An Introduction to the State of Energy Storage in the U.S.

Yves here. This piece on batteries and other energy storage approaches covers quite a lot of ground in a relatively short space. Notice in particular its discussion of projected growth in demand….which only reinforces my view that what we need most is radical conservation, but that is highly unlikely until it is forced upon us when we need to have gotten serious about it already. It’s discouraging to see this article discuss the need for enormous new infrastructure to accommodate the energy demands of electrical cars, yet not acknowledge the carbon cost of that.

By Philip Warburg  an environmental lawyer and former president of the Conservation Law Foundation, who is the author of Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability. On twitter: @pwarburg.. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

As calls mount for an electricity future substantially reliant on renewable energy, how can we cope with the variability of solar and wind power? Households, businesses, and industries all want to access power in a timely way – not just when the sun is shining or the wind blowing.

Demand-response measures can modulate electricity consumption for uses as small as household appliances and as large as commercial heating and cooling. Time-of-use electric rates can provide a financial incentive for utility customers to shift key uses to non-peak hours. In addition, utilities can offer discounts to customers who grant them a degree of remote control over the operation of power-consuming functions such as air conditioning, electric vehicle charging, and commercial refrigeration.

Smartly timed use of electricity can play an important role in stabilizing a grid reliant on renewable energy, but a robust investment in energy storage will also be essential. Solar power today accounts for a modest 2.3% of U.S. electricity; wind provides about 6.5%. Making the leap from these modest numbers to a mid-21st century America powered primarily by renewable electricity will require development of safe and affordable ways to store vast amounts of power.

A Brief Overview of Energy Storage

Energy storage has been used for decades to accommodate fluctuations in electricity demand that baseload power plants – particularly those running on coal and nuclear – cannot ramp up quickly enough to address. Pumped storage is one technology that meets this need, taking water from a lower-elevation reservoir or a flowing water source and pumping it to an upper basin where it becomes a source of supplemental hydropower. Pumped storage plants total 22.9 gigawatts in capacity nationwide – more than any other energy storage resource. Yet most of these plants were built between 1960 and 1990, and no new ones are under development. Siting challenges are among the obstacles they face.

At Castaic Lake, in Los Angeles County, 30-foot-diameter pipes (mostly buried) carry water 7.2 miles uphill to a pumped storage reservoir. The 1.5-gigawatt plant generates enough electricity to power 83,000 homesduring peak-demand hours. (Photo credit: Philip Warburg)

Far less commonly used are utility-scale flywheel systems, only three of which now operate in the U.S. Flywheels convert electricity to stored kinetic energy that can be released within milliseconds to ensure stable voltage on the grid. They cannot, however, deliver a sustained stream of energy over longer periods – multiple minutes, hours, or days. That constraint, along with the bankruptcy of one industry leader, has slowed flywheel deployment, currently yielding just a few tens of megawatts of storage capacity.

Pumping compressed air into underground cavities is another storage technology that has drawn some attention, but only one such facility has been built in the U.S. Molten salt is used as a storage medium for heat captured by sun-tracking mirrors at a small number of concentrating solar power plants in the Southwest. However, both of these storage technologies face high operating costs and technical hurdles that have dimmed their prospects for broader introduction.

Molten salt storage tanks at the Abengoa Solana power plant in Gila Bend, AZ. Parabolic trough solar collectors are visible, upper left. (Photo credit: Philip Warburg)

The Rise of Electrochemical Batteries

To meet the storage needs of a renewable energy-reliant grid, nothing compares with the versatility and scalability of electrochemical battery storage. Batteries can play a critical role in maintaining consistent voltage on the grid – a function called frequency regulation. They can also store energy over multiple hours, accommodating the variable flow of electricity from wind farms and solar plants.

Several other battery storage technologies are emerging, but lithium ion leads the field. The high-energy density (storage capacity per volume) of lithium ion batteries makes them a great match for portable electronics, which is why they are widely used for mobile phones, laptops, and electric vehicles. Though developed for these smaller applications, lithium ion accounts for more than 80% of utility-scale battery storage.

Lithium ion batteries may be widely used, but they have some serious drawbacks. Operating them in high temperatures severely reduces their battery cycle life, so temperature controls are relied on to keep them cool. Those controls, in turn, create a “parasitic” drain on electricity that diminishes their overall efficiency. The flammability of lithium ion electrolytes is an even more serious concern. In addition to much-publicized Tesla vehicle and Samsung smartphone battery fires, a number of utility-scale battery installations have burst into flames, most recently at Arizona Public Service’s McKicken storage facility in April 2019.

Researchers are looking at materials and designs that may be safer, cost less, have a longer battery life, and perform better in hot climates than existing lithium ion batteries. Among the possibilities are lithium-metal, lithium-sulfur, solid-state batteries incorporating ceramics or solid polymers, and “flow batteries” with external tanks that allow for easy expansion of storage capacity. The timeframe for bringing these alternative technologies to full commercialization is uncertain.

Lower Prices, Higher Demand

Despite the shortcomings of current technology, the growth of U.S. battery storagehas been remarkable. From just a few megawatts a decade ago, utility-scale battery installations reached 866 megawatts of power capacity by February 2019, and total battery storage is expected to approach 4.5 gigawatts of cumulative capacity by 2024 – a significant leap, but still just a fraction of a percent of overall U.S. generating capacity.

To keep pace with the anticipated growth in U.S. renewable energy reliance, a much deeper investment in storage will be needed. As a rule of thumb, the Rocky Mountain Institute calls for longer-duration, inter-day storage equaling 3 to 7% of renewable energy-based electricity production. This capacity will be needed, according to the institute, to safeguard grid stability in the face of the “forecast and demand uncertainty” that will accompany higher levels of solar and wind energy integration.

As notable as battery storage’s growth rate is its steeply declining price. Between 2010 and 2018, the average price of a lithium ion battery pack dropped from $1,160 per kilowatt-hour to $176 per kilowatt-hour – an 85% reduction in just eight years. Within the next few years, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts a further drop in price to $94 per kilowatt-hour in 2024 and $62 per kilowatt-hour in 2030.

