Who knew energy storage was so sexy?

Solar and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels. But to use that power efficiently, we need more cost-effective energy storage solutions.

Who knew energy storage was so sexy?
Photo by Roberto Sorin on Unsplash

It happened so much faster than most experts expected.

Thanks to rapid advances in technology over the past decade, renewable energy (in the form of wind and solar) is now the cheapest source of energy in the world. So much so that economists predict that making the switch from fossil fuels to renewables could save the world trillions of dollars.

In Europe, renewable energy almost doubled from 2011 to 2021 and now makes up 32% of electricity generation in the EU, compared to fossil fuels at 36% (and in some ways, it seems like we weirdly have Russia to thank for that as the war in Ukraine accelerated the adoption of renewables when EU nations were forced to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas).

In the US, it has become more affordable to replace coal plants with wind and solar than to keep those coal plants running. And in other parts of the world that are in the process of building up their energy infrastructure, starting from scratch with wind and solar is much more cost efficient than opting for coal or gas.

BUT: despite their relative cheapness, wind and solar still present some big challenges – especially when it comes to storing and transporting the energy they generate.

That’s because wind and solar have an intermittency problem: the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow 24 hours a day. We need a way to capture and store the energy for later use if we want a renewable energy system to be consistently reliable.

(Not to mention a robust grid network that allows energy producers to share power with other users. Case in point: the Czech Republic had to shut down its solar plants over Easter weekend because the weather was SO sunny that the power generated was too much for the country’s grid to handle.)

That’s where energy storage comes in… It’s the “missing link” that allows us to hold onto the energy created until it needs to be used or transported for use somewhere else.

When most people think “energy storage,” a battery is usually the first thing that comes to mind. (And WOW, has there ever been a ton of articles on research into making batteries cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally sustainable!)

But when it comes to storing energy being produced by solar or wind farms – or even industrial manufacturing plants or giant server farms that generate a lot of excess heat energy through their normal processes – scientists and engineers are coming up with a number of energy storage solutions that seem to hold a lot of promise.

Here are just a few exciting technologies people have been talking about lately...

  • HEAT BATTERIES: Thermal energy storage solutions that use ceramic bricks that can be heated to a whopping 1000 degrees Celcius and store the resultant energy almost indefinitely. This kind of technology is ideal for solar farms that generate heat energy (vs. photovoltaic solar power, which converts directly to electricity) as well as any industry that creates heat as a by-product of its regular processes.
  • GRAVITY BATTERIES: Researchers have developed novel way to store energy by transporting sand into abandoned underground mines. The new technique, called Underground Gravity Energy Storage (UGES), generates kinetic electricity by lowering sand into an underground mine then converting the potential energy of the sand into electricity via regenerative braking.
  • OXYGEN-ION BATTERIES: Researchers at Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) have developed an oxygen-ion battery with a storage capacity that doesn't decrease over time, leading to an extremely long lifespan compared to other batteries.This battery can be produced without rare metals and could be used for in large energy storage systems.
  • SODIUM-ION BATTERIES: Chinese battery manufacturer Pylontech has obtained the world’s first sodium-ion battery certification, granted by leading testing and certification group TÜV Rheinland. Pylontech says its batteries are much cheaper to produce than lithium-based batteries and could prove pivotal in meeting the huge capacities of battery energy storage that will be needed over the coming decades as countries continue making the switch to renewables.
  • GREEN HYDROGEN: Green hydrogen is what you get when you convert renewable energy into hydrogen and then store it for future use as electricity, heat, or vehicle fuel. Researchers are exploring the possibility of storing large volumes of hydrogen in underground salt caverns, with the world’s largest green hydrogen production and storage facility currently being built in Utah. When finished, experts say it will be able to store up to 11,000 metric tonnes of hydrogen – the equivalent of 150 gigawatt hours (GWh) of carbon-free dispatchable energy. That’s enough to power 112 million homes!
  • WATER BATTERIES: Scientists are also exploring the possibility of creating metal-free aqueous batteries that use polymer-based cathode and anodes with an electrolyte that consists of water mixed with organic salts. Researchers at Texas A&M University say they have discovered a 1,000% difference in the storage capacity of metal-free, water-based battery electrodes.
  • AQUIFER THERMAL ENERGY STORAGE: Scientists are exploring the possibility of using underground aquifers to conserve thermal energy and use it to heat and cool buildings instead of burning natural gas in furnaces or tapping into fossil-fuel-derived electricity to run air conditioners.

Those are just a few of the stories that have shown up this spring.

Who knows which or any of these technologies will become commercially viable in the next few decades and if any will emerge to be the dominant form of long-term energy storage – OR if we’ll see a range of different options come available that are tailored to a region’s specific energy generation and storage needs.

No matter how it all unfolds, energy storage will play a key role in helping us move away from fossil fuels and accelerate our transition to a zero-carbon future.

And that makes it as sexy as hell. 🔥🤤

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