Thursday, May 19, 2022

Potential Energy*

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Sustainability

Ed Hessler 

The other side of a renewable energy future is renewable storage to smooth out the bumps and ruts when the wind dies down or when it is cloudy/rainy (for days) and when international supplies to needed raw materials are interrupted or when the social and environmental costs of raw materials for lithium (Li-ion) batteries (cobalt) are taken into account. 

Energy storage is a looming hurdle. Acording to Matthew Hutson who notes in an article on energy storage technologies for The New Yorker (April 25 & May 2, 2022) where he is a contributing writer, that "by one estimate, we'll require at least a hundred times more storage by 2040 if we want to shift largely to renewables and avoid climate catastrophe."

Hutson refers to two of those interrupts (solar and wind) as the "'dark doldrums'" noted the largest energy storage capacity in the world (90%) is found in reservoirs -  known as pumped-storage hydropower. A more diversified portfolio is needed and he discusses the start-ups, driven by non-risk averse entrepreneurs who are on the hunt "for new approaches to energy storage."

I don't recall much press attention when then "President Donald Trump signed into law the Energy Act of 2020, which included the bipartisan (imagine) Better Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Act, authorizing a billion dollars to be spent over five years on the 'research, development, and demonstration' of new energy storage technology." Hutson also mentions policies that have followed, e.g.,  states setting energy storage-capacity targets and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) order "which integrates stored energy into the wholesale electricity market."

And then Hutson reminds us of a "vast distance separates an engineer's whiteboard from reality. Many renewable-storage technologies receiving funding will turn out to be too impractical, expensive, or inefficient for widespread adoption." Storing energy is expensive no matter how you come at it. 

It has been pointed out by many that fossil fuels meet requirements we like. They are "predictable, convenient, and dense packing  lots of power into small space" and readily scale-up.This is the challenge for those seeking energy storage capacity solutions.

Politics will no doubt play a role and "may become a partisan issue if it begins clearly helping renewable energy to threaten fossil fuels."  There will be those who benefit and those who lose, "even if as a society---and a planet---we come out ahead." In closing, Hutson observes that "Nature can help us generate power. Maybe it can help us hold on to it, too."

The article is on line here. I hope you will read it. I found it thorough, often surprising and that it is "possible to envision a future in which some of the technology works out, and the globe is reshaped by a combination of renewable energy and renewable storage." Hutson provides a thumb-nail sketch of what such a world might look like. It is an ideal of course.

*h/t The title which I admired is from print edition of The New Yorker article (April 25 & May 2, 2022) by Matthew Hutson. Thanks!

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