Renewable energy: don’t forget the batteries!

Switching to renewable energy is a no brainer despite what Trump might say. Sadly, however, a persistent problem of intermittency dogs solar and wind power. Of course the sun can’t always shine and the wind can’t always blow. At certain times of the day, too much or too little solar or wind power is produced, either overloading or under-supplying the grid. What’s more, it’s sods law because just as the sun goes down people get home from work, itching to switch on their various electrical appliances. So, there is an obvious mismatch between supply and demand. This is a problem that only batteries seem able to solve. Crucially, batteries enable us to store energy and provide power 24/7. With their help can we even out energy supplies and make solar and wind power viable alternatives to coal and gas. So, please, don’t forget the batteries!

 

Unfortunately for us, the history of the evolution of batteries trails far behind that of wind and solar power. These latter technologies followed a fairly standard diffusion of innovation curve; they started off expensive and exclusive, and then over the years have become increasingly cheap and popular, as production has scaled up. Between 2009 and 2015, the cost of solar panels fell by 61 percent and the cost of wind turbines by 14 percent.

 

Yet, battery technology has been stuck in the same rut since the 1970s in the form of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries can lose as much as 20 percent of their storage capacity after 1,000 charge-discharge cycles and can cost as much as $500/kWh. Clearly, they’re inefficient and expensive, so what’s hindering innovation?  Why the difference in progress?

 

Well, there are numerous rather basic and boring facts about batteries. Their chemical compositions are pretty hazardous, which makes for a particularly long, slow and costly production process. Safety standards and quality assurance are checked and then checked again in a bid to avoid scandals, like Samsung’s exploding phone batteries.

 

Incredibly, it can take over ten years to get batteries ready to be manufactured and scaled up, but most won’t even make it out the lab, falling into the so-called valley of death for innovation trap. If they do make it past here, their costs will only continue to mount. Battery manufacturer, A123 Systems, spent over $300 million on capital expenses alone, and due to an oversupply of manufacturing capacity ended up making a loss on every battery sold; the company eventually went bankrupt.

 

So, it’s a risky business and by no means instantly gratifying.  Unsurprisingly, governments want to play it safe and avoid tricky situations. They don’t want any embarrassing repeats of when the US Department of Energy guaranteed loans to battery companies, who later declared themselves bankrupt.

 

But, what of private investors? Surely the titans of the battery industry, like Panasonic and Samsung, can foot the bill, and have the incentives to do so. Yet, their infrastructures are already set up for lithium-ion batteries. This makes them more inclined to fiddle around the edges and improve things here than to innovate from scratch. Business-as-usual is less risky than entering into the new world of ‘next generation’ battery technologies.

 

So, we’re starting to see how three things – the slowness, riskiness and expensiveness of batteries – are hindering their technological developments. But, these factors ignore the crucial social and cultural factors that influence technological innovation. So far, we’ve been too zoomed in on the nitty-gritty details of the labs and the bureaucracies to notice the wider social currents at play.

 

At the end of the day, we’re all social beings, all of us influenced by the people around us and the general zeitgeist of the time. Really, it’s these factors that drive science and how we think about batteries, which in turn informs their slow developments.  

 

Today, green is the new black. Sustainability is in. People are genuinely concerned about the future health of our planet. And luckily for wind and solar power, they’re the technologies most associated to ‘green’. Sadly for batteries, they’ re perhaps the least. Batteries have been around for too long, and by comparison are too old, slow and uninteresting. They’ve not made any of the exciting developments like underwater wind turbines or solar panelled roads.

 

Everyday there are new articles on wind and solar technologies, raving about their ‘bright future’ and their potential to ‘save the planet’. Someone, somewhere, has cherry picked these positive articles. And they’ve done so because solar and wind technologies are in vogue. A certain kind of glamour surrounds them. They move in the fast lane, endorsed by celebs like Leonardo Dicaprio, who have cult followings on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

 

People like Elon Musk, the famous green entrepreneur of Tesla, have worked hard to make sure eco-friendly = cool. Amongst many other eco-designs, Musk has created a beautiful assortment of solar roof tiles, replacing the current clunky and ugly solar panels.

 

Where there is a buzz there is money, and wind and solar technologies are the pet favourites of governments and billionaires alike. By 2030, China hopes to generate 25 percent of its electricity from wind, while companies like Apple have already bought huge swathes of wind farms in China. Meanwhile, government subsidies are boosting investment via US utilities.  Clearly, the field is lucrative and people are interested. Silicon valley’s ears have pricked up, ensuring that wind and solar technologies are the beneficiaries of plenty of funding for innovation.

 

Whilst solar and wind make technological leaps, the batteries they rely on are left plodding on behind. Without the green buzz surrounding them, interest and funding are limited. They simply aren’t as glamorous or symbolic of ‘green’.

Green Wind Turbine & Solar Energy 

Green Wind Turbine & Solar Energy 

A Standard Lithium-ion Battery

A Standard Lithium-ion Battery

 

There aren’t even enough battery experts in Silicon Valley to suffice. No one wants to work on projects with such a boring status. Equally unappealing is the fact that investing time and money in batteries may only pay off twenty years down the line, if ever. So, people prefer to play it safe. Batteries are not their first point of call.

 

But all of this rather misses the point of science - surely we can see that? Science is about trying new things, taking risks, making mistakes and then refining discoveries; it’s a never-ending process and there are no guarantees. Throughout history, many of the most life changing scientific discoveries have come from ‘boring’ labs that no one paid any attention to, and from outsiders or nutty esoteric professors who were uninterested in money.

 

Ultimately, the history of batteries serves as a warning. We should be wary of getting carried away with the fads and fashions of societies. The green buzz surrounding wind and solar technologies detracts from the ‘boring’ batteries they rely on. Without one we cannot have the other. So, please, let’s not forget this connection and remember the batteries, else we risk our planet’s future!