are supposedly about 90% efficient. I used 50x25x2 cubic meters for an “Olympic pool” volume of water.

          PE = mass * height * G
          1 lb = 0.45359237 kG
          g = 9.8 N/kg
          1 N = 1 kg•m/s**2
          PE = (0.45359237 kG) * (100 m) * (9.8 m/s**2)
          Joule = 1 kg•m**2/s**2
          PE = 444.52016 Joules = 444.52016 watt Seconds = .44452016 KW Seconds

  4. Kiwiiano Says:

    Another version of compressed air: rather than huge expensive tanks or leaky caves, what about giant bladders submerged in the sea or in lakes, well anchored to the bottom. They would provide a steady supply of feedback at more-or-less constant pressures.

    One fish-hook: Not sure about the inefficiencies of the compressors heating up or the conversion of pressure back to electricity.

  5. Put solar in your EV during the the day. The grid is there, use it. The solar on everyone’s roof charges EVs wherever they are plugged in. Vehicles are idle 95% of the time, a wasted resource, ready to be used. The amount of storage potentially exceeds the four hour evening peak. The grid helps spread the solar peak, but only a few hours for thousands of miles. The US east coast evening peak could be powered by the west coast, but the west coast is stuck with no solar west of it. It’s probably only useful across one time zone, about one hour or so. Rooftop solar is already depressing the daytime load curve making daytime rates cheaper. This has been observed in Germany where pumped storage has had trouble with its traditional mode. Storage was done at low night rates hoping to sell at higher daytime rates. With excess daytime solar, that model no longer works as well. Daytime solar rooftop is taking a bite out of daytime loads. When it hits full force, daytime trough will be as low as 4AM – night time rates. Meanwhile, the evening peak will be a lucrative time to power the home from the EV or sell power to the utility.

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