[ My favorite quotes from this U.S. House of Representatives session:
THOMAS MASSIE, KENTUCKY. I want to say this has been a very enlightening hearing, and it confirms my personal experience, which is batteries are not sexy. Buckets of acid in your basement do not evoke envy from your neighbors [like solar panels]. But the reality is this is what’s holding our country back, this is what’s holding renewable energy back. In fact, this is holding nuclear energy back, this is holding coal-fired energy back. I mean all these peak issues, they apply to any energy source that we have. And so I think even though it’s not as sexy as some of the other topics, it is fundamentally very important to moving forward in our country is to have a better battery. The world needs a better battery.
Chairman LAMAR S. SMITH, TEXAS. In ideal circumstances, wind generates up to 18% of Texas’ power. But even with this significant capacity, Texas wind energy cannot produce power on demand. And when energy needs are the highest, wind makes up just 3% of Texas power generation.
Dr Jud Virden, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. But despite many advances, we still have fundamental gaps in our understanding of the basic processes that influence battery operation, performance, limitations, and failures.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”]
House 114-18. May 1, 2015. Innovations in battery storage for renewable energy. U.S. House of Representatives. 88 pages.
Chairman WEBER. Today, we will hear from government and industry witnesses on the state of large-scale battery storage, and recent technology breakthroughs achieved through research and development at the national labs and universities around the country. Although large-scale battery storage has been available for decades, there is still more work to be done. Fundamental research and development into the atomic and molecular structure of batteries is needed to better understand the operation, performance limitations, and the failures of battery technology.
Chairman LAMAR S. SMITH, TEXAS. My home State of Texas offers a ready example of the impact battery storage could have on harnessing renewable power. Texas is the top wind producing state in the country. The Lone Star State currently operates more than 12,000 megawatts of utility-scale wind capacity; about 1/5 of the total wind capacity in the United States. In ideal circumstances, wind generates up to 18% of Texas’ power. But even with this significant capacity, Texas wind energy cannot produce power on demand. And when energy needs are the highest, wind makes up just 3% of Texas power generation.
Dr Jud Virden, Associate Lab director for Energy & Environment Directorate, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
PNNL recently published the first Institute Scientific Investigation, looking at the atomic level changes in lithium ion batteries that enabled us to visualize why they short-out and fail. The expected lifetime of lithium ion battery systems today is generally believed to be 5 to 7 years, and grid storage batteries will need to last ideally 15 to 20 years. This groundbreaking work also confirmed a new approach that might dramatically extend the lifetime of lithium ion batteries. But despite all these advances, we still have fundamental gaps in our understanding of the basic processes that influence battery operation, performance, limitations, and failures.
Renewable energy creates many challenges for grid operations. Their generation profile does not match up exactly with demand, and their generation is intermittent. In the Pacific Northwest, we have five gigawatts of wind, and sometimes hundreds of megawatts or even gigawatts. Texas has the same problem with wind, and California with solar. Battery storage could solve these problems by smoothing out the intermittent generation, and storing energy off-peak to be used later when it was most needed.
Several of our PNNL studies have concluded that for battery storage to be viable, it must serve multiple grid applications, such as meeting energy demands minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, storing renewable energy at night for use the next day, as well as deferring transmission and distribution upgrades. Utilities would like battery storage to deliver both high power and lots of energy. This is like wanting a car that has the power of a Corvette, the fuel efficiency of a Chevy Malibu, and the price tag of a Chevy Spark. This is hard to do. No one battery delivers both high power and high energy, at least not very well or for very long.
While today’s batteries can address the higher value-added grid applications, the cost of batteries need to be reduced, the lifetime expanded, and the safety validated. We believe there are three key research and development challenges that need to be addressed to significantly improve existing advanced battery systems in the near term, along with the longer term development of the next generation, lower cost battery systems.
Continued support for basic and applied R&D is needed to discover new battery systems, and to better understand and predict why batteries don’t perform as expected, why performance degrades over time, or why they fail.
Mr. ALAN GRAYSON, FLORIDA. Intel spends $5 billion a year on research and development. There are several drug companies that actually match that or exceed it. Why don’t we see the same thing with regard to batteries? Batteries are over $100 billion a year in revenue, why don’t we see Eveready or Duracell or Rayovac doing the same kind of research?
Dr. WHITACRE. There was a very interesting report done by the DOE, perhaps almost ten years ago now, that assessed this, and one of the findings was that, early on, for lithium ion batteries specifically, that in North America the return on investment on this kind of technology is a very long investment window. Japan and other Asian nations were more willing to invest over that long period of time, compared to North America. I think it’s very difficult for North American industry to double- down on a very capital-intensive, very costly situation.
Mr. GIUDICE, CEO, Ambri. This is not unique to batteries. This is one of the energy challenges that the energy industry faces, especially the electricity industry, and it’s part of the nature of the industry structure. It’s a highly regulated industry, both federal and state. It’s not an industry that goes easily into change. When you have the 30-year lifelong assets that they’re dealing with, they’re not of the mindset of let’s keep reinventing ourselves every couple of years. And so I think that it really suggests why there’s such an important federal and other public policy roles to bring us to a better energy future.