The dramatic decline in battery prices has made it economical for solar plants to be paired with storage, particularly in states where high electricity rates coincide with policies that call for major infusions of renewable energy. In Hawaii, where fossil fuels from distant sources have driven up the cost of power, a solar-plus-storage plant on the island of Kauai is expected to save 2.8 million gallons of diesel oil annually while supplying 65% of the island’s peak nighttime electric load. It is part of a cohort of new and planned solar-plus-storage facilities that will help Hawaii meet a regulatory mandate requiring 70% renewable energy-based electricity by 2030 and 100% renewable electricity by 2045.

In California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has also committed to making battery storage an integral part of its infrastructure. In September 2019, it approved a power purchase agreement that will provide 400 megawatts of solar power and 1,200 megawatt-hours of battery-stored energy for an astonishingly low price of 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it a cheaper source of electricity than natural gas. Along with the advantage of favorable economics, this deal was driven by the city’s commitment to deliver customers 100% renewable electricity by 2045.

Battery Storage and Microgrids

Along with their utility-scale functions, batteries are emerging as key elements in microgrids – small-scale power systems that can supplement or substitute for grid-supplied electricity. The recent spate of hurricanes and wildfires knocking out grid-supplied electricity has caused civic leaders and contingency planners to focus on ways to ensure basic power to schools, community shelters, healthcare facilities, and public safety providers. Military planners are also looking at microgrids as safeguards against the growing specter of cyber-attacks.

Creating “energy islands” by pairing battery storage with solar arrays can create a degree of local energy autonomy if grid power is lost. In the aftermath of the fall 2017 Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has mapped out plans for a network of eight microgrids reliant on solar plus storage that could function independently of the island-wide grid during outages caused by major storms.

Energy analyst Richard Stuebi calls this integration of microgrids into a broader utility framework a “‘grid of grids’ architecture” – valuable in responding to cyber-threats as well as extreme weather events.

Sobering Prospects for Growth

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has modeled the electricity needed to meet total U.S. demand by 2050. Its lower-end “reference” scenario presumes low adoption of electric vehicles (accounting for just 8.3% of total vehicle miles traveled) and a gradual shift toward electric-powered buildings. These and other factors, including population growth, would boost mid-century electricity consumption by 25%.

NREL’s high-end scenario projects much fuller penetration of electric vehicles (more than 80% reliance on electric cars and light-duty trucks plus substantial electrification of heavier-duty vehicles), widespread electrification of buildings, and a shift to electricity by major industries. If these conditions prevail, the U.S. will annually consume at least 6,500 terawatt-hours of electricity – a 62.5% increase from 2016 levels.

Keeping pace with this enormous growth in electricity demand while transitioning to renewable energy will demand a huge investment in new infrastructure. As the U.S. builds new solar arrays, wind farms, and battery storage facilities, the strains of skyrocketing demand for difficult-to-extract minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earths will increase. Concerns are mounting about worker exploitation and environmental harms in countries where mining and manufacturing activities are poorly regulated.

The successful rollout of energy storage will demand vigorous research into battery technologies that can deliver reliability and durability while minimizing the need for scarce resources. Regulation of environmental impacts and workforce protections will be essential. It will also be critical to look beyond existing battery technology to innovative forms of non-battery storage that may ultimately be cheaper and less harmful to the environment.

A sampling of services provided by battery storage
Battery storage offers a variety of services that can reshape utility infrastructure and ease the way toward greater renewable energy reliance. For instance …

Frequency regulation: Ensuring a constant voltage very close to 60 Hertz is essential to grid stability – a challenge that will become harder as wind and solar power’s contribution to the power supply grows. It’s no surprise that 88% of utility-scale U.S. battery storage is already dedicated to ensuring this stability.

Shifting energy to match daily peaks:Solar after Sunset,” an initiative of Arizona’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, will rely on 850 megawatts of new battery storage to ensure that solar-generated power will be available during hours of peak electricity demand, from the late afternoon to early evening.

Accelerated closure of coal and gas plants: In the Mountain West, the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan of utility giant PacifiCorp calls for the retirement of 16 coal-fired units by 2030, substituting large-scale battery storage along with multiple gigawatts of new solar and wind power. In Florida, the 409-megawatt Manatee Energy Storage Center will be paired with solar power to allow Florida Power & Light to close two of its older, under-utilized natural gas plants.

Deferral of new transmission: In Massachusetts, battery storage will supply at least 10 hours of back-up electricity to three Outer Cape Cod communities often hit with power outages. This project will make it possible to suspend plans for a new transmission line that would have run along 13 miles of Cape Cod National Seashore.

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    1. Grumpy Engineer

      393 MW is rather small. I live near the Bath County pumped storage facility, which clocks in at 3000 MW.

      And as for pumped hydro “getting us there” (in terms of running our grid on 100% renewable energy), we’d need to deploy something like 500 Bath County stations per year for the next 10 years. I don’t think people understand the true scale of what’s required here.

      1. Synoia

        In addition to the number of sites, I believe the actual number of good sights is limited.

        I have read of criticisms of the environmental scars produced by pumped storage.

        There is no single solution.

        I purport that insulating buildings to use less energy needs to be one solution of many.

        As does local production and policies to limit transportation and travel.

        1. xkeyscored

          We just got some massive news in the ongoing drive to switch to renewable energy: scientists have identified 530,000 sites worldwide suitable for pumped-hydro energy storage, capable of storing more than enough energy to power the entire planet. …
          As of now the sites have only been identified by an algorithm, so further on-the-ground research needs to be done. But it was previously assumed there were only limited suitable sites around the world, and that we wouldn’t be able to store enough renewable energy for high-demand times – which this study shows isn’t the case at all.
          Added together, these hundreds of thousands of sites have the potential to store around 22 million Gigawatt-hours (GWh) of energy. It’s more than enough to get the entire planet running on renewables, which is where we want to get to.

