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.

Encouraging Energy Storage Developments

Energy storage is exciting. There’s no other way to put it. Take the Energy Vault storage system, which has recently showcased the capabilities of their new technology. Essentially, it’s a giant concrete tower that uses gravity and kinetic energy for storing wind and solar energy. 

As Tech Crunch states, “Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids.” So, this tech, as well as Tesla’s new Mega Pack, has shown the massive amounts of capital that investors are pouring into this important facet of the renewable energy sector. 

Buy why has energy storage development become such a major point of interest? 

Think about it this way, if engineers and scientists continue to further technology that is capable of generating more and more electricity, there need to be just as robust technology for storing that energy when it grows excessive.

More relevant and ubiquitous is the variability of renewable energy and the overcapacity problems that plague many electrical grids across the world. Take for instance Germany and their challenges with maintaining such an aggressive renewable energy platform

 Better Batteries to Reduce Overcapacity, Intermittency and Price Volatility

Germany has ambitious plans to be at least 80% renewable by 2050. But as they continue to shut down nuclear plants to make way for more renewable energy, they face overcapacity problems. 

In short, because renewable energy fluctuates–the wind just doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine enough–then coal and natural gas plants are used to safeguard against any grid shutdown. But what happens when the wind and sun suddenly pick up? The answer: overcapacity of electrical generation that can hurt the grid’s infrastructure, as well as make huge spikes in wholesale electrical prices

After all, excess energy usually means a precipitous drop in price. This is textbook energy intermittency, which of course is a challenge, but one that better batteries can help with, especially in Texas where renewable energy is such a prevalent force in our energy landscape.

Decentralized Batteries, Thermal Storage, and More

The more you look into the development of renewables, the more encouraging advancements you can find. Put enough smart and ambitious people on the task, and they will overcome climate challenges. Some new technologies which are especially promising are the following:

  • Train-powered energy storage. Yes, you read that right. Excess renewable energy pushes a train along a rail that travels up a hill. As James Conca puts it, it’s very much like the Greek Myth of Sisyphus, who spends his days pushing a giant boulder up a hill and down again for eternity. At the top of the hill, the ARES train stores energy and then unleashes gravitational energy as it descends, pushing electricity out to the grid. 
  • Another powerful storage technique is thermal energy storage, which is actually strong enough to power a reasonably-sized city for 24 hours. 
  • Lastly, even though there’s many more technologies in development out there, is gravity storage. Which means the Energy Vault that was mentioned at the beginning of this article.