An energy crunch is causing higher oil and gas prices. The war in Ukraine caused these prices to soar even higher. As a result, governments on both sides of the Atlantic are racing to build more wind and solar to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Enter energy storage. The UK government is planning to have installed 50 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030. The EU is eyeing 525 GW of solar power alone by 2030 under the new REPowerEU program. And in the United States, the Biden administration is dedicating billions to new capacity and grid upgrades to accommodate this capacity.
Wind and solar power have been touted as a cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. While the “cheaper renewables” argument has come under pressure from raw material price trends recently, wind and solar are still considered lower-emission alternatives to fossil fuels and what is perhaps a greater advantage, they can be built locally in pretty much any country.
No wonder then that the EU has picked wind and solar as two of its pillars of energy security, along with things like hydrogen and biomass. However, for all their advantages, wind and solar installations do not produce electricity around the clock, which makes them less than perfect.
This is where energy storage comes in. Once called the Holy Grail of renewable energy, energy storage is quickly turning into the Holy Grail of the energy transition. There have been ideas of building redundant wind and solar generation capacity to make up for the intermittency problem, but these ideas tend to come from non-energy experts and as such, deserve little attention. Storage, on the other hand, is something that all, including critics of the approach to the transition, agree is vital for its success.
Unfortunately, storage, on the scale that is necessary to make wind and solar viable as the dominant sources of electricity anywhere in the world, is as challenging as it is vital. In a recent article for Reuters, Angeli Mehta cited data from energy consultancy Aurora Energy Research that said the UK alone would need some 24 GW of storage if it was to have a decarbonized grid. But that won’t be just any battery array. This is 24 GW in long-duration storage that is needed.
Long-duration storage, as the name suggests, refers to storage that can, when necessary, supply power for a period longer than 45 minutes or an hour, which is what today’s battery storage facilities can manage. And one of these facilities is the world’s largest battery storage installation to date.
Currently, Mehta went on to note, the UK uses pumped hydro installations for long-duration storage. However, there are only four such facilities in the whole country, and the last of these was built in the 1980s. In other words, if the UK is to achieve its decarbonization goals, it needs a lot of new storage, and it needs it urgently.
This is where the problems begin. One way to achieve a fast buildup of energy storage is by putting up battery arrays everywhere it is possible. The challenge in that is that the cost-efficiency ratio of battery storage is changing in front of our very eyes as raw material prices skyrocket propelled by tight supply that is particularly notable in battery metals and minerals.
According to some sources, such as the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, cost is not a problem. In a recent report, the NREL said that strong demand for battery-powered cars and storage - but particularly cars- will lead to further technological advancements in batteries, which will reduce the cost of the batteries themselves.
In the sale report, the NREL expects an acceleration in the deployment of energy storage across the U.S., from 100 GW at the moment to 650 GW in 2050. The most common type of storage, according to the laboratory, would be the type that supplies power for between 4 and 6 hours.
The tech advancement argument has been put forward repeatedly in the context of battery cost reduction. Indeed, technological advancements are essential for bringing down the cost of one product or another. However, what appears to often get overlooked is the finite horizon of innovation in most technologies. What this means is that at some point, the space for innovation and improvement ends, and prices cannot be brought down any further.
More importantly, however, the raw material conundrum needs to be solved before all the energy transition pioneers in Europe, the UK, and the U.S. unleash a wave of energy storage. Even assuming that cost is not an issue, there is the very physical issue of the adequate supply of all the necessary materials for the massive batteries that would need to be built to address the intermittency problem of wind and solar. Addressing this issue will take years and add further to costs, ultimately affecting electricity bills.
Energy storage is indeed the Holy Grail of the energy transition. Finding the optimal approach to building this storage in a cost-efficient way that would not compromise the economics of renewable energy might just need its own crusade.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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