Sustainable Renewable Energy Storage: Are We There Yet?

2890673599_98882246b5_zBy Debbie Fletcher

Wind turbines and solar panels both utilize natural resources to produce clean, renewable energy. But in order for these technologies to make a real difference in the way we produce power, energy companies will need to find an effective way to store the power that can accommodate the fluctuations caused by intermittent sun and wind. Here we will explore the current state of the industry and some of the steps that are being taken to bring renewable energy to the next level.

Wind and solar industry growth

Both wind and solar have grown significantly in recent years and can help to provide valuable sources of renewable energy for future generations. According to Clean Line Energy, the United States has the potential to produce nearly 10 times the country’s existing power needs using wind alone. Wind power has also become increasingly cost-effective as technology has improved and the industry in the U.S. has grown. There are now more than 400 manufacturing plants across the U.S. using dedicated equipment and facilities like bespoke blast rooms to produce large volumes of towers, turbines and blades.

Similarly, the price of solar panels has continued to drop as technology improves. The industry employs over 100,000 Americans, and there are now over 13,000 megawatts of cumulative solar capacity operating in the U.S., enough to power more than 2.2 million homes.

Energy storage potential

Wind turbines and photovoltaic installations now produce enough energy to sustain themselves. However, there is an issue in that both types of technology require extra, large-scale infrastructure to store the energy so that it is available on demand and not just when it’s windy or sunny. A study by a team of Stanford researchers concluded that the wind industry will be able to afford to invest in these large-scale technologies and remain sustainable, while the solar industry will find it more difficult due to the extra energy required to produce photovoltaic panels.

Commenting on the survey, Professor Sally Benson found the results for the wind industry very encouraging: “They show that you could create a sustainable energy system that grows and maintains itself by combining wind and storage together. This depends on the growth rate of the industry, because the faster you grow, the more energy you need to build new turbines and batteries.”

Solar power, on the other hand, will require further development if it is to become a viable option. Michael Dale, a Stanford research associate, commented: “Our analysis shows that today’s wind industry, even with a large amount of grid-scale storage, is energetically sustainable. We found that the solar industry can also achieve sustainable storage capacity by reducing the amount of energy that goes into making solar photovoltaics.” This suggests that the solar industry needs to rid itself of the need to draw on other power sources to make up the energy required to produce the panels in the first place, while wind power is already operating efficiently enough to give it the scope to grow further.

The viability of storage systems for renewable energy sources like wind and solar is already beginning to be put to the test in the real world. According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) has recently commissioned five companies to build 12 demonstration models which will capture and release energy, thereby accommodating the power fluctuations associated with renewable energy sources. The technologies being tested include batteries, hydrogen storage and kinetic flywheels. The IESO hope that these storage systems will not only allow renewable energy systems to be incorporated into the power system but will also help to balance supply.

IESO President Bruce Campbell commented: “Energy storage projects will provide more flexibility and offer more options to manage the system efficiently.”

A recent article on Clean Technica gives examples of how storage technologies are also progressing elsewhere: The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has been working to bring down the cost of Sodium-β (beta) batteries, which are considered by many as having the potential for widespread energy storage but have always been limited by their relatively high cost. However, PNNL’s latest research has helped to decrease the cost and improve the operating life of the battery using a new liquid metal alloy, which could be a hugely significant step for the renewable industry.

Advances in technology like this show that widespread renewable energy is more than just a pipe dream and that, in the future, wind and solar could offer major advantages to energy suppliers, providing more efficient energy solutions that can be managed on a day-to-day basis.

Only time will tell which storage methods will prove to be effective, but it is still very encouraging to see wind and solar emerging from the sidelines and making strides towards becoming a major part of power production.

Image credit: Flickr/kubina

Debbie Fletcher is an enthusiastic, experienced writer who has written for a range of difference magazines and news publications. Follow her here: @Debbie_Fletch18.

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6 responses

  1. “Are we there yet?” Seriously? With renewables supplying just 6.25% of our energy you’re asking, “are we there yet?”

    In 2013, the United States generated about 4,058 billion kilowatthours of electricity. About 67% of the electricity generated was from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), with 39% attributed from coal.

    In 2013, energy sources and percent share of total electricity generation were

    Coal 39%
    Natural Gas 27%
    Nuclear 19%
    Hydropower 7%
    Other Renewable 6%
    – Biomass 1.48%
    – Geothermal 0.41%
    – Solar 0.23%
    – Wind 4.13%
    Petroleum 1%
    Other Gases < 1%

    Given the fact more than 2/3 of electricity is produced by fossil fuels, I laugh every time I hear of someone bragging about how their electric car is "saving the planet."

    1. In my view, the point of the post was more so to analyze whether or not we have the ability to store renewables sustainably at this time — not if renewables comprise a significant portion of the current American energy mix, which is indisputably not the case (yet).

      That said, energy storage actually has a lot to do with why we don’t see more renewables in the mix, so moving forward with this conversation can make a big difference in the long run.

      1. This is so true! Pretty much anyone I talk to about solar or wind brings up the question of storage as an insurmountable barrier to the large scale implementation of renewable energy. This understanding then affects an acceptance of renewables and their efficacy and, in turn, further prevents their implementation. It’s a nasty cycle.

        I think the important thing to always keep in mind is that technological development is an iterative process that is in many cases exponential in nature: growth occurs very slowly in the beginning until hitting a knee in the curve and then exploding (we know this thanks to Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns). So while we may see incremental developments in energy storage for a while yet, it is probable that this growth is exponential and at some point in the future will begin to rapidly increase. Because of this it’s imperative to the take long-term perspective on investing in this technology. The price and efficiency won’t increase in the future if we don’t invest in the present.

  2. Watch for new Safeion grid storage batteries that are going to disrupt the solar storage industry with its new non-flammable, non-explosive, non-corrosive electrolyte that provides over 3,000 charge discharge cycles, an 85% round trip DC efficiency and a much better value that lithium ion and lead acid storage technology.

    1. Neodymium is a rare earth metal used in the battery and in wind turbines. You literally have to remove and wash with acid entire mountains to get one ton and it is only found in California and China. There is no such thing as clean Renewables

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