I'm on vacation in the east coast of the US for the week and the sun has been relentless. I can only hope to have clouds and maybe a shower or two to cool things down.
But mention clouds and the solar photovoltaic folks start to go berserk. Apparently solar panels have a hard time being of any use when there is no sun! An hour of clouds and your power generation tanks. Two days of rain can make dependance on renewable electricity seem like a return to the dark ages.
Enter batteries. Why not store the electricity during the times we generate it and use it in the night/when there are clouds etc? Sounds like a great idea, but the problem is... you guessed it... those batteries!
Anyway, long story short there are some batteries (different from vehicle batteries) that have the hope of being very useful for these sort of renewable storage applications. We are talking about MWh of storage (the M is for mega, so... big). There are a lot of batteries that are needed for this application, but the cost of these batteries is a problem and so is the lifetime. A third problem is that the energy efficiency of these batteries is not that great (maybe 50-70%). When someone tells you that the energy efficiency is 50% it means that you use twice the energy to charge the battery than you get on discharge. So 50% of your solar panels are a waste (great for the solar panel maker. Bad for the customer).
ARPA-E, the new kid on the DOE block, came up with a solicitation looking for ideas to fix these problems. This week, they announced a bunch of awards for some interesting new technologies that promise to solve these problems. One of the awards went to your faithfully (that would be me) along with two of my colleagues from LBNL- Vince Battaglia and Adam Weber. For the project we assembled a team consisting of Robert Bosch, DuPont, and 3M. We also had Proton Energy has a partner to help with some designs. Its an amazing team that beings together knowledge of electrochemistry, catalysts, membranes, and balance of plants to work on a battery called a "flow battery".
I will try to expand on what we proposed in the near future. If we (and any of the others funded) are successful, then we can get a step closer to having a more efficient grid. Click here for the list of awardees.
Till now, my blog has concentrated on vehicle batteries. I think its time I expanded into grid electricity. This is another big problem and something that needs attention.
In the meantime, for all your solar enthusiasts that complain about your batteries. Hold on... hold on. Give us a few years and we hope to have something for you.