Hopes that renewable energy could blunt the worst of climate change used to face a seemingly insurmountable hurdle: the need for better batteries. After all, the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. But those better batteries are on their way, thanks to a myriad of small improvements that will add life to the phone in your pocket and speed the day when electric cars overtake gasoline vehicles. Now there’s a different worry: Can we turn batteries out fast enough? Ramping up production of the batteries needed for a clean-energy future — where wind turbines and solar panels are knit into a new kind of power grid — means creating an almost entirely new industry. That’s a process that isn’t guaranteed to go smoothly.
In 2017, a bottleneck at Tesla Inc.’s giant Gigafactory battery plant in the Nevada desert put the company behind production targets for its first mass-market electric car, the Model 3. Tesla plans to build as many as four more big battery factories in the U.S. The industry is set to grow even faster in China, where companies have announced plans for factories that could produce 120 gigawatt-hours of storage capacity annually, enough to put battery packs in 9 million homes or power Italy for an hour. Giant battery plants are also planned in Sweden and Germany. The price of a battery pack holding a kilowatt hour of electricity has already plunged and is expected to fall by more than 90 percent from 2010 to 2030. Many of the new batteries will power the electric cars projected to start flooding onto roads globally. Utilities are also boosting battery installation. California is requiring power companies to install close to 2 gigawatt-hours of storage by 2024 — more than twice what existed in the U.S. at the end of 2017. Not counting car batteries, global storage capacity is expected to rise from 7 gigawatt-hours now to 305 gigawatt-hours in 2030.
Benjamin Franklin and other inventors experimented with Leyden jars, now known as capacitors, which hold and release an electric charge. Alessandro Volta of Italy is credited with inventing the first electric battery in 1799, a stack of zinc and copper disks in brine. Thomas Edison created a nickel-iron battery for the earliest electric cars. The oil shocks of the 1970s spurred new research that led to Exxon Mobil Corp.’s creation of the rechargeable lithium ion battery. Sony Corp. brought the technology to market in the early 1990s, and lithium ion batteries have underpinned the digital revolution ever since. They’re durable, energy-dense and easy to recharge, even if manufacturing glitches have led to high-profile cases of fires in new products, such as Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy Note 7 mobile phone and the Boeing Co.’s Dreamliner jet. Utilities that need large-scale storage are pursuing a variety of technologies, from pumps and reservoirs to solid-state lithium ion batteries to flywheels that store energy as momentum.
Some countries, such as Germany and Japan, offer subsidies for batteries integrated into renewable energy systems. More often, demand for batteries has been indirectly fed by subsidies for wind and solar production. Those payments are now being phased out in the U.S. For homeowners, adding batteries to solar panels saves on electricity costs at night and provides security during blackouts. For power companies, adding batteries to solar panels or wind turbines may let them sell their electricity at a higher price by qualifying as a reliable energy source. Some new ventures are using batteries to create what’s known as a virtual power plant, tying rooftop solar panels together and selling their output. It’s an approach gaining popularity in Europe and being tried in new developments in the U.S. It’s also creating conflict with utilities that say solar and wind producers are piggybacking on the billions of dollars spent to maintain and upgrade power grids. Proponents say the spread of household battery packs will lead to a decentralized network of microgrids that will be more resilient and efficient.
The Reference Shelf
- The International Energy Agency looks at the various types of energy storage and where they can be implemented around the world.
- The U.S. government-backed Joint Center for Energy Storage Research is leading studies in the search for a next-generation battery.
- A Bloomberg News story looks into the commercial uses of existing and future battery technologies, and the billionaires funding startups in the field.
- A Foreign Affairs overview of the search for better batteries.
- A history of the Leyden jar and how to make a voltaic pile. Did the Mesopotamians invent batteries? Maybe yes or probably not.
Logan Goldie-Scot contributed to this article.
First published March 31, 2015
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