          1. Grumpy Engineer

            That’s not news. Pumped storage hydro has always been a possibility if you’re willing to move enough dirt and to pour enough concrete. And therein lies the rub. To convert each of these 530000 potential sites into a pumped storage storage station, you’ll have to move some amount of dirt and pour some amount of concrete. And it’s usually a LOT.

            And that construction effort isn’t free. Not of dollars, not of people’s time, and not of CO2 emissions. How much earth-moving equipment must be purchased? How much staff will be required to run it? How much fuel must be fed into the equipment (with associated CO2 emissions)? How much cement must be refined (with associated CO2 emissions)?

            So for each of these sites, somebody needs to determine these numbers. And if we discover that the total effort to support a 100% renewable grid in the US with pumped hydro would cost $200 trillion, require 100 million workers, consume 300% of our domestic fuel supplies, and release 50 billion tons of CO2, then it’s not a solution at all.

            1. Synoia

              It also needs much (probably potable, or easy to filter) water.

              Which is certainly not available in many places, such as SoCal.

              1. PlutoniumKun

                You can use salt water, there was at least one coastal pump storage stations in Japan. The Rance tidal barrage in France also operates as partial pump storage.

            2. PlutoniumKun

              It all depends on the site. Many existing dams are suitable for conversation to pumped storage with fairly minimal physical works – the Blessington Reservoir in Ireland dates from the 1930’s and partially operates as a pump storage facility using a small existing secondary dam downstream. Similarly, tidal barrages such as the existing one at Rance in France can have an element of pump storage in the operation – it essentially comes down to having two way pumps instead of one-way turbines and if necessary a small secondary impoundment downstream.

              Anyway, the big advantage of pump storage over nearly any other option is simply that they are simple. Like many hydroelectric schemes they should be able to operate for many decades with minimal maintenance or inputs. The first wave of pump storage stations built 40 years or so ago are still working perfectly well with minimal inputs and there is no reason to think they won’t be working for another 40 or so years. So the initial environmental impact of construction will be far less when annualised in a fair way.

              1. Grumpy Engineer

                Oh, please don’t get me wrong. I like pumped storage. I’ve visited the Bath County facility, and it’s impressive. 22 GWh of storage. Still running strong after 34 years. When I see people get all excited about a 120 MWh lithium-ion station, it’s all I can do to keep from banging my head into the desk.

                But my concerns still remain. How much storage do we need? If Mark Jacobson is right, we need 541.6 TWh for the US alone. That’s nearly 25000 Bath County stations. How much equipment do we need to build all of them in 12 years? How many people? How much fuel? How much cement? Has anybody even analyzed this?

                Bath County was built for $206/kWh (in 2019 dollars). If new facilities have similar costs, that 541.6 TWh would cost $111 trillion. That implies the need to purchase a great deal of equipment, fuel, and cement, as well as hire a great many people. Likely more than can be bought or hired, in all of those regards.

                And annualizing the CO2 emissions released during construction isn’t a panacea. If we release 3 years worth of total 2019 US emissions and then annualize over 80 years, then yes, we succeed. But if we release 300 years worth during construction, then we’re screwed. And again, I ask… Has anybody even analyzed this?

            3. Douglas Godfrey

              Making Concrete using concentrated Solar Energy.

              Locate a south facing mountain slope which is as steep as the latitude of the mountain’s location i.e. 45 degrees at 45 degrees north. Construct a north-south parabolic trough reflector 100 meters wide and 2.5 kilometers long. The trough can tilt east and west by 60 degrees. At the focus of the parabola is a 2 meter diameter steel tube that rotates on it’s long axis.

              This makes a solar powered Dragon Furnace. The sunlight is concentrated by a factor of 50 and focused on the rotating furnace.

              Raw materials are added at the top and cement clinker is removed at the bottom.

              ALL of the CO2 used for process heat needed for making cement is eliminated.

          2. buermann

            Thanks I hadn’t seen that report. And where pumped hydro doesn’t make geological sense just lifting scrap up and setting it back down can store energy without leakage for months at a time using well established tech and infrastructure with a far longer lifetime than batteries that wear out and need to be recycled every 500-1000 cycles.

            Gravity storage would be cheap, efficient, and more or less infinitely expandable using common ubiquitous tech on otherwise worthless land. I really don’t know why the industry and policy makers are so fixated on batteries. Maybe shoving an old rail car up a hill or lifting a block with a crane is just unsexy.


          3. Duck1

            Yes, let’s wreck another half million places while wrecking other places finding the energy and resources in order to go ahead with wrecking the half million pumped storage sites. Also assume the solar cells and wind generators self replicate without carbon fueled industrial civilization in the background. But yes, jawbs and groaf for sure.

            1. buermann

              Those open pits mines are already wrecked.

              And sure a man made lake destroys a valley but you get a multi-use lake in exchange, the recreation area at Bath County Pumped Storage Station is a natural paradise compared to any conceivable alternative solution.

              We don’t have to make assumptions about the EROEI of solar or wind, which are astronomically more self-replicating than, say, tar sands.

              But yes, cull the herd by a few billion humans, that’s an easy sell.

  1. PlutoniumKun

    That’s a pretty good overview – especially as it focuses on the different type of storage needed for different purposes (especially frequency modulation), although being US based it overlooks the reality that energy storage is much more advanced in other countries, especially island nations where small isolated grids have required far more of a focus on storage and load balancing than in the US or other large continental nations.

    Flywheel technology, for example, is very widely used in small grids and should qualify as a ‘mature’ technology. Its not used much in the US because it simply hasn’t been necessary up to now. And the primary reason why investment in pumped storage stalled from the 1990’s onward was not a lack of suitable sites – the key reason is that the expansion of natural gas as a fuel has meant that building up gas fueled CCGT capacity proved cheaper in the short term. Hybrid type hydroelectric schemes which build in an element of storage are actually very common worldwide, but tend not to be counted when measuring storage capacity.

