You See Where this is Going, Right?

January 22, 2014

If Financial Times Gets It, Maybe Anyone Can

Financial Times:

Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley billionaire, is the man behind the PayPal online payments system, the Tesla luxury electric sports car and SpaceX, the commercial space travel company.

But Mr Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, the biggest installer of residential solar systems in the US, and it has just launched an eye-catching combination of his sprawling interests: battery packs for Tesla cars that store electricity from solar panels.

SolarCity’s battery system is not a widely affordable answer yet, analysts say, but it could still help advance important shifts in the way energy is used.

The system is being rolled out first to businesses because it is aimed at cutting a growing energy cost: the charges that utilities impose, not just for the amount of electricity a company uses, but for the level of power it needs at any point in time.

SolarCity says its battery packs can lower these so-called “demand charges” significantly by providing power when demand is highest, as well as providing back-up power during the outages that periodically plague the ageing US electricity grid.

The company is initially offering the system, known as DemandLogic, in places where demand charges are high, such as parts of California, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and hopes eventually to launch a system for households.

Still, battery prices are falling fast. Mr Jaffe says smaller lithium batteries, such as those that power laptop computers, now cost $200-$250 per kilowatt hour, compared with $1,200 three years ago, while larger ones used in electric cars are $300-$400 per kWh, half what they were two years ago. “We expect them to get cheaper and cheaper,” he said.

If solar energy storage does spread widely, it is likely to add to the headaches that solar power is posing to conventional utilities around the world.

The plunging cost of solar panels is already turning utility customers into competitors as households start generating their own electricity, especially during daylight hours when utilities have traditionally made the most money.

The big energy generators that still have to build and maintain expensive gas or coal power plants are starting to fight back in many countries, urging regulators to impose fees on people putting in new rooftop solar systems to help pay for the cost of a power grid they say is being used virtually for free.

The conflict is likely to intensify as solar generation continues to surge, and not just in countries such as Germany, the world’s biggest solar power generator.

Growth in the number of residential solar panel installed in the US was so strong in 2013 that it is set to be the first time in more than 15 years that the US has installed more solar generating capacity than Germany, according to forecasts from the GTM research company.


Researchers at Harvard have developed an inexpensive, high capacity, organic battery that uses carbon-based materials as electrolytes rather than metals. The researchers say the technology stands to be a game-changer in renewable energy storage by solving the intermittent generation problems faced by renewable sources, such as wind and solar. The battery offers large volume electricity storage not possible with solid-state batteries and at a fraction of the cost of existing flow battery technology.

Energy in flow batteries is stored in fluids held in external tanks, meaning storage capacity is only limited by the size of the tanks. As a result, larger amounts of energy can be stored than in traditional solid-electrode batteries. However, existing flow battery technology uses expensive metals, such as vanadium or platinum, as electrolytes, resulting in a high cost per kilowatt-hour of storage.

“The whole world of electricity storage has been using metal ions in various charge states but there is a limited number that you can put into solution and use to store energy, and none of them can economically store massive amounts of renewable energy,” says Professor Roy Gordon, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Chemistry at Harvard.

The Harvard approach utilizes the electrochemistry of quinones, organic molecules that are similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals and are plentiful in crude oil and green plants. Using these naturally abundant and inexpensive organic molecules, the researchers have developed a metal-free flow battery that already performs as well as vanadium flow batteries, while using significantly less expensive chemicals and no precious metals.

“With organic molecules, we introduce a vast new set of possibilities,” says Professor Gordon. “Some of them will be terrible and some will be really good. With these quinones we have the first ones that look really good.”

“Imagine a device the size of a home heating oil tank sitting in your basement,” says study co-lead author Michael Marshak. “It would store a day’s worth of sunshine from the solar panels on the roof of your house, potentially providing enough to power your household from late afternoon, through the night, into the next morning, without burning any fossil fuels,”

The technology now faces a grueling testing process to assess the degradation rate over thousands of cycles, with early tests indicating no signs of degradation. A Connecticut-based commercial collaborator, Sustainable Innovations, hopes to have a portable demonstration model ready in around three years and will bring the product to market when ready.

