Technology is the main driver for change – i.e. optimization, which leads to finding promising technological solutions for pressing global challenges – and for increased productivity in the modern world. However, for mankind to continue along this trajectory, appropriate investment is often dependent on the public’s understanding and awareness of promising technologies’ potential, as well as their application. In order to put promising technological breakthroughs on the public’s radar the World Economic Forum publishes a list of Top 10 Emerging Technologies annually. Among the key trends in technological change identified in the latest World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies report are also technological breakthroughs relevant in the energy realm such as grid-scale electricity storage and nanowire lithium-ion batteries.
In general, modern electric power companies face the challenge to integrate intermittent renewable power sources such as the sun and wind into an existing power grid originally designed for base load fossil-fuel power sources and nuclear. Every time a vast supply of electricity is produced – during peak sun hours – and is met with comparatively little demand to consume this sudden spike in electricity supply, power suppliers not only face the problem of finding buyers for this excess electricity but, most importantly, this also elevates the risk of overwhelming a power grid designed on the traditional premise of predictable and flexible base load fossil-fuel power generation. So, any renewable energy integration into the traditional grid complicates supply and demand balances and constitutes transformation towards a more decentralized power generation system. Picture the spread out individual solar PV-based electricity “producers” – often called distributed generation – feeding their excess power into the grid while simultaneously relying on the grid during times of insufficient solar electricity generation.
The following chart illustrates the above situation; namely, that “Integration means Transformation”. This is one of the main findings in the IEA’s new report titled “The Power of Transformation – Wind, Sun and the Economics of Flexible Power Systems” published in February 2014.
Instead of viewing renewables as forced into the remaining system without adaptation, the entire electricity system should be perceived as being re-optimized. This is where promising grid-scale electricity storage technology comes into play.
The World Economic Forum describes the technology and its intellectual premise as follows:
“[The] development of grid-scale electricity storage options has long been a “holy grail” for clean energy systems. To date, only pumped storage hydropower can claim a significant role, but it is expensive, environmentally challenging and totally dependent on favourable geography. There are signs that a range of new technologies is getting closer to cracking this challenge. Some, such as flow batteries may, in the future, be able to store liquid chemical energy in large quantities analogous to the storage of coal and gas. Various solid battery options are also competing to store electricity in sufficiently energy-dense and cheaply available materials.
Newly invented graphene supercapacitors offer the possibility of extremely rapid charging and discharging over many tens of thousands of cycles. Other options use kinetic potential energy such as large flywheels or the underground storage of compressed air. A more novel option being explored at medium scale in Germany is CO2 methanation via hydrogen electrolysis, where surplus electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, with the hydrogen later being reacted with waste carbon dioxide to form methane for later combustion – if necessary, to generate electricity.“
Given the rate of new technological advancement in this field, the World Economic Forum expects a fundamental breakthrough in the near term stressing that “storage potential will have high economic value in the future.” Those who succeed at producing scalable and economically viable energy storage solutions have much to gain.