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The Future of Energy: Will 'Cheap as Dirt' Batteries Transform the Grid?

Full Spectrum: Energy Analysis and Commentary with Jesse Jenkins

This article is part of the ‘Think Further’ series, sponsored by Fred Alger Management, Inc. For more ‘Think Further’ content and videos, visit thinkfurtheralger.com.

What if batteries were as cheap as dirt?

In a new video produced by investment advisors Alger, Donald Sadoway explains how truly cheap, scalable energy storage could change the way the electric grid has worked for the last 150 years.

The charismatic inventor and professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has become well-known for his lab’s path-breaking work on affordable, long-lasting, large-format liquid-metal batteries (see related TheEnergyCollective.com coverage: “New Formulation Leads to Improved Liquid Battery” and “Re-Inventing the Grid”).

Electricity is the one commodity for which bulk storage is currently impractical. This fact, coupled with the at-the-speed-of-light physics of electricity means that generators must meet electricity demand instantaneously by ramping up and down to respond to fluctuating loads. That’s no small feat of engineering, and the continent-scale power grids built since the days of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse probably constitute the largest, synchronized machines ever built by humankind. 

Map of electric power grids in the United States and Canada

Electric power grids span continents, constituting some of the largest, synchronized machines ever built. Above, the three interconnected grids that power most of North America.
Image source: KRT News Graphics

But what if we could really make batteries “as cheap as dirt” as Sadoway envisions?

In that kind of future, we would finally have a practical buffer between electricity supply and demand, and excess production could be stored for when it’s needed most. Used in this manner, batteries offer a fine complement to nuclear power stations, enabling reactors to run at full output 24-7, saving nighttime production to meet midday peaks in demand (see: “Can Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy Learn to Get Along?”).

Cheap, scalable batteries could also help integrate renewable energy sources like wind and solar into the grid, smoothing the fluctuations in these variable energy sources (see: “Hawaii Wants 200MW of Energy Storage for Solar, Wind Grid Challenges”). 

Finally, batteries distributed throughout the power grid may support the emergence of microgrids: localized networks of distributed generators, smart electricity loads, and energy storage devices that generate (and store) power close to where it’s needed and can island themselves from the rest of the grid to enhance resiliency and reliability (see: “Should Electricity Distribution Utilities Build, Own, and Operate Microgrids For Their Customers?” and “California Ready to Fund the Next Wave of Microgrids Paired With Renewables and Storage”).

By 2064 then, cheap batteries could enable a much more distributed grid than we have today.

Today’s grid was built as a top-down, hierarchical system designed exclusively to deliver power from big central station power plants to end-users.

Fifty years from now, rooftop solar panels, stationary fuels cells, distributed batteries, electric vehicles, and other distributed energy resources networked into microgrids could reshape the way the grid works, enabling two-way power flows and a more peer-to-peer network structure.

At the same time, in my view, the grid of the future is unlikely to be entirely decentralized.

If we want to combat climate change, the grid of 2064 will need to be almost entirely carbon free. And that means the grid of the future will need to accommodate a mix of both new, decentralized energy resources and old-fashioned, central-station power plants. Here’s why…

Rooftop solar is the only really scalable, zero-carbon distributed resource, and rooftop solar alone won’t power our low-carbon future. Indeed, some of the best solar resources are concentrated out in deserts (see map below), where large-scale solar parks make the most sense. 

Solar PV resource map for the United StatesThe best solar resources in the United States are concentrated in the desert southwest where large-scale, central-station solar farms make economic sense. 
Image source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Likewise, America possesses an enormous wind energy resource (see map below). But tapping that resource generally requires large wind farms located far from cities, or even offshore. High-voltage power lines will still be needed to ship power from these remote wind farms to demand centers.

Wind energy resource map for the United StatesWind energy resource potential is highest in the Great Plains and offshore. These resources are tapped by large, central-station wind farms and transmitted to population centers by high-voltage, long-distance power lines. 
Image source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Finally, nuclear energy and hydropower are today’s largest sources of zero-carbon energy by far. We can be all but certain these centralized power stations will also have a critical role to play a role in our zero-carbon future. 

So will cheap batteries change everything? Yes and no.

Sadoway is right that inventing an affordable battery — and brining it to market — would revolutionize the way the grid works. Affordable, scalable electricity storage could be the biggest change in power systems since the introduction of alternating current.

Yet if climate change is a top concern, it’s probably not time to ditch that old-fashioned transmission grid just yet… 

Check out the full video on Energy in 2064 with Professor Donald Sadoway…

Conversation starters:

  • What do you think the power grid of 2064 will look like?
  • Are we inevitably moving towards a more decentralized power system? If so, how much more decentralized?
  • Is energy storage essential for the modern grid?
  • How can decentralized energy sources contribute to the transition to a zero-carbon power system by 2064?

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