    I suspect that in the long term lithium batteries will not be used for storage – I think this is driven now by the economies of scale in lithium manufacture which has made them cheaper than other types that are more logical for grid scale storage – vanadium flow batteries, as an example. It has now become pretty much standard in Europe that renewable schemes incorporate batteries, simply because its more profitable for the operators to turn part of their energy output into higher value ‘on demand’ levels – it also reduces grid costs (it means that solar arrays and wind farms can be built with a nominal capacity greater than the local grid capacity – the ‘surplus’ being stored). The cost advantages for this can be very significant as localised grid capacity is often the biggest constraint on construction large scale renewable schemes in suitable areas.

    As Yves says, driving down demand is absolutely essential, but not just because of the difficulties of ramping up renewables (or nuclear for that matter) – building grid capacity is very expensive and a grid based on renewables looks very different from one based on large scale thermal plants. Reducing demand allows for existing grids to be used more efficiently and significantly reduces long term costs and allows for a necessary focus on denser, more resilient localised grids.

    An underrated form of storage is various forms of domestic storage. In countries with smaller grids, nighttime water heating and the use electric storage heaters is the norm – these are vital for balancing out day/night supply/demand imbalances. In the future, no doubt the batteries in cars can be used as backup storage if and when we get ‘smarter’ (sorry to use that term) grids. Another method of balancing demand/supply variations are variable cost contracts with large scale industrial users. On a simple basis, this means incentivising them to shut down plant during peak demand periods, and using more energy during dips.

    1. ex-PFC Chuck

      The potential for flywheel tech is as the killer app for “Balancing,” the EU industry term for the adjustment of generation every few seconds to keep the net interchange of a “Balancing Area” on schedule while at the same time keeping the grid’s frequency at its set point (e.g. 60Hz in North America, 50Hz in Europe). As the industry decommissions fossil-fired steam generation and with it loses access to energy stored as the inertia of thousands of tons of synchronously spinning turbine-generator rotors, and replaces that capacity with inverter-connected wind and solar resources, balancing is becoming more of a challenge even in normal times let alone during disturbances. Historically balancing control has been left to older fossil-fired steam units. (Nuclear units are never assigned balancing duty, at least in the USA.) But with them disappearing the job is falling to fewer, larger ones at a time when the grids are becoming more volatile, and operational issues arise using large steam units in this way. The big advantage of both flywheel and battery tech is they can both turn on a dime from putting energy into the grid to taking it out, and vice versa. But such cycling is more of a problem for batteries than for flywheels.

      1. xkeyscored

        Yes, I can’t see much future for flywheels as a means of storing renewable electricity for later consumption. Huge things that don’t store that much energy. Great for balancing / frequency stabilisation, where relatively small amounts of energy are needed very quickly. Expensive and impractical for storing the output of large solar farms for nighttime use.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, flywheels are a necessary complement to batteries and other form of longer term storage, but not a replacement. They fulfil a very specific role in short term balancing.

      3. TheCatSaid

        Supercapacitors should have been mentioned in this capacity as well (“balancers” similar to flywheels but even quicker to fill & discharge, greater power density). In particular the stacked-cell supercap technology (developed & used in Russia for decades) as distinct from the problemmatic wound-cell type (Maxwell and others). The stacked-cell supercaps can be stacked to go up to high voltages, they use environment-friendly safe aqueous-based electrolyte, they do not create dangerous components, they are resistant to explosion event, even when it is attempted to overcharge them. They are being used in Russia for such things as

        * regenerative braking (trams etc.)
        * “balancing” to avoid energy spikes and dips/sages (e.g. corrects for the problems of “dirty” energy from renewable sources)
        * being used with batteries in a power system, allowing the battery to be significantly smaller in size as the supercap supplies “starting-up” energy much more efficiently (e.g., supercaps used on diesel-engine trains in Siberia for reliable starting even in frigid conditions, with batteries from the old USSR in terrible condition: fewer batteries needed, smaller footprint, more reliability even in extreme temps)
        * mobile x-ray machines in trucks going to remote places w/o hospitals–delivering superior quality x-ray images because of the high-power “clean” intense energy supply, plus the x-ray exposure time for the patient is less because of the energy source being so powerful & clean.

        I know about this thanks to participating in an EU project on this topic for several years.

        It’s a technology made to be used in conjunction with longer-term storage devices. It provides superb power density, super-fast to charge & discharge, also relatively good at keeping its charge over time (not quite as good as batteries but not bad either).

    2. Jesper

      I have the impression that there are two main solutions for storing heat in homes:
      1. Having an electric storage heater where heat is stored, then released into the home where it is (in poorly insulated homes) almost immediately leaked out and wasted to the outside
      2. Insulating the home and thereby storing the heat inside the home

      If given the choice between an air to air heatpump and a storage heater the economics are quite simple:
      Storage heater might in theory save up to 50% of an energy bill.
      Air to air heatpump can in theory save up to 75% of energy usage

      Or shorter, I’ve never seen the point of the electic storage heaters.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        The point of energy storage heaters is that they use surplus energy at night, and emit the energy as heat during the day. They work extremely well for energy balancing in small grids (i.e. island nations), especially in countries with lots of base load production (nuclear and coal) or lots of wind during windy winter nights.

        1. Jesper

          The energy stored in an electric storage heater leaks out and is therefore wasted in poorly insulated homes. Better to insulate the home and store the heat in the home. Improved insulation reduces the need for base-load power and also the need for peak power.
          Island nations are ideal locations for air-source heatpumps due to the smaller variations of the outside temperature.
          Better insulation in combination with an air to air heat-pumps uses a lot less energy than electric storage heaters.

          The government grants available for the island nation of Ireland:

          Governments do not always know what is best, in this case they appear to have discarded the electric storage heater technology altogether as there are no subsidies for installing those. I believe the reason why there are no grants is because insulation of the home is a better store of heat than the electric storage heater.

  2. The Rev Kev

    I think that an important consideration is not so much the storage methods which can be employed but the question of whether a lot of strain can be taken off the system by both cutting back and making energy use more efficient. I found a simple page that illustrates this idea and it states that-

    In the US typical household power consumption is about 11,700 kWh each year, in France it is 6,400 kWh, in the UK it is 4,600 kWh and in China around 1,300 kWh. The global average electricity consumption for households with electricity was roughly 3,500 kWh in 2010.