The fundamental economics do not reward innovation at this stage, and consequently, the regulations are not such that they’re spurring change across the board. And it relates to smart metering, it relates to all kinds of aspects of the electric industry. It’s not just as it relates to storage.
Dr. VIRDEN. When you start wandering into the grid and the energy storage space, the fundamentals, it’s a high capital, high risk, long-term payback, and fragmented market, and it makes for uncertainty.
Dr. GYUK. Pumped hydro plants were built to cope with the hoped-for development of nuclear power, because nuclear power likes to put out flat electricity, and the pumped hydro was intended to follow the load and do the up-and- down [balancing]. Since nuclear power is not as big a component of our national energy budget as was intended, the impetus for doing pumped hydro is less.
It’s also very expensive to build a new pumped hydro plant.
When you take into account a long lifecycle, a pumped hydro could run for 20, 30 years easily. You amortize over that period and the cost—the lifecycle cost then becomes lower than most batteries. And that’s what we have to crack with battery research. The same is also true for compressed air energy storage, of which we have two very good examples in the world; one of them in Alabama in Huntsville, and the other one in Germany. That’s another bulk technology that amortizes over long periods of time, and will give us good output.
Chairman SMITH. Dr. Virden, you mentioned in your testimony that I heard that there are number of gaps in our knowledge about developing the next generation battery, and looking for the next breakthrough. Given those gaps, do you want to give us any kind of a timeline, any kind of a prediction as to when we might make those kinds of breakthroughs that will dramatically change the way we use alternative forms of energy?
Dr. VIRDEN. Maybe five or ten years out are all kinds of ideas of—you know, every battery has an anode and a cathode, just like your car battery, and an electrolyte in between. And you see all kinds of press releases about a new anode material that’s five times better than anything out there, and it probably is, but as Dr. Whitacre was saying, when you put that in with an electrolyte and a cathode, and put it together and then try to scale it, all kinds of things don’t work. Materials start to fall apart, the chemistry isn’t well known, there’s side reactions, and usually what that leads to is loss of performance, loss of safety. And we as fundamental scientists don’t understand those basic mechanisms.
You need that fundamental research that continues to move the state of knowledge along so companies can take that and utilize it, and the unique tools that the Department of Energy provides they can utilize.
Then you need companies to spin it out and move it along. And we do really undervalue the challenge of scale-up. In every materials process I see, in an experiment in a lab like this big, it works perfectly. Then when you want to make thousands of them—it doesn’t.
And as to why it’s so hard to move things out, there’s 3,000 utilities in this country, and they don’t have R&D budgets, and they don’t have venture capital budgets. Also, the fragmented market makes it very difficult for the ultimate end-user to do the R&D.
Chairman SMITH. You said 5 to 10 years, so I gather that’s what you’re thinking. Let me ask the other witnesses real quickly my last question. What do you think is going to be the next great breakthrough?
Dr. WHITACRE. It’s difficult for me to speculate on which vector the breakthrough should be in. There’s energy density, there’s power density, there’s cost, there is lifetime, there is sustainability. These are all different axes of innovation. And my sense of what is most important is cost and lifetime. I propose that there are tens of amazing bench-scale results already out there that could be breathtaking and super innovative, but getting them to the next level, getting into something that is repeatable, demonstrable, that is scalable, there’s a tremendous amount of fundamental and basic science in that process. And I often think that there’s a boundary drawn between basic science and applied science that is maybe technically a little false. There’s a tremendous amount of basic fundamental research in the process of making more than one tiny example of something, and how do we make that work. And energy technologies in general are about replicating and scaling, and this is one of the disconnects. It’s so easy to do one thing, … and my life’s work the past six years has been making it repeatable.
Dr. VIRDEN. I’m going to use the all-of-the-above response on this one. And I truly believe you have to have the basic research to provide the long-term foundation. There’s some really cool technology ideas out there, but if you don’t have the applied sciences, where most of the battery work starts to fall apart is when you take it out of the lab, put it in a real world battery system, and it’s that applied science that starts to troubleshoot and figure out why they’re not performing the way they should. The theoretical densities are always really high. When you make one, it drops way down. And then you can’t get the full feedback until you do demonstrations. And if you don’t have all those parts of the ecosystem, it’s hard to innovate rapidly.
Dr. GYUK. Couldn’t agree more. And that’s what our program has tried to do; take the applied ideas, drive them through developing the devices, and then get them out in the field and see how well it performs in the field in the real-life situation. And we need to have that entire chain from support of basic scientific research, through the scaling into prototypes and beyond, and the applications for the first early adaptors and demonstrations out in the field.
Mr. THOMAS MASSIE, KENTUCKY. I listened to your list of materials, Dr. Whitacre, and I was glad I didn’t hear unobtainium. This is a problem that we have when we try to scale things from the lab with mass production if you pick a material that’s hard to obtain or hard to find at those scales. And I think one thing we need to be careful of is that we don’t trade one set of moral encumbrances for another if we design materials into our batteries that aren’t available domestically, or only available in politically unstable regions.
