Storage for Renewable Energy

Storage is a hot topic in the renewable energy space, and I have some thoughts I’d like to share about it. I was recently at the Eilat Renewable Energy conference and had a chance to hear about some great technologies.

First, it really is an important issue, but I think there is a lot of hype about it on a utility scale; obviously, we can’t do without it for smart phones and lots of other gadgets. We still are in a position of relatively low penetration of renewable energy into the grid’s energy mix. It’s lower than the statistics say because those statistics don’t include the impact of switching automobiles to electricity, which is a big wave coming up fast. So I believe the priority should be to create energy more than store it. As a personal example of this, a representative of an investment group in Europe came to visit me at our small wind turbine factory because the country is demanding a switch to electric cars but the grid doesn’t have enough energy to support it, so they are looking at small wind turbines as an answer.

So I was a troublemaker at the conference mentioned. The speakers were all talking about solar and batteries, solar and batteries. I asked why not coordinate the different modalities of renewable energy with the appropriate mix for a certain region’s resources and reduce the need for storage, which produces nothing. The moderator remarked, “I was worried someone would ask that question.”

In fact, since storing energy is an additional cost, one has to ask the question, which I never see anyone asking publicly, whether it is more cost effective to overbuild renewable capacity or to add storage. However, that question really is more for the future.

We have some very good storage technologies on a grid level in pumped storage. It’s efficient and clean, and doesn’t have the cycle limitations of batteries.

And here is something most people don’t realize: Hydroelectric dams can provide tremendous help to the grid by functioning as storage. One of the speakers at this past year’s National Hydro Association meeting described how his company coordinated the power output from a dam with a local utility that was experiencing a shortage of power.

I have reservations about some of the other storage choices.

If we use lithium for grid level storage, when will we run out of it for the smaller uses that we can’t do without?

It seems no one is talking about the toxicity of a lot of the chemical combinations that are being touted as more efficient storage. That should be a major concern.

I like some of the solutions being developed for hydrogen. There is a cautionary point here, too. Water is becoming more and more of a scarcity throughout the world. This is not going to work so well inland without compromising water supplies even more. I believe hydrogen will become a useful part of the energy mix in the right locations.

So let’s develop storage but prioritize getting more renewable energy on the grid.

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