    So the UK uses about, what, 40 % roughly of what an average US household uses. I am not surprised to see Oz being number three on that list as I see so much energy wastage such in everything from street signs which can be just metal plates or even library book returns which have gone from ordinary chutes to digitized, networked systems. If we cut back on wastage we won’t see the need for so much storage capacity and it would do us all a big favour in all sorts of ways.

    1. Jabbawocky

      I’m wondering how comparable those figures are. For instance, UK households heat primarily using wet systems with oil or gas boilers with electricity consumption only for pumping. Hot water is produced the same way. I’ve noticed more electrical hot air systems in the US. Also, in the UK households mainly do not have aircon (yet).

        1. Jim A.

          All those are factors. I would also guess that somewhat fewer Brits live in detached houses and more in “terraced houses” (AE townhouses) Shared walls can really cut down on heating costs.

        2. Ignacio

          But regarding electricity size is not all except for illumination wich is proportional to size and usage. Electricity consumption could be normalized also by number of persons by household. High consumptiom indicates high electrification (for instance electric source for heat and hot water, electric cooker), and/or many electric devices and appliances, outside lighting, and/or low efficiency of these electric devices. I have identified the fridge as an appliance that makes a big difference in energy consumption. When electification is high stand-by consumption can be remarkable.

          It is not all about size. For a given size you find a wide range of variation between houses.

      1. heresy101

        The climate and air conditioning is the major factor in usage.

        I worked for a small municipal electric company in the Bay Area where the size of the houses is the same as other cities around it but the usage was close to Britain.

        There has been a lot of conservation over the last 10 years causing usage to drop from 5,000 kWh/yr to 3,800 kWh/yr, but the main factor in usage is the climate and temperate. There is very little air conditioning usage. There is air conditioning installed because when the temperature hit 100 degrees for a couple of days 10 years ago, usage went up by 30%.

        1. Ignacio

          That’s because summer in the Bay Area is not real summer except for a few days typically in september. There is the famous M. Twain quote.

          In coastal zones the weather is more stable than in inner zones. Sacramento is not far from the Bay Area but surely air conditioning usage is much higher. Cross the Rocky Mountains and intra-day and seasonal variations are much wider.

    2. ignacio

      Yes. Efficiency is quite important. The difficulty here, as well as the opportunity, is refurbishing so many houses to make them more efficient. How do you make it mandatory?

      1. Kent

        You don’t really have to make it mandatory just create the right incentives through pricing structures. For example, instead of charging $.11 per kwh, make it free for the first x number of hours then .55 for anything over x. People will quickly change their behaviors to get anything free.

        1. jrs

          If they are renters they will have no power to refurbish their dwelling of course, they can at best try to live on as little power as possible with no say on how inefficient their dwelling is.

          How do we make it mandatory for the landlords who actually DO HAVE that power is the real question.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        We could raise the price of energy for heating and cooling so high that it would “pay” to retro-super-insulate the house. It wouldn’t be mandatory, but it would be “torturetory”.

    3. jefemt

      We’re number 1, by a LONG shot!!

      Having lived in BC Canada for a few years, I will add that Canada is probably a close second, BUT, much of their power comes from mega hydro, especially in the East…

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        It’s not just AC. It’s furnaces during wintertime weather as well. Because the UK is essentially an island, their weather is moderated by the nearby ocean. If you look at the climate of London, the hottest it’s ever been there is 101 degF, and the coldest it’s ever been is 3 degF. In my little portion of Appalachia, I’ve seen temperatures up to 105 and as low as -10. And when I lived in upstate New York, I saw -25. Some places saw -40. People were wolfing through propane and fuel oil like crazy.

        1. Synoia

          Moderated by the Gulf Stream and Ocean.

          Canada’s BC, same latitude, different Ocean, can be much Colder than the UK,

          1. Joe Well

            I have in fact been in countries where most non-poor people in the countryside live in apartment blocks and sometimes even apartment towers. Little houses are mostly for people who can’t afford better than a house their family made themselves, cement block by cement block. I have seen it myself. It is standard in Latin America. The North American obsession with fully detached houses is nuts. You get so much more bang for your buck from an apartment. Also, it makes the provision of services like internet much more feasible.

            The problem is that First Worlders have been trained to be gluttons for generations and have trouble imagining living within their means, ecologically speaking. I can only imagine it because I have seen it first hand so many times in other countries.

            The little house on the prairie is not virtuous. It is stupid, wasteful, community-destroying, and planet-destroying.

  3. Nigel Goddard

    This article is notable for not mentioning hydrogen. I’ve just been at an Australian energy conference where H2 is the new star. It can act as storage from minutes to years, it can be used for transport (fuel cell vehicles), the tech to create it (electrolysis) from solar /wind electricity is well understood. It can be the basis with atmospheric CO2 for a variety of synthetic hydrocarbons eg for flight. It has downsides like all solutions but is likely to play a significant role.

    1. Ignacio

      The other day I read about a german steel plant to be feeded by hydrogen. No link sorry. One of the problems with hydrogen in transport is that it is quite explosive. Some expect to use it for trucks where electric engines & storage don’t look promising.

      1. JE

        Lower and upper explosive limits of H2 in air is 4-75%. That is bad, meaning any leak is a bad leak. For comparison, gasoline is 1-7% and methane (natural gas) is 5-17%. The 1-7% on gasoline is why the kind of hollywood explosions you see in action movies with car wrecks are so ludicrous. Fire? Sure. Explosion? No. Source:

        So having a lot of hydrogen around is dangerous, as is the propensity of hydrogen storage to leak due to its small molecular size. Also, I remember reading that a semi truck sized like a traditional fuel tanker running on hydrogen would use roughly half of the carried hydrogen to make a typical delivery. Which is to say that hydrogen is not very energy dense.

