The coming Super-Battery revolution

The coming Super-Battery revolution

In May, Tesla Motors, the famous maker of electric cars, rolled out a new line of high-capacity, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, generating excitement in the world of energy storage. The Powerwall, designed for homes, is the size of a refrigerator door and delivers 7 or 10 kilowatts per-hour, whilst the Powerpack is intended to serve businesses, and is the size of a refrigerator, delivering 100 kWh.

The firm’s visionary CEO, Elon Musk, believes that users of the Tesla Energy’ line of batteries will be able to store power, pulled from the electric grid, or from wind or the sun, and use it to avoid peak demand charges. Those with sufficient solar or wind power could, in theory, even abandon the power grid.

The roll-out of Tesla’s new battery line underscores the impending arrival of “super-batteries” which overcome the cost and efficiency challenges that currently impede the broader application of batteries, including the growth of the electric car industry. Overcoming these barriers, which prevent batteries from being a true competitor to oil, gas, and coal could revolutionise the energy industry.

In his new book, ‘The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World’, author and journalist Steve Levine describes how cost effective, high- capacity batteries are, to some extent, key to the full actualisation of renewable energy. Power from solar arrays and wind farms windmills is, in general, only useful when demand for power occurs when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Oil, gas and coal need neither to unleash their energy. Super-batteries are, therefore, essential if renewable energy is to significantly displace its carbon-based competitors.

Even with Tesla’s advances, those breakthroughs have yet to be made. Critics point out that Tesla’s 10 kilowatt Powerwall battery costs $3,500, a price that does not cover installation and other necessary expensive equipment, such as an inverter and solar panels, or even wind turbines. That is a pricy proposition for average homes, even in the U.S., where the typical household uses 31 kilowatt hours per day.

[Tweet "The battery has not changed significantly, since its invention by Alessandro Volta in 1800"]The battery has not changed significantly, since its invention by Alessandro Volta in 1800. Its evolution has been snail-paced, when compared to data processing and other technologies. That pace has only picked up moderately, following the invention of the lithium-ion battery in the 1970s, and its commercialisation in the 1990s.

A battery revolution may not be imminent, but steady progress is being made in reducing both cost and the voltage fading that comes with repeated use. According to Levine, in 1995, a lithium-ion battery with a 1-kilowatt-hour capacity cost $3,000. Today, it costs $200. Since 2008, Tesla Motors, in co-operation with Panasonic, has cut the cost of their battery packs by 50%, and increased their storage capacity by 60%.

These improvements are making electric cars more cost effective, reliable, and thus, competitive, and they are facilitating the use of batteries for larger and more demanding operations. Japan plans to power its next generation of Soryu class submarines with arrays of lithium-ion batteries. Japan’s Tohoku Electric Power Company will put into operation this year, a 40 megawatt storage facility in Sendai, to store wind and solar energy. On the west coast of the United States, California Edison has initiated the construction of a pilot power storage facility near the city of Tehachipi, that will hold 32 megawatt hours of energy, generated by the region’s wind turbines.

[Tweet "Levine also points out that the gap between the cost of energy from batteries and from oil, gas and coal, may be still be wide"]  Levine also points out that the gap between the cost of energy from batteries and from oil, gas and coal, may be still be wide, but it is narrowing. In the realm of lithium-ion batteries used for large-scale storage by utilities, the cost per kilowatt hour is expected to drop from $500 to $230 by around 2020. At the latter price, batteries “would reach a tipping point, and make batteries compete with coal, oil and gas on the grid.”

Some investors are betting on a huge future for batteries. Seeing rising battery demand in the global automotive, housing, and utility industries, Tesla designed its new battery line to be scalable, and is building a $5 billion battery production plant, nicknamed the “Gigafactory”, near Reno, Nevada, in the United States. Levine and others predict that, if improvements in batteries can make their cost efficiency competitive to that of oil and gas, batteries could be regarded as a $300-400 billion industry by 2020.

Super-batteries have enormous potential. Price competitive, reliable electric cars would contribute significantly to the reduction of greenhouse gases, by eliminating automotive emissions. By leveraging the capacities of renewable energy, super-batteries would help reduce dependencies on imported oil and gas.

[Tweet "if lithium-ion batteries were scaled-up and used to store electricity for the grid, they could rival shale oi"]Levine asserts that “if lithium-ion batteries were scaled-up and used to store electricity for the grid, they could rival shale oil, in terms of their capacity to reshape the energy landscape…and they could eradicate some four million barrels of global oil demand a day”, as countries direct their energy consumption away from carbon fuels, and towards solar and wind power stored in batteries. That, he points out, amounts to 4.5% of today’s global oil consumption.

Some visionaries even see batteries replacing the combustion engine. That may be a long time coming, but the steady technological progress being made in battery power does lay the groundwork for a significant change, in the foreseeable future, in how we think and use energy. The super-battery revolution might come sooner than many think.

Ian Brzezinski is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council