Energy storage is now recognized as an essential feature of a modernized, decarbonized electricity grid. However, not all energy storage is alike. As the pace of decarbonization accelerates, the grid of the future will depend more heavily on wind and solar power. These intermittent sources will require energy storage systems that last longer and cost less than conventional battery technology.
The global energy transition leaves little room for fence-sitting. Faced with catastrophic climate impacts, government policymakers are beginning to take forceful action.
In the U.S., President Joe Biden is aggressively pushing the clean power timeline for federal operations, including a Dec. 8 executive order that spells out carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net zero by 2050. The organization Clean Energy States Alliance also lists 23 states with carbon-free electricity goals.
Corporations have also begun to take notice. Just a few years ago, the decarbonization movement was dominated by companies with an eco-friendly identity. That is changing. Last June, WWF examined renewable energy activity among Fortune 500 companies and found an “exciting and growing trend” of commitments toward a net-zero or carbon-neutral profile or other similar goals. The WWF analysis identified 83 Fortune 500 companies in that category, or 17 percent of the total.
That figure is all but certain to increase. The COP26 climate talks in Glasgow last fall have motivated a fresh burst of demand for sustainable energy on the part of individual consumers and local businesses as well as corporations, governments, and other large entities and organizations.
“All of these things are now in motion, and there is broad agreement that we have to get to a decarbonized world,” Eric Dresselhuys, CEO of the long-duration energy storage company ESS, told TriplePundit.
The question is whether renewable energy can provide sufficient quantities of energy cost-effectively — and it can. But geothermal energy and hydropower, two tried-and-true renewable resources, are severely constrained by geography and scale.
Wind turbines and solar panels are a different story. They can be located broadly across the globe at any scale and practically anywhere including on buildings, on inland bodies of water and out at sea.
Once perceived as expensive gadgets for off-grid do-it-yourselfers, wind turbines and solar panels have gone mainstream. Costs are continuing to come down, and use cases are expanding as the technology becomes more ubiquitous and better understood.
“[Wind and solar] are the primary technologies for decarbonization, and they are growing at incredibly rapid rates,” Dresselhuys said. "They are cost effective, and they work in most places of the world. They are the single most important part of decarbonizing the grid.”
The problem is that wind and solar are intermittent, whereas energy consumers expect 24/7 availability whether or not the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Energy storage can close that gap.
Economics are hastening the shift to 24/7 clean energy. Last summer, the International Renewable Energy Agency reported that wind and solar are less expensive than fossil energy in a growing number of markets. Studies are also beginning to show that new fossil energy power plants are more expensive than adding energy storage to wind or solar power.
However, today’s lithium-ion battery technology is reaching the limits of its range, and its shortcomings will become all the more evident as more wind and solar enter the grid.
The main issue is that lithium-ion technology only provides electricity in the range of four hours or less. That is sufficient for many use cases, such as filling temporary peaks in demand that would normally be covered by a gas peaker plant. However, four hours is not sufficient to maintain a reliable grid when renewables make up a larger share of the energy mix.
It is possible to build larger lithium-ion battery arrays, but costs mount in a linear direction, undercutting the technology’s pricing advantage over fossil energy.
Cost is not the only concern. The over-reliance on lithium-ion technology has already raised questions about safety, environmental impacts and supply chain bottlenecks. These concerns will magnify in the coming years as the electrification trend takes hold, especially in the transportation and building sectors.
As more wind and solar enter the grid, there is a critical need for more sustainable energy storage systems that provide for using renewable energy all of the time, not just part of the time. “Long-duration storage means you are not forcing people to make a choice between green and reliable,” Dresselhuys said.
ESS in particular has focused on three key areas to engineer its long-duration system. First, the ESS energy storage technology has a low-impact lifecycle based on abundant, nontoxic materials including iron and salt water. Second, the cost is lower than other energy storage technologies. That includes the purchase and installation price, the cost of running the system, and the costs of end-of-life disposal. Finally, it is practical from an operational standpoint, especially compared to geothermal and hydropower.
“Our solutions are practical to implement in many places: urban, rural, next to a big solar array, next to smaller rooftop solar arrays — they are very easy to deploy anywhere you go,” Dresselhuys explained.
Long-duration energy storage is ideal for dozens of use cases. Topping the list is the ability of long-duration storage to time-shift the solar energy on the grid, from daytime to nighttime. Long-duration storage could also be used to uptake excess wind energy at night when demand slows but wind speeds tend to optimize.
Another emerging grid use is to deploy energy storage to meet demand spikes in order to reduce or eliminate the need to build new gas peaker plants — and to retire older peaker plants, which are among the dirtiest generators on the grid. Similarly, long-duration storage could be deployed to relieve grid congestion, helping to avoid costs associated with new transmission lines.
Individual properties can use onsite long-duration storage to separate from the grid temporarily in case of emergency without losing power. Long-duration storage could even provide properties with full time off-grid operation when coupled with renewable energy sources while reducing costs and emissions from diesel backup generators.
Remote operations that lack a grid connection can also use long-duration storage to provide for reliable 24/7 electricity without investing in expensive new transmission lines. That includes residential communities as well as mines and other commercial operations.
Dresselhuys draws the comparison to cell phones, which have enabled remote communities that never had land lines to partake in modern communications. Long-duration storage could accomplish a similar feat by accelerating the electrification movement into new areas around the world, as well as transitioning developed areas out of fossil energy.
“Policymakers are beginning to understand the impact this can have. You want to electrify in the lowest cost, cleanest possible way,” Dresselhuys said.
The urgent need for action has become all too clear in Europe, where an ongoing natural gas supply crisis has sent costs skyrocketing, crippling household energy budgets and wreaking havoc among businesses and other users.
In the U.S., the fossil energy system is beginning to crack under the pressure of extreme weather events. Last February, for example, a winter storm knocked out unweatherized gas power plants in Texas for days, and policymakers have yet to remediate the gas infrastructure problem before the next storm strikes.
The need for change is all too clear, and the Biden administration is among those advocating for a focus on long-duration storage for rapid decarbonization.
The long-duration pathway received a seal of approval from the U.S. Department of Energy last September when the agency launched a long-duration storage initiative as part of its new “Energy Earthshots” clean tech acceleration program.
In addition, the Long Duration Energy Storage Council has been working to engage policymakers and leading investors. Last December, the organization received the endorsement of Bill Gates, who took to Twitter to note that “accelerating long-duration energy storage innovation can significantly reduce annual CO2 emissions and lay the foundation for a net-zero economy by 2050.”
In short: Long-duration energy storage technology is not in some far-off future. It is here and now, along with low-cost wind and solar power. Energy consumers, stakeholders and investors have the opportunity to steer the global economy into a more sustainable future, practically in the palm of their hands.
This article series is sponsored by ESS, Inc. and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: iStock via ESS, Inc.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.