        1. Skip Intro

          OTOH, Hydrogen floats up quickly, rather than pooling , like methane or gasoline, so the likelihood of a lot of hydrogen gathering in one place is substantially reduced.

          1. Fiddie

            In high enough saturation, hydrogen can self-ignite. No spark or flame necessary. The explosions at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in 2011 were hydrogen induced.

    2. Louis Fyne

      to be cynical, you don’t hear about hydrogen in North America/Europe because most of the alt. energy capitalists have gone all in one solar-wind and the generally scientific illiterate/innumerate government-media mindshare = 100% solar-wind greenwashing.

      While the biggest proponents and government backers of hydrogen are in Asia. just saying

    3. JohnnySacks

      Thought the same myself. There are obviously some difficult technical hurdles to overcome, primarily how to reduce the inefficiency of hydrolysis and avoid the need for rare elements (platinum) in catalysts. Fear of explosive nature of hydrogen is another issue, but gasoline and lithium ion batteries are also highly flammable.
      Saudi Arabia would be a country with vast solar resources and the capital to put them to use. Their future gets bleaker as their oil reserves peter out, but as typical, that type of forward thinking is not their forte and they’re laughably weak technically.
      Despite the current lack of coverage and ease of dismissal, hydrogen from solar will probably play a significant role in our future energy source, the question is how long it will take for us to realize it.

    4. kimyo

      It can act as storage from minutes to years

      Why a hydrogen economy doesn’t make sense

      Another headache is storage. When storing liquid hydrogen, some gas must be allowed to evaporate for safety reasons—meaning that after two weeks, a car would lose half of its fuel, even when not being driven.

      “About four renewable power plants have to be erected to deliver the output of one plant to stationary or mobile consumers via hydrogen and fuel cells,” he writes. “Three of these plants generate energy to cover the parasitic losses of the hydrogen economy while only one of them is producing useful energy.”

      This fact, he shows, cannot be changed with improvements in technology. Rather, the one-quarter efficiency is based on necessary processes of a hydrogen economy and the properties of hydrogen itself.

    5. ptb

      yes, hydrogen fuel cells still have great long term promise, and also major unsolved tech issues.

      alas in the US, H2 is synonymous with the hype and charlatanism from the last time it was sold to congress, way before it was ready.

  4. Ignacio

    There is another energy storage method which is small scale but often not considered in this discussions that, at least for me, has merit and is cheap. It is bypassed because what you store is not power but thermal energy to use for hot water and heating. I am talking about simple hot water accumulators feeded by thermal solar or by water-air reversible heat exchangers that can be powered from the grid and/or domestic solar PV. I am pretty sure there are some many of these in the US. In Spain there are lots of them. It is short term thermal energy storage but qualifies as energy storage in substitution of direct boiler heat. For instance, you can use a solar PV instalation to feed during the day the heat exchanger, fill the accumulator and heat your house and have a shower by night. More common is to use low-temperature solar thermal. The building code in Spain made this source mandatory to cover hot water production with coverage >50% depending on the region. The problem with low-temperature solar thermal is that it is limited by summer overheating so you achieve 100% coverage in summer and 30% in winter.

    1. russell1200

      You can also store the energy as ice. I know that Trane has had a large facility sized unit for years. The big attraction is time-of-use discounts from the facility.

  5. mpalomar

    Thanks for this discussion. As others note battery grid storage may be misdirected application. Flywheels and other alternatives need to be explored as the article notes, “It will also be critical to look beyond existing battery technology to innovative forms of non-battery storage that may ultimately be cheaper and less harmful to the environment.”

    My other thought as an unqualified kibitzer is that grid systems and technology have been largely developed as a function of distribution systems dictated by corporate preference for centralized production. Many assumptions have followed from this paradigm but I suspect they need to be reconsidered from a rebalanced set of priorities which include greenhouse gas production /CO2 and from a socio political perspective. Decentralizing energy and industry may enhance the practice of democracy which suffers degradation in large scale application.

    Future household and grid energy may be more efficiently supplied in a patchwork of generation and different technology including sun, wind and CHP (combined heat and power) that can be scaled for office buildings down to households. One European microturbine manufacturer claims “CO2 savings of up to 6 tonnes per year can be realized for each system installed…” in household applications, total US household C02 production is listed at 19 tons if my numbers are correct.

  6. Louis Fyne

    It’s all about numbers. Even at 3am, Western civilization uses a gobsmacking incomprehensible to a human amount of electricity to pump sewer, store produce, sort the Amazon boxes.

    This morning at 3am, the nadir, on a temperate night, NY state still used 15 GW of juice—that’s almost all the nation’s pumped storage capacity.

    the mentioned flywheel storage companies have gone out of business cuz the tech sucks for civilization-scale energy needs. Will the Sierra Club volunteer their favorite valleys as the next sites of a 10x increase in pumped storage?

    If you want to get to the future solely on solar + wind + (battery) storage, a massive global Manhattan Project needed to have started in January 2009. Or at the very least tonight.

    I hear crickets from the EU (who can act wholly independently) on that front. And you can’t blame Trump for that.

    without Star Trek level tech breakthroughs, the only way is conservation/de-growth/massive backlash from the bottom 75% + solar + wind + fission. just saying.

  7. Louis Fyne

    as a tangent, the article (written by an environmentalist) implicitly endorses the current car-centric society—just that to be green, cars should be electric.

    shaking my head. Electric cars are still awful when the alternative: denser-higher zoning, more walking, more trains is relatively simple in the biggest US urban areas. Simpler than rejiggering the planet’s energy generation-distribution network.

    But given the intensity of resistance against denser zoning in California, I’m not holding my breath.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Unfortunately, we’re going to be stuck with cars for the foreseeable future. The main reason for this is that about half the country lives in single-family homes outside the dense urban core, and those people need cars to pretty much get anywhere. The only way we can eliminate their cars is to have them abandon their homes and move into the city. [And that’s important to note. The suburban home must be abandoned. Not sold. If it’s sold, the new owners would need cars just like the old owners did.]

