Recent News on Utility-Scale Batteries 

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that most utility-scale batteries are now made of lithium-ion. What does this mean for the electric grid? It largely means that energy and power capacity is only improving for battery storage options. This could have widespread implications for the future of electricity storage, meaning that more efficient models – most of which will probably use vanadium – will drive what the EIA estimates to be 2,500 MWH of storage power capacity by 2023.  Vanadium, in particular, is an attractive alternative to lithium just because it has an almost endless cycle life, which is a battery’s ability to charge and discharge without becoming defunct.

Regardless of if most utility-scale batteries are made up of lithium-ion or vanadium, there are now a lot more in circulation. The EIA shows that California and Illinois are leading the pack in utility-scale storage sites. Texas is close behind. 

This growth is encouraging because utility-scale sites work well with sustainable energy sources and microgrid efforts, meaning that the grid will be backed up with much more electrical reserves if needed. 

Short Overview of Utility-Scale Battery Storage

Just to provide some context on the practice, large scale battery storage ventures are typically done through pumped hydropower. In other words, depending on peak hours for electricity demand, water is pumped up reservoirs and then funneled down to power a turbine when the grid needs more energy to compensate. This same sort of practice is being scaled out for more efficient and portable battery storage options.

Whereas a residential solar panel will store energy in the kilowatt range, utility-scale batteries are much larger, offering megawatts of storage potential. This is only increasing as technologies improve.

A Fully Renewable Grid with the Help of Utility-Scale Storage

There is a lot of opportunity for carrying out a fully renewable grid with the help of utility scale batteries. Solar and wind has long had a storage problem, especially during peak wind or sunshine days where a lot of energy goes to waste. As better batteries are rolled out, so too the opportunity for completely renewable grids comes closer.

Scientific American, when looking at the future of energy storage, forecast that lithium-ion batteries will be the dominant technology for the next 5-10 years. But to fully make a renewable grip operational will mean moving beyond the capabilities of lithium ion. This will most likely mean something similar to the aforementioned vanadium flow batteries or gravity storage.

But with increasing renewables, microgrids, and battery storage advancements, more storage means less blackouts and more flexible regions when it comes to spikes in electricity demand. 

We will have to wait and see what exciting things continue to develop in battery storage capacity, and how that relates to the grid of the future.

Wildfires and the Future of Electric Vehicles

The recent wildfires in California necessitated a planned shutdown by PG&E. This left 500,000 without electricity and offered a short term look into the complications that arise when wildfires ravage a large area of land. 

The shutdown itself was to safeguard the dry land from experiencing any further fire damage, as a spark from a downed power line could only add to the ferocity of the fire itself.

This fire allowed us to catch a glimpse of not only the precariousness of the grid when faced with climate-change induced weather, but also the challenges that electric vehicle owners can face when presented with a lack of electricity to power their cars. Simply put, you cannot get anywhere without the necessary electricity. 

These recent storms will hopefully increase initiatives to beef up the overall reliability of the grid, the urgency to fight climate change, or advancements in microgrids and battery storage technology to have emergency backup reserves for situations like this. 

Electric Vehicle Owners Without Power

Electric vehicles can still be scaled and the required infrastructure (charging stations and such) can still be laid to make their wide scale adoption easier, but it’s a scary prospect for consumers to bank on an EV as a reliable means of transportation only to be stranded. This happened with the recent wildfires.

Tesla sent out a warning to all Tesla users that they’d need to charge before PG&E shut off the electricity. This also came with the announcement that they were in the process of installing battery capacity capabilities for all of their charging stations in the affected areas. What resulted was a mad scramble to charge their vehicles. A lot of people couldn’t even make it to the charging stations. 


Managed, Slow Charging for EVs to Mitigate Grid Risks

As this resource reminds us as well, wide scale electric vehicle adoption would mean an increased demand for electricity. Because of recent grid weaknesses–think ERCOT’s emergency over the summer–it wouldn’t be farfetched to assume that increased EV usage would only magnify this problem that the wildfires have exposed. But electrical disasters can be prevented with managed charging, meaning that charging stations can offer electricity at certain hours to mitigate the risks of too much concentrated charging in one area.  

Another area that can prevent any risky spikes in electrical use (causing a potential grid disaster) is through slow charging methods instead of the inefficient, fast methods. Sure, it’s less convenient, but so is a power outage, after all.

Are Oil Companies Running Interference on EV Charging Stations?

It would be an understatement to assume that “Big Oil” is a little nervous about the proliferation of electric vehicles. They are reportedly taking matters into their own hands and doing their best impression of repeating the 1990’s electric car collapse. To do this, they are looking to prevent utilities from gaining a slice of the charging station pie. Or in other words, they are looking to protect their market share as the rates of electric vehicles will rise to close to 50% of all new cars produced by 2040.

It will be difficult for Big Oil to stop Texas utilities from pursuing charging station investments. The electricity market is deregulated for one, and it also makes a lot of sense for customers and utilities to work together on adopting a stronger charging station infrastructure across Texas because there’s a lot to gain overall.

The Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) states that Texas utilities especially can make a big impact on the adoption of electric vehicles given that they can offer low monthly fees for charging station usage, incentives for customers who buy electric vehicles, free charging at night when demand is low and wind energy isn’t being fully utilized anyway, as well as smart technology that can link with EVs and educational efforts on electric vehicles and rates. 

Collective efforts and market reinforcements will not only decrease the overall cost of electric vehicles (despite sizable tax credits), but will also eventually cheapen the overall cost and will increase charging station frequency, meaning more convenience for consumers. Those in California are struggling to find enough charging ports. Preventing that from happening in Texas, before EV purchases ramp up, would be smart.

Fighting the Inevitable Rise of Electric Vehicles

There’s no guarantee that electric vehicles will dominate future markets, but signs seem to point in that direction. This is bad news for Big Oil, which gets a large share of capital from our reliance on internal combustion engines. 

All of this is not meant to demonize Big Oil or take cheap shots, but just to capture a snapshot of the free market’s continual tug-of-war between powerful players. Conglomerates need to employ strategies for self-preservation. And after all, utilities pushing for charging stations don’t all have the environment in mind. As stated in this article by Politico, many utilities are pushing for more charging stations because it means they can charge customers more on a monthly basis. An indirect result of higher fees also happens to mean more electrification across the board and less greenhouse gas.