The Transition to Renewable Energy     Grid Energy Storage

Nanotech Plus has been working in the area of grid energy storage for over a decade.

We've looked at new generation technology, storage technology, and even done some work on transmission technology. With the rise in deployment of renewables, there is now increased interest in energy storage - but what is the correct storage technology for a particular application? Will new technologies being developed quickly overtake commercially available energy storage methods? Is the proposed technology really feasible - can it be manufactured at the projected costs? These are all questions that can bedevil people tasked with understanding the options in grid storage. We can help.

Grid energy storage requirements continue to ramp up quickly as wind and solar make up a higher share of generation. There are a number of potential technologies to deal with the issue of intermittency from these new energy sources including storage or greater interconnectedness of the grid. New pricing schemes which may alter consumer behavior can change needed generation capacity. Political demand to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also plays a role in determining what type of generation will be used. Determining which technological/economic solution makes sense for a particular region, now and in the future, is a challenging task. Nanotech Plus, LLC can help. We've worked in this area for more than a decade, since many nanoengineered materials were developed with the energy market in mind, while our alliance partners have worked with utilities as well.

Even though new transmission lines and demand based pricing may reduce peak generation needs, renewable energy sources do not fully match requirements. "Time-shifting" of the electricity generated by renewables requires storage. Consequently, there are a number of storage technologies that have been tried including: batteries, flywheels, supercapacitors, compressed air, and pumped hydro. Fuel cells have been shown to provide energy independently of the grid for some applications where power outages cause severe hardship. While current grid storage projects make use of existing lithium ion batteries due to the commercial availability of the technology, there may be less costly and safer energy storage alternatives that have been developed. Nanotech Plus, LLC can help you find these alternatives and help you determine if they would suit your needs, whether you are a manager faced with increasing demand requirements, an investor, or a developer of storage technologies.

Grid Scale Battery Energy Storage

Batteries are a critical component as the US complies with commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions for climate change, environmental justice, and health concerns. Unfortunately, we have failed to learn the lessons from fossil fuels where supposedly low cost goods leave the US vulnerable to inimical regimes, necessitating a large and continuing military presence in regions such as the Middle East. While the transition to an economy powered by renewables will reduce the impact of the Middle East on the global economy, China now dominates the supply of several critical components of a global economy powered by renewables including rare earth minerals, solar cells, and batteries. Of these three critical components, China’s only significant natural resource are certain rare earth elements as both solar cells and batteries can be manufactured using elements found globally.

The automotive market is the largest application for batteries globally and with dramatically increasing production of electric vehicles (EVs), very rapid growth will continue for the next few decades. The US is lagging both Europe and China as EV sales in 2021 more than doubled globally from 2020 (See: "Electric cars fend off supply challenges to more than double global sales") to 9% of all automobiles sold. EVs have made rapid progress in Europe, with more than one in three cars sold in economic powerhouse Germany, while China accounts for approximately half of all EVs sold globally (See: "China counts more than 3 million NEV sales in 2021"). In contrast, EV sales in the US made up only ~3% of the 15.1 million light vehicles sold in 2021 (See: "EV Sales Jumped 83% in U.S. in 2021, Tesla Still on Top").

Given the rapid acceptance of EVs globally, battery production must keep pace. Automotive applications are dominated by lithium ion battery chemistries which include: NMC (nickel manganese cobalt), NCA (Nickel Cobalt Aluminum) and LFP (lithium iron phosphate). China produces over half of these batteries, globally, while the US share is essentially restricted to the Tesla plant in Nevada which represents 8% of global production (See: "The National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, 2021-2030"). The DOE document, "The National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, 2021-2030" delves into the challenge of commercializing lithium battery production in the US. However, the document makes no mention of nanomaterials and does not cover the very high barriers to entry of US battery makers, even for chemistries other than lithium ion.

While lithium chemistries will be preferred for transportation applications, batteries for stationary applications such as grid energy storage benefit from different chemistries (See: "Battery Energy Storage in Stationary Applications"). Unfortunately, the current demand for batteries in grid energy storage applications is so large that other US based battery companies are struggling to gain a toehold as they cannot supply the volumes needed at prices competitive with Chinese manufacturers. Lithium ion battery manufacturers have driven down the costs of production based on demand from the automotive sector- no other battery chemistry with the exception of lead acid is produced on the same scale. Even chemistries for grid storage that are potentially less expensive than lithium ion, such as zinc/manganese oxide batteries or iron flow batteries, are having difficulties scaling up production due to lack of sizable orders, lack of capital, and lack of manufacturing know how. This is yet another example of a "chicken and egg" problem.

There are significant risks with the current market developments which use lithium ion batteries for grid energy storage including:
  • Foreign based manufacture
  • High flammability
  • Recycling challenges
  • Dependence on a few key metals.
Often overlooked in battery selection are the risks of flammability. Even though there have been some significant battery fires, including the fire in what would now be considered a modest storage installation in Surprise, Arizona (See: "Four Firefighters Injured In Lithium-Ion Battery Energy Storage System Explosion - Arizona"), lithium ion batteries now account for ~98% of battery installations in grid energy storage facilities (See: "The National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, 2021-2030"). Battery fires are extremely difficult to deal with, and often require letting an installation burn out entirely. These fires also generate large volumes of toxic smoke which could prove extremely harmful for individuals downwind of the plume. Hence, grid energy storage installations, especially those located near residential areas, should make use of alternative battery chemistries that "die with a whimper, not a bang."

In order for the US to gain a competitive advantage with China in the key industry of battery production, the US must leverage its superior R+D establishment and investment in nanotechnology. Nanomaterials are critical components to several battery chemistries and morphologies including electrodes for lithium ion, but also can be key ingredients in other chemistries such as zinc/manganese or other zinc chemistries. Note that zinc makes a great deal of sense as a basis for grid energy storage since the metal is inexpensive, widely available, non-toxic, and works with aqueous chemistries which reduces flammability risk. It’s just been a challenge making a rechargeable battery based on zinc, but new developments in nanotechnology have helped limit dendrite formation, one of the major stumbling blocks to rechargeable cells.

China has scaled up its production of nanomaterials, but nanomaterials often need to be tailored to a product - they are often very specific for a particular application. This requirement means that nanomaterials production for new battery types could be based in the US and would provide competition to Chinese materials.

The FERC Tie In:

In April 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) put out a request for public comment on a sweeping reform of the utility grid (See: "FERC issues NOPR to reform transmission planning and cost allocation process"). One of the major issues facing greater use of renewables is the economic challenge of the interconnection queue. The interconnection queue controls how either a producer of electricity (i.e. wind farm) or a storage battery would actually connect to the grid. Currently less than a quarter of submitted projects actually reach fruition, in part because the 3-year delay (See: "FERC Report - 2021 State of the Markets") imposed by the permitting process is too financially burdensome on smaller firms. The length and expense of this process heavily favors larger EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Contracting) firms who in turn have negotiated supply contracts with large battery manufacturers. An additional barrier to entry is the difficulty smaller firms have in dealing with Chinese companies, as battery suppliers are somewhat notorious in not delivering product that meets specifications. Currently both the EPC firms and the Chinese battery manufacturers have a system in place, which presents major hurdles for smaller US firms competing in this critical technology space. As long as existing lithium ion battery chemistries are acceptable for the grid energy storage application, it seems probable that Chinese firms will continue their market dominance. However, if additional regulations are passed that "level the playing field" and consider longer term goals such as independence from foreign suppliers of critical components as well as enhanced safety, reliability, and resiliency, then perhaps some US firms have a chance to enter this important market.

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