      People won’t want to give up their homes, not only because of the disruption to their lives, but also because they represent the bulk of most people’s net worth. And the cities don’t have enough housing to host them anyway. It would be the largest migration in human history.

      LIke it or not, we’re stuck with cars. I’d like to see us move to a mix of plug-in hybrids (for people who drive longer distances) and pure electrics (for people who drive shorter distances), all reliably charged by nuclear power. But I’m not holding my breath either.

      1. turtle

        These are good points. I wonder why transportation vans are not commonly used for routes that don’t justify full-sized buses or rail in the US? It seems that this would go some way in helping reduce the issue you describe with suburban/exurban/rural areas. Vans seem to be heavily used in similar areas in developing countries.

      2. Grebo

        Even suburbia can be served by light rail/trams/trolley buses/collectivos etc.

        Small shops can be dotted around within walking or cycling distance of everyone. Delivery services can be rationalised.

        The biggest problem is the millions of people who travel tens of millions of miles per day to sit in front of a computer just like the one they have at home. That one is easy to solve—technically.

      3. mpalomar

        “The only way we can eliminate their cars is to have them abandon their homes and move into the city”
        -I’m not sure why extensive bus systems wouldn’t work as a cheap fix to this predicament. If and when the socioeconomic political hierarchy get it into their fat heads that a civilizational existential threat eclipsing world war is on our doorstep and must be dealt with they will presumably act accordingly. That would mean reconfiguring the interstate system and dedicating lanes for buses and running high speed rail up the I 95 corridor I 80, I 70 etc.
        There would be automobile carrier trains as well; drive on drive off for interstate travel. One existed between Washington DC and Florida, not sure if it’s still running.
        Not that any of this is likely to happen in time to cancel collapse but on an aesthetic level it would be a nice denouement.

    2. Synoia

      In addition to the number of sites, I believe the actual number of good sites is limited.

      I have read of criticisms of the environmental scars produced by pumped storage.

    3. Math is Your Friend

      “Electric cars are still awful when the alternative: denser-higher zoning, more walking, more trains is relatively simple in the biggest US urban areas. Simpler than rejiggering the planet’s energy generation-distribution network.”

      I suspect the alternative you suggest is at least as complicated, probably more so.

      Rebuilding some or all of numerous cities would be a massive undertaking requiring staggering amounts of time, money, energy, and physical products.

      You might or might not avoid some of the changes in energy distribution, but local distribution systems, along with transportation and distribution for both goods and people, services such as hospitals, schools, shopping facilities, industry, water, sewage, flood control, and building enormous housing stocks in the ‘new style’ while demolishing the old housing… the cost and effort would be difficult to estimate, but clearly it would be huge. Given the time it takes to do a few ‘major’ infrastructure projects at a time, like upgraded train services or roads or bridges (often 10 to 30 years), you’d likely be looking at centuries being required to do all this.

  8. Matthew G. Saroff

    I would note that the constraints on batteries for stationary applications are quite different from those for automotive, shipping, cell phones, or aviation (787 battery fires).

    The storage capacity per unit volume or unit weight are largely irrelevant, which makes mitigating battery fires easier, and can also simplify cooling, because there can be more space between cells and batteries.

    However, the initial cost of the battery, as well as the number of cycles it can sustain are critical.

    I do not know how other battery chemistries compare to lithium and Litium-Ion in those last two areas.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I agree that there seems little logic in using lithium batteries for storage – the value of lithium batteries are their light weight and compactness – this isn’t really a relevant consideration for a grid scaled battery. I’m assuming the reason they are used now is simply for cost reasons – they are the only type of battery now being built to scale and this has driven down costs below batteries that use ostensibly cheaper materials.

        1. xkeyscored

          Ingestion of any significant amount of cadmium causes immediate poisoning and damage to the liver and the kidneys. … The kidney damage inflicted by cadmium poisoning is irreversible.

            1. xkeyscored

              I was thinking of leaks, damage, waste, recycling etc., & it getting in the land, water, foodchain & so on. Cadmium’s nasty stuff.

        2. thoughtfulperson

          Yes, there are alternative battery chemistries out there. I have a friend who is a proponent of Nickel – Iron. He has a battery from the 1940s which still provides 50% of it’s original storage capacity (lithium only last a few years).

          He’s got an affordable kit that runs on 12v, no inverter, for light and your devices.

          For appliances, he says running direct off your solar pannel is best. A superinsulated fridge can run off solar all day, chill down, and stay cool through the night.

          More at

  9. xkeyscored

    The article mentions various battery types besides lithium, as do a few commenters. I heard a sciencey podcast interview a few months back with a guy who reckoned magnesium-sulphur batteries looked very promising. All the materials are widely available, cheap, and environmentally friendly. The batteries look like they’d have a much (~10x?) longer lifetime than lithium, which he suspected might be a reason battery companies don’t seem interested. They might be a bit bulky for phones, but absolutely ideal for grid storage if they pan out. I’ll try and dig out the podcast and listen again, as I’ve forgotten a lot of the details.
    Oh, and in case you think he’s just a crank, the interviewee was John Goodenough, who recently got a Nobel for helping invent lithium ion batteries.

    1. xkeyscored

      It seems I was confusing that podcast with another. Still interesting, but not, it appears, magnesium/sulphur – my imagination, or somewhere else?
      Goodenough’s team at Texas have been working on a new electrolyte. They reckon they can make batteries that don’t explode due to internal short-circuits, use really cheap materials (though I did hear lithium mentioned), are environmentally friendly, charge really fast, and can last for at least 23,000 charge/discharge cycles, even improving with time.
      and look for “Genes and education, John Goodenough, Caring bears and hunting” THU 29 MAR 2018
      The interview with Goodenough and his team starts at 14:14 or so.

  10. Skip Intro

    Interesting that the article posits massive new demand from electric vehicles, without recognizing that each of these vehicles is also a battery pack that can be charged from or feed the grid when plugged in… i.e. most of the time. It would be interesting to see how the calculations change when this demand boom is also treated as a decentralized storage boom.

