Batteries are just the beginning: Tech revolution pushes storage to the front lines
Kids keep pennies safe in piggy banks. Milk cartons and kumquats chill in the fridge. The library catalogs all my most favorite (and least favorite) books... We all know that when you have something of value and you want to save it for later, you’ll need to store it somewhere — and exactly where and how you store it is inevitably tied to what it is and how you’ll use it.
Energy storage is no different, and it’s already integral to our daily lives. But there’s a revolution in the works, as our needs for energy integration and storage continue to grow.
Everyone knows we store energy in things like batteries, water heaters, and gas tanks — clear enough, but that’s just the beginning. And since the technology and economics of energy storage impact nearly all human endeavors, it can be tricky getting a handle on factors such as space limitations, location, and the right kind of storage.
This summer, CEE sponsored an Energy Storage Summit, hosted by the Energy Transition Lab at the University of Minnesota. The summit pulled together over 200 researchers, utility staff, regulators, financiers, students, and enthusiasts to discuss energy storage from all angles and highlight the opportunities, possibilities, and challenges in making storage a fundamental part of future energy systems. Presentations outlined the vast scope of energy storage and its connection to current and future energy systems, including U of M’s own research into next-generation energy storage technology. Utility representatives discussed how they are currently integrating storage into their systems, as well as their thoughts on future integration. And other attendees shared insights from the regulatory, policy, and business perspectives. Bringing together diverse stakeholders in Minnesota’s energy future, the summit created a platform to launch future efforts to advance our energy systems through innovative energy storage.
Clearly, future solutions will depend on our goals: Taking a trip to the moon? It is a lot more difficult to launch your rocket when you have to carry an enormous tank of fuel to get there and back. Deploying an army of robots to take over planet earth? Sounds great until the fleet runs out of juice and succumbs to the human rebellion. Going off grid with photovoltaics solar panels? Perfect until the clouds roll in, the sun falls below the horizon, or you live in the shadow of your neighbor’s attic all winter.
Today’s reigning energy storage king is chemical storage, nearly exclusively composed of dead stuff our planet has pulverized into highly useful fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are an incredibly stable and highly useful form of energy storage, hence a very powerful status quo. Relatively dense, cheap, and accessible, fossil fuels enable many different technologies, heat our homes, and power our transportation system. However, we currently deplete this storage at 10,000 to 100,000 times the rate it has accumulated. And we have no ability to recharge it.
Electrochemical storage — aka “the battery” — has been growing in prominence and relevance, and is the focus of lots of current conversations on the future of energy storage. Extremely flexible, traditional batteries allow for an energy resource even more prized than our fossil fuels: electricity. Batteries can be harnessed to heat, cool, transport, and power our home’s electronics and appliances. Although cost and energy density limits are significant barriers for large-scale use, researchers and developers are working diligently to find solutions.
Modern conversations about energy storage tend to center on the battle between chemical storage (fossil fuels) and electrochemical storage (batteries) — an unhelpful distraction from more interesting and exciting opportunities for future storage that goes beyond simply saving stuff for later.
Rather than solely thinking of energy storage as a way to “time shift” energy demand from production (i.e., capturing and saving energy when it is cheapest to produce, for later use during peak demand times), researchers envision additional roles storage can play in our energy system. Potentially most exciting, energy storage enables the integration of fleeting solar and wind resources into the grid, perhaps eventually allowing them to function like today’s gas and coal powered plants. Additionally, the strategic use of storage could increase grid reliability and resilience during grid maintenance or emergencies, by simultaneously providing services that are currently the domain of specialized devices.
By considering alternative means and roles for energy storage, we stand to improve our relationships with power systems, utility companies, and entire communities. Despite myriad promising opportunities, however, gnarly questions remain about costs, timing, deployment, usage, control, and even the scale of potential benefits. And with the rapid development of both storage technology and renewable energy resources here in Minnesota, we are working on finding answers to these persistent questions.
The time is ripe for improving energy storage, and the possibilities are immense. As renewable energy technologies and markets grow and expand, it’s clear that better energy storage will be needed to enable our energy infrastructure’s continuing evolution.
But, as with any good research project in early stages of development, first we’ll need to ask the right questions and then we’ll need to answer them. If the level of interest at this summer’s Energy Storage Summit is any indication, questions and answers will keep coming fast and strong, and — as with most technology revolutions — very few of us will recognize just how radical the change was until it is complete.
Photo credit: UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences via CC