Storage is important for energy systems. One of the reasons we rely so heavily on fossil fuels is that they are incredibly easy to store. Coal sits in a yard, oil fills up drums, and natural gas is contained in tanks. In contrast, solar panels produce energy only while the sun is shining, and wind works only when it's blowing. These limits are a remaining barrier to widespread adoption of renewable energy. Solar technology is closing in on price levels that are competitive with traditional energy sources. Germany's Deutsche Bank recently released a report that shows solar has achieved grid-parity in India and Italy and that more countries will follow in the next year. However, it almost doesn't matter how cheap solar gets unless we develop storage on an unprecedented scale. Lithium ion batteries are inadequate both in storage capacity and in the price of raw materials. In the optimistic book Abundance, Dr. Peter Diamandis discussed this issue with energy experts and was encouraged to find that progress is being made.
One such subject matter expert is Bill Joy, partner emeritus of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers - the venture capital firm that invests in high impact startups such as Amazon and Google. He saw an opportunity in low-cost electrical energy storage and led investment in a company called Primus Power, which builds rechargeable "flow" batteries. The company stores and time-shifts energy through an electrochemical process. Another of KPCB's portfolio companies, Aquion Energy Technologies, builds batteries with sodium and water. They work similarly to lithium ion batteries, except they use widely available materials for a more economically sound solution. With KPCB's track-record and highly talented connections, these companies represent exciting progress.
MIT professor Donald Sadoway is also optimistic. With support from ARPA-E and Bill Gates, he has developed a Liquid Metal Battery (LMB). The concept uses two molten metals of differing densities with a layer of a salt electrolyte in between them. The result is a simple, cheap design that is also scalable. "Within the next decade, we plan to deploy the shipping container-sized LMB, soon followed by the family-sized unit. There's a clear line of sight to get there, and no miraculous breakthroughs needed," says Sadoway.
Some renewable energy advocates say electric vehicles could act as batteries for the grid while connected. Tesla Motors, maker of high end all-electric automobiles, has posted a profit for the 1st quater of 2013. While this is great news, the car company isn't selling enough currently to impact the grid in this manner. Better battery technology would improve this situation. Tesla is leading the industry with its own proprietary lithium ion battery stack. This helped them to beat out competitor Fisker Automotive with their reliance on the now bankrupt A123 Systems. Further battery improvements could help make electric vehicles become affordable enough for widespread consumer adoption, as Tesla founder Elon Musk envisions. One possibility was recently discovered at the University of Arizona. The research team, lead by Jeffrey Pyun, has developed a way to make a lightweight plastic out of a common industrial waste - sulfur. They have successfully used the plastic to make lithium-sulfur batteries and believe next-generation versions will provide electric cars a cheaper and more efficient energy storage alternative.
Only time will tell exactly when and how the future of batteries will arrive. Already, though, we can see that renewable energy utilization will expand with better battery technology. It's encouraging to know that some of the best and brightest are developing these opportunities.