Battery costs to plunge but even now getting competitive with gas
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.
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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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