Financial Times:

Until now, the idea that unsubsidised solar power could make enough financial sense to be competitive with conventional electricity has been largely confined to the realms of environmental campaigners and renewable energy advocates.

However, as solar panels become more efficient and vastly cheaper, and household power bills keep rising, analysts at some of the world’s largest financial institutions say such a prospect is indeed possible – and likely to cause profound disruption in the energy industry.

“We’re at a point now where demand starts to be driven by cold, hard economics rather than by subsidies and that is a game changer,” says Jason Channell of Citigroup.

18 Responses to “You See Where this is Going, Right?”

  1. vierotchka Says:

    I recently read an article (could it have been here?) about how utility providers are fighting very hard against the spread of solar panels – especially on the rooftops of private houses and housing – because they know that they will lose money.

    Here in Switzerland, people are encouraged to install panels on their homes and a great many municipal and other buildings are being fitted with panels. More and more people are thusly equipped and feed electricity into the grid and are paid for it.

  2. rayduray Says:

    The NY Times has more on the Harvard quinone announcement:

    And from Wikipedia’s discussion about the particular molecule the Harvard researchers are experimenting with we have this: “In 2013 researchers announced the use of 9,10-anthraquinone-2,7-disulphonic acid (AQDS; a quinone found naturally in rhubarb) as a charge carrier in metal-free flow batteries.”

    Which led me naturally to think that we may soon be seeing a proliferation of electrode studded rhubarb pies in the Upper Midwest. Yes, Peter, I believe I do see “where this is going”:

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Sorry, Ray, but there are not enough rhubarb pies to get the job done, and rhubarb doesn’t grow well everywhere. On the other hand, POTATOES may be the wave if the future. You may have known that you can get electricity out of a pototo merely by sticking zinc and copper electrodes in it? Boil it first and get even more. And much cheaper than convemntinal batteries too.

      Potato Power is “where this is going”!

      • rayduray Says:

        Somewhere in here there’s a joke about iPhone addicts and Potatoheads.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Are you referring to the Mr. Potato Head app? Since it’s written for preschoolers, I’d bet that some of our more “brainy” Crockers like Birdbrain are in fact “addicted” to it.

  3. Reblogged this on Echos from a Pale Blue Dot and commented:
    One would tend to think this is an ideal solution for financial conservatives, and I don’t see where social conservatives should object.

    Any way we could find a way to explain that to our Congress critters?

  4. […] If Financial Times Gets It, Maybe Anyone Can Financial Times: Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley billionaire, is the man behind the PayPal online payments system, the Tesla luxury electric sports car an…  […]

  5. […] Several new developments in battery technology may mean that solar, wind and hydro are more useable and competitive than ever.  The Economist thinks so […]

  6. rayduray Says:

    Mark Fiore’s new animated cartoon: Global Warming Skeptics Meet “The Climateers!”

  7. rayduray Says:

    Hey y’all,

    The 28th annual Weather and Climate Summit has wrapped up in Colorado. The YouTube presentations are starting to roll out. Here’s my favorite presenter so far, Dr. Jim White, U-Colorado, discussing ice and sea level rise, or “Miami, it’s been good to know ya….”

    [See more about Miami here: ]

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The Miami article is a good one. And guess what? Our very own horsepucky expert Dave Burton DIDN’T like the article and made several comments, one of which will sound particularly familiar.

      “This article is more proof that the Left is waging an all-out war against sound science” said Dave over 18 months ago, and played his same one-note tune about “sea level rise is not accelerating”. Politics and bad science from Dave. It’s Deja Vu All Over Again.

  8. Alteredstory Says:

    “Until now, the idea that unsubsidised solar power could make enough financial sense to be competitive with conventional electricity has been largely confined to the realms of environmental campaigners and renewable energy advocates.”

    I find this irksome, mainly because basically what this is saying is that “environmental campaigners and renewable energy advocates WERE RIGHT ABOUT THE PROGRESS OF RENEWABLE ENERGY. And yet the sort of people who write these articles still dismiss these same groups on a regular basis.

  9. […] 2014/01/22: PSinclair: You See Where this is Going, Right? […]

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