Dr. GYUK. Yes. There are two charts that I keep in my mind when I think about new technologies. One is the chart of crustal abundances, which tells you how abundant the things are in general, and it also has a subsection on what materials are industrial materials. Vanadium is an industrial byproduct of the steel industry.
The other one is the chart of electric potentials. You need materials that give you a large voltage window. Can’t be too large if you’re dealing with water, otherwise you’re producing hydrogen and you may explode. But these two together define the limits of what we look into.
Mr. GRAYSON. The basic idea of a battery, the anode, the cathode, the electrolyte, that idea is roughly 200 years old, about as old as our country, and it is interesting when you consider all of the other technologies that have been developed in the meantime; the telephone, the computer, television and so on, that we’re still basically using the same model that was used 200 years ago. Is there any realistic prospect of moving beyond that model for energy storage?
Dr. WHITACRE. There are certain thermodynamic realties about storing electricity and materials, and those realities drive us to a sort of bipolar design where you have two separate material systems that retain different positive and negative charges when you apply a current to them. It’s hard to imagine a different paradigm using the materials as we understand them today to allow this. The anode and cathode are a natural reflection of thermodynamics, so if you’re talking about electrochemical storage, I don’t think so. This is the paradigm. The key is to enhance our understanding and to maximize performance, and explore new material systems and new electrode designs and so forth.
Dr. VIRDEN. I would agree with the previous witnesses’ comments, if you’re trying to store electrons directly, the battery storage is really the only way to go about it. And it has practical challenges which, over those 200 years, I don’t think we’ve been faced— we’ve had to face the real issues of batteries, but with transmission distribution constraints, renewables, we’re now having to face directly, you know, how do we store energy in a battery.
Dr. GYUK. I need to agree with what you have heard so far. If you’re doing electrochemistry, you have certain limitations on the system. Nonetheless, there are directions one can go in. I do not necessarily believe that lithium ion is the end all and be all, even for cars.
Mr. GRAYSON. Following up on my colleague’s question regarding distributed versus centralized storage, it seems to me that one of the key factors in that regard, whether you store electricity or energy centrally, or whether you store it household-by-household or business-by-business, is whether there are any significant economies with scale in the storage that would make up for the transmission losses that you would encounter when you distribute that energy from a centralized source. So please tell me, again, starting with Dr. Whitacre, whether you see any likely economies of scale in storage of energy that would offset the transmission losses. Just to be clear, do you see a future of big storage, big batteries, or a future of small storage, small batteries?
Dr. WHITACRE. I see an intermediate situation. There’s certainly not a single battery in the center of the country, and there’s certainly not a battery in each of our pockets. There’s an intermediate distribution of storage where there’s an optimal distribution. Maybe it’s at a neighborhood level or at a block level. There is some optimal economy of size and distribution. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s probably more than a residence, but smaller than an entire city.
Dr. VIRDEN. I think it’s going to be distributed at the substation level, several megawatts in a few megawatt hours. This is beyond frequency regulation where you have tens of megawatts. That’s the higher value-added market right now. I see the home market behind the meter as longer term, except in a few places like California and Hawaii.
That Tesla announcement, by the way, you’ll get a battery pack that’s $3,000, you still have to buy the inverter, so it’s $4,500, and that would give you about 7 kilowatt hours. That’s not going to take you off-grid. Our estimates to go off-grid in a home, you’re spending $15,000 to $20,000 or more, so it’s still expensive.
Dr. GYUK. We consider distributed storage to be on the distribution side, which means substation and maybe slightly above or slightly below, from 500 kilowatts to about 10 megawatts. These are the easiest applications. If we are going to go into residences, it’s not so much residences as small businesses, campuses, business parks, where it makes sense to be behind the meter. Individual residences are probably a market considerably in the future.
Mr. MARK TAKANO, CALIFORNIA. What about any kind of systems that might generate hydrogen or store hydrogen through electrolysis? I don’t know the science of it, but in combination with a fuel cell.
Dr. WHITACRE. While this is completely technically possible, and folks are still looking at doing it, one reality is the roundtrip energy efficiency of that kind of system is, at best, 60% maybe on the very best day. Most of the time it’s 50% or less. And it’s because the thermodynamics of converting water to hydrogen, and then converting it back to water and getting electrons, and storing electricity through that process, is inherently inefficient. That’s difficult to compete with the 80 or 90% roundtrip efficiency of batteries. And that’s a big, big deal when we talk about each electron is worth money.
Mr. THOMAS MASSIE, KENTUCKY. I want to say this has been a very enlightening hearing, and it confirms my personal experience, which is, batteries are not sexy, okay. Buckets of acid in your basement do not evoke envy from your neighbors, even though blue solar panels on your roof might. But the reality is this is what’s holding our country back, this is what’s holding renewable energy back. In fact, this is holding nuclear energy back, this is holding coal-fired energy back. I mean all these peak issues, they apply to any energy source that we have. And so I think even though it’s not as sexy as some of the other topics, it is fundamentally very important to moving forward in our country is to have a better battery. The world needs a better battery.