One of today’s most-attractive investment opportunities – large-scale energy storage – is more than just an exciting business story, it’s a technology play that can help scale up renewable energy use, with knock-on climate change mitigation benefits. The first companies to commercialize utility-scale energy storage stand to make a fortune and pioneer some of the most significant advancements to the North American power generation and distribution system in decades.
While we are not quite there yet, major technological breakthroughs could be on the horizon and some may just be emerging.
“Probably within the next 3 to 5 years this will really be taking off,” Chris Johnson, Chemist & Battery Materials Project Leader at the Argonne National Laboratory told Breaking Energy. “But this is very dependent on utilities buying into it,” he said.
Several technologies are competing on cost, battery life and safety, with lithium ion and vanadium redox flow showing promise. “Right now lithium ion is too expensive, with vanadium redox the energy efficiency is rather low but it has scalability,” said Johnson.
Canadian-based American Vanadium recently partnered with German firm GILDEMEISTER to market CellCube vanadium redox flow batteries in North America. “The CellCube is a commercially available energy storage system, with over 50 systems installed globally, that is capable of scaling to multi hour and multi megawatt size,” according to a release.
The technology works well with solar and can store up to 4 megawatts for 8 hours. “This is a real sweet spot – you have lithium ion that everyone has heard of, but if you want bulk storage for hours that’s not it,” Bill Radvak, American Vanadium President & CEO told Breaking Energy.
He said the system can save companies up to 40% of their energy costs by utilizing the CellCube during peak load periods. “Generally this is for larger industrial plants and communities that want to get off the grid.”
For example, an industrial plant could store energy generated from solar panels during the first half of the day, then power its operations with that stored energy, rather than drawing it from the grid during peak demand periods when electricity costs are highest.
“4MW is mildly big, we’d want to go a bit bigger, but there is a cost factor,” said Johnson. Some of the key energy storage performance indicators developed by the Department of Energy Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability include: Cost below $250 per kilowatt hour; round-trip energy efficiency of 75% to 90%; total capacity of 1 to 20 MW; a response time of 1 -2 seconds for peak shaving applications and a ten-year lifetime with 4,500 to 7,000 charging cycles per year.
While it appears vanadium redox flow technology ticks many of those boxes for utility-scale storage, other techniques are under development for transport applications. “I’ve been working on non-aqueous sodium ion battery storage for station energy power,” said Johnson, “the main attraction is this being cheaper and maybe longer life. We’re now still in development stage doing research on low-cost materials. It’s still a few years away, but we’re thinking sodium ion could have less cost fluctuation than lithium ion for transport.”
Johnson sees the real market breakthrough for mass energy storage coming when a utility embraces a technology and can demonstrate cost savings. “It’s still a bit of a horse and carriage situation, someone has to take the risk and be successful,” he said.