EDITOR: | December 2nd, 2015 | 8 Comments

Battery costs to plunge but even now getting competitive with gas

| December 02, 2015 | 8 Comments

If they were doing a remake in 2016 of  the 1967 movie The Graduate, and particularly that wonderful scene near the beginning when the young character played by Dustin Hoffman has just finished college and is home among his parents’ friends. That is when the one word of advice (about a future career) given by Mr McQuire to young Benjamin would have to be changed. No longer would that word be “plastics” as it was in the 1967 script by Buck Henry.

Instead, the scriptwriter now would type:

Mr. McQuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McQuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McQuire: Batteries

But I wonder, with all the talk about climate change in Paris this week (and did 40,000 people really need to be there?), how often did the word “batteries” come up in the midst of all the posturing. Possibly a lot: but it is the commercial world that is actually driving battery development and will do more for cleaning up our planet’s quality than 40,000 people shooting the breeze. Because battery development, in the form of making cleaner energy more economically attractive, seems to be the key to any strategy on climate change – assuming, of course, that you accept the premise of the Paris conference.

(And just before I send any reader into a frenzy of name-calling about climate change denial, I accept there is climate change; but is it all or partly man-made? After all, take what was called “the little ice age” between 1645 and 1715. The Baltic Sea froze in winter – you could drive a sledge from Poland to Sweden – and European farms at higher altitudes could no longer grow wheat, while European fishing fleets were laid up as the cod disappeared south to warmer waters. But I don’t think there were too many coal-fired power stations around in those days, nor gas-guzzlers and their exhausts. And, while I’m at it, how many countries attending the Paris conference are seeing large-scale forest clearances and doing sweet nothing about it? After all, trees do the job of locking up carbon. But I digress.)

The Paris conference – the whole climate debate, it seems – is dominated by the aim of weaning the world off fossil fuels. As the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein reported this week, better batteries are the key to a cleaner future. “If batteries can get better, cheaper and store power more safely, then electric cars and solar- or wind-powered homes become viable – even on cloudy days or when the wind isn’t blowing,” he writes.

Suddenly, breakthroughs are dominating the battery business. For example, Carnegie Mellon University battery expert Jay Whiteacre won a $500,000 invention prize in September for his eco-friendly water-oriented battery.

The AP report quoted Tesla chief technical officer J.B. Straubel saying the world is at a tipping point where the current performance and lifetime of batteries roughly equal the efficiency levels of fossil fuels. “If you are able to double that, the prospects are huge,” he says.

And new projects are advancing. AP says one of the most promising is lithium oxygen batteries, which may be able to store five to 10 times the energy of an equivalent lithium-ion battery.

Meanwhile, the investment bank Lazard concurs with Straubel’s assessment, saying the energy storage business appears to be at an inflection point. The report reflects the view of energy storage manufacturers and customers that they expect to achieve significant price decreases over the next five to seven years. “Falling prices should in turn drive wider deployment, and spur further innovation that could greatly expand the use of energy storage systems, both on and off the power grid, including greater use of renewable energy,” said Lazard.

Already utility-scale solar photovoltaic technology has seen costs fall 25% in the space of one year. And even with the recent sharp declines in the market price of natural gas, utility-scale solar and wind power remain cost-competitive to traditional generation technologies, even without subsidies. However, Lazard found that rooftop solar PV technology was still not competitive without significant subsidies, but this could change.

The key here is, from reading what Lazard has to say, base-load power. At present coal and gas can be used in power stations 24 hours a day; that is the advantage of fossil fuels (and that of nuclear generation, too) over renewables. You need some form of base load capacity, without which you end up with brownouts.

So batteries can make a big difference, but the renewable “revolution” is a long way from won: in the first nine months of this year, China issued environmental permits to allow 155 new coal-fired plants to go into production. And that is just in nine months. yes, 155 new coal-fired power stations on the way.



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  • Tom

    So Robin, from a raw materials point of view … Do batteries now = graphite?

    December 2, 2015 - 5:12 AM

  • Ryan Johnson

    Anyone interested in a company that is producing better lithium material for energy storage should look at http://www.nanoone.ca.

    The company has a patented technology that combines elemental materials creating a more robust product faster and cheaper than conventional methods

    They are focussed on the newer complex lithium materials for batteries

    Management and technical staff with a track record of success. The battery and nano specialists have extensive success and industry experience with well over 50 combined patents issued

    Paul Matysek is the Chairman having built and sold three companies valued at over $2 billion dollars

    The technology is receiving patents and core patents were approved months ahead of schedule demonstrating a strong technology position

    The technology has been validated by the National Research Council inclusive of a research grant

    They are working with potential tier one partners such as Samsung, LG Chem, Panasonic and others as well as multiple tier two companies

    They are pursuing a licensing model and won’t need much money or suffer much dilution with an exceptionally low burn rate

    Their facility is located at NORAM Engineering’s R&D division and the NORAM engineering report on a large scale facility was recently released

    The NORAM report confirms the scalability and cost savings of a commercial facility and production

    December 2, 2015 - 9:14 AM

  • Tracy Weslosky

    visit anytime Ryan – but no “infomercials”.

    December 2, 2015 - 9:21 AM

  • Janet

    I wonder Mr. Bromby how `far away`do you think we are from batteries with a `base load capacity` to rival fossil fuels…

    December 2, 2015 - 1:22 PM

  • Robin Bromby

    Do batteries = graphite? A question that is almost impossible to answer given that who knows what technologies will exist 10 years hence.

    December 2, 2015 - 2:09 PM

  • Robin Bromby

    Again, this is not a question I am able to answer. Obviously the Chinese think it’s going to be a long time, given their decision to build a great many more coal-fired power stations.

    December 2, 2015 - 2:11 PM

  • Janet

    You make an interesting point Mr. Bromby re: the chinese decision to build more coal fired power stations. The technology is emerging but just not there and indeed if the chinese are not ‘on this’ who is? They have more reason than most to pursue this technology. Thanks for your insights, really enjoy your work.

    December 3, 2015 - 1:49 PM

  • Steve Mackowski

    I have an evolutionary theory to share.
    Wood was created to give us heat and to allow us to cook. More meat gave us bigger brains. Lets use this brain power to develop coal.
    Coal was created to replace wood as an energy source and to better spread the energy. More cooking of meat – even bigger brain power. Lets use this brain power to develop oil. And while we are at it lets appreciated the wood better and grow more forests.
    Oil was created to replace coal. Bigger brains etc. Lets develop nuclear. And while we are at it lets appreciate coal better and use it as an agricultural supplement to grow more food.
    Nuclear now provides the energy to run desalination plants so environmental flows can return to our water ways.
    No fossil fuels, more forests, more food, water in the rivers, problems solved.

    December 3, 2015 - 8:48 PM

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