    1. Math is Your Friend

      “each of these vehicles is also a battery pack that can be charged from or feed the grid when plugged in”

      This idea gets floated again and again, usually without asking the question ‘how complicated would that be?’

      As I understand it, the answer is ‘quite complicated’. If you add millions, or tens or hundreds of millions of independent storage units, they *all* have to be managed and coordinated. You can’t just push power back into a wall socket or house feed line randomly.

      Thinking about this … it feels something like an electrical version of the n-body problem but a little less complicated. Modelling the effect on the grid would be hugely complex as putting power into or taking it out of the grid in a million places would cause a myriad of interactions, that have to be predicted and controlled to avoid starving one section while overloading another.

      Also consider this – if such a system produced one unexpected error or effect for connected node every 100,000 hours = 360,000,000 seconds, then in a city with a million cars plugged in, you get ten failures an hour, average. Most of those will not cause major disruption… but if one in a thousand does, you are looking a significant disruption to the grid every 100 hours (4 days)… If one event in 100,000 causes a very bad disruption, then those happen a bit more than once a year.

      Then you have to consider the effects on adjacent mini-grids.

      As for cyber attacks… millions of nodes under the physical control of millions of people, heavy critical industrial control traffic, dependency on network communications, a hundred million (possible low estimate – but pretty clearly at least on the order of 10 million per similar city) exposed attack surfaces?

      The centralized production centrally controlled grid is likely far less exposed.

      1. Matthew G. Saroff

        On a home level, if you wanted to use an EV, or plug in hybrid as a power source, all you would need is an inverter.

        Certainly the cost delta if used as a backup power supply, is less than buying a full generator.

  11. TheCatSaid

    Solid state batteries deserve a mention. Good intro here. Seems like they are making good progress since the first paper came out in 2016, superior energy density to lithium-ion w/o the environmental and safety issues, it seems.

    Maria Braga’s the star of this technology, working in Goodenough’s high-profile lab.

  12. Fiddie

    The article doesn’t mention (though a couple comments do) nature’s elemental batteries forged in a long-forgotten starburst; that is thorium and uranium. These hold their charges for billions of years and could produce half our energy needs until our local star explodes — creating even more stellar fuel.

  13. R.A.

    It is evident, just from viewing this article and its comment thread, that there is a lot that can be done to make society run on more environmentally friendly power sources. It is also clear that just building a lot of wind turbines and solar panel installations will not solve the problem alone–the infrastructure of civilized society is going to have to be rebuilt over time.

    The good news is, we probably have more time to address the problems than the alarming reports about climate change in the mass media would have you believe. Most of these reports predicting imminent climate disaster are based on projections made using computer climate models. While these models have their uses, they are proving to be rather poor at making accurate predictions of climate trends. When compared to actual observations of global temperature, the models all tend to err on the “hot” side, which is evidence of a systemic flaw in the modeling approach. Actual measured temperature data reveals that the climate is probably less sensitive to our inputs of CO2 than the models indicate. And actual measured data about such things as sea level rise, storms, droughts, floods, etc., also reveal that the hysteria we see in media reports is not justified. We are not seeing anything unexpected in any of these areas.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Making stuff up is against our written site Policies. What you have said about climate models is completely false. They have overwhelmingly undershot the rate of climate change we are seeing now, with the cause generally being not making sufficient allowance for positive feedback loops (like methane release from permafrost).

  14. Tyronius

    I’m sad that I’m late to this party, this energy vs environment conundrum is one of my biggest interests. This article was a good start and the comments were, as usual, highly informative and thoughtful.

    The only way society will tolerate ‘extreme conservation’ is at the point of a gun- or after the war is over. Humanity is not used to sacrificing comforts today for unspecified benefits tomorrow. Hence, radical conservationism just seems to me to be an unrealistic expectation. Worse, it would not be enough; even reducing every American’s energy footprint by half does not achieve the needed result, nevermind stunting growth, development and innovation. Highly technologically developed societies need vast amounts of energy, plain and simple.

    The point about suburban life in America forcing an automotive lifestyle is a valid one, thanks General Motors! The opportunity to utilise electric car batteries as energy storage is well proven and highly amenable to distributed power networks and microgrids. It’s proven quite reliable; the offending unit in a malfunction is quickly kicked off the grid and isolated, protecting the rest.

    Pumped hydro energy storage has room to grow, to a point. That point will not be sufficient to support gigawatts of intermittent renewable like wind and solar, and where is all that going to be sited? Speaking of, said renewables need to be replaced every few decades and where is the energy coming from to do that? Therefore these are supplemental energy sources, not enough for the bulk of energy demand. Geothermal is another good supplemental technology, but also not enough.

    Just as Grumpy Engineer stated above, the scale of the problem is overwhelmingly larger than most proposed solutions, even before adding in demand growth and conversion of transportation to electricity. Imagine covering all of Alabama in solar farms… just not practicable.

    Nuclear is the only option that works. Thorium cycle nuclear power using molten salt reactors are the only tech that’s been shown to be up to the task while being resistant to catastrophic failures. As a bonus, they are extremely efficient and operate at or near atmospheric pressure for safety, while delivering their heat at much higher and therefore more useful temperatures. What to do with the radioactive waste? First, such reactors make orders of magnitude less of it; second, the main byproducts of the process are themselves valuable; and finally most of the rest of the products have half lives of 30 years or less, meaning no multi millennia storage issues. And one more unpublicized item for comparison’s sake; every natural gas well, oil well and coal seam produces radioactive materials, mainly radon and uranium. All of them. Due to regulations allowing operators to ignore NORM, or Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials, such emissions are exempt from any kind of monitoring or reporting. These add up to many times the radioactive materials emissions of even today’s dirty nuclear facilities.

    America alone will need 6.5 to 8 terawatts (a terawatt is a thousand gigawatts, which is itself a thousand megawatts) of annual generation to replace fossil fuels for electricity and transportation and to meet medium term demand growth projections. The options are therefore, IMHO, brutally simple; new technology nuclear or catastrophic climate change.

    It could be worse- there could be no option at all.

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