Storing Solar Energy: A great idea caught on contested ground

Adding energy storage to sites with rooftop solar power generation offers a range of potential benefits. A battery can help smooth out solar’s inherently variable supply of power to the local grid, and even keep buildings powered during blackouts. Consequently, power-conversion innovators are developing a host of new products designed to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of integrated solar-storage systems.

Some analysts project a boom in the co-location of solar and energy storage. GTM Research, for example, foresees that co-located PV and storage will grow from $42 million in 2014 to more than $1 billion by 2018. However, the market is moving slower than it might thanks to a little-discussed regulatory roadblock in the United States.

According to Vic Shao, CEO for the Santa Clara, California-based energy storage startup Green Charge Networks, tightly integrating storage with photovoltaics in some key states—including Hawaii and California—runs afoul of the “net metering” rules by which PV owners earn lucrative retail rates for the surplus power they feed to the grid. Adding storage can disqualify solar systems for net metering, in which utilities can pay their owners wholesale power rates that are several times lower than retail. “That is obviously a pretty big problem for anybody considering solar. That could kill a lot of projects,” says Shao. Continue reading “Storing Solar Energy: A great idea caught on contested ground”

Solar Power and Grid Stability: Scenarios and solutions

hawaii.gridx299Renewable energy is often intermittent, and that variability presents a variety of challenges to power grids. The nature and magnitude of the challenges depends on the time frame — from fractions of a second to seasonal or even multiyear variations — as well as the nature of the grid itself. The latter is evident in two of my articles from last week looking at how seconds-to-minutes fluctuations in solar power complicate grid controllers’ efforts to maintain alternating current at the 60 hertz frequency and the roughly 110 volt power levels required by North American devices.

Fluctuating AC frequency stars in my Technology Review dispatch from the paradise of Kauai, where the island utility is riding an electrical roller coaster as it pushes solar towards 80 percent of peak power flows Continue reading “Solar Power and Grid Stability: Scenarios and solutions”

Turning E-Waste into LIght

Bangalore street vendor with battery-powered light SOURCE IBM Research India
Bangalore street vendor with battery-powered light. Source: IBM Research India

Bangalore-based IBM Research India has a bright idea for keeping discarded lithium laptop batteries out of landfills: repurposing their cells as energy supplies for the powerless. The idea, presented at this weekend’s fifth annual Symposium on Computing for Development (DEV 2014) in San Jose, has passed a small proof-of-principle test run with Bangalore’s working poor. Continue reading “Turning E-Waste into LIght”

Pragmatic Electric Strategies the Rage in Geneva

Pragmatism continued Tuesday on day two of the Geneva Motor Show, as automakers more displayed creative means of developing electric vehicles (EVs) in spite of an industry-wide cash crunch. Monday it was PSA Peugeot Citroën unveiling a nascent partnership with Mitsubishi to craft a Peugeot version of the i-MiEV, the battery-powered micro-car that Mitsubishi is preparing to launch in Japan this summer. Yesterday it was Ford Motor and India’s Tata Motors showing EVs they can push to market quick by literally swapping the engine and fuel tank out of petroleum-powered vehicles and popping in batteries and electric motors.

Continue reading “Pragmatic Electric Strategies the Rage in Geneva”

China’s Green Plug-In Machine

BYD's F3DM plug-in hybridWhile major automakers such as GM and Toyota prepare to put batteries front and center in their first plug-in hybrid vehicles, a Chinese battery maker has beaten them to the road. As of yesterday, Shenzen-based BYD Auto — a subsidiary of leading Chinese rechargeable battery producer BYD Group — is selling the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid car, according to Bloomberg. This battery-loaded version of BYD’s F3 sedan is said to travel up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) on stored grid power alone.

Many observers deride the car’s styling as plain and derivative. BBC global business correspondent Peter Day, who drove BYD’s plug-in this weekend, says they’re missing the point: “Critics say this is a copycat car, but that is how the Japanese auto industry started.”

Green Car Congress reports that the plug-in is dubbed the F3DM after its ‘dual-mode’ hybrid system. Misleadingly dubbed, that is, because the vehicle actually operates in three distinct modes:

  • a battery-powered EV mode
  • a series-hybrid mode whereby the gas engine recharges the batteries while the electric motors drive the wheels, and
  • a parallel-hybrid mode whereby both motors and engine drive the wheels.

This marks a contrast with GM’s Chevy Volt, due out two years from now, which dispatches with the parallel hybrid option.

BYD Auto’s parent company is making lithium batteries for the car using employ lithium iron phophate cathodes — a safer design than the lithium cobalt oxide cathodes used in cell phone batteries. Boston-area battery developer A123 uses the same chemistry; A123 is believed to have lost out in the competition to supply the first-generation Chevy Volt but is in the running for many other hybrids and electric vehicles in development.

BYD says it will bring the F3DM to the U.S. market in 2011, but must first pass U.S. crash tests and set up a dealer network. It has a well-connected U.S. investor to help navigate the U.S. hurdles: billionaire investor Warren Buffet, whose Berkshire Hathaway investment group bought a one-tenth stake in BYD for $230 million in September.

China beats the U.S. and Europe to market with what was supposed to be GM’s signature development. The headline reinforces a growing sense that China is suddenly a green technology developer to be reckoned with. A top wind power market. Major photovoltaics production. It looks like the Cleantech Group may have got it right earlier this month when, summing up its forum in Shanghai, it concluded that China could soon be, “the world’s leading laboratory, market for and exporter of clean technologies.”

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This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies

Nanotech’s Outsized Energy Impact

I think Richard Smalley would have appreciated my article “Realizing Lithium Battery Potential” which headlines MIT today. The Rice University chemist – who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of soccer ball-shaped carbon cages called buckyballs – believed that nanotechnology could multiply the efficiency of the myriad energy devices upon which modern human society relies and, as such, had a central role to play in cleaning up our energy systems.

I relied on Smalley’s vision to wrap up a 2004 feature story for Tech Review – “Solar-Cell Rollout” – on plastic solar cells, which represent a radical, nanotech-enabled departure from the high-performance silicon crystal materials that still dominate the photovoltaics industry. Smalley’s belief in the rather anemic, flimsy plastic cells’ potential to someday be rooftop-ready lent crucial authority. (Doesn’t seem so crazy now. Just yesterday a German R&D agency decided the technology’s performance warranted a €2.5-million investment in improving its stability.)

In the same breath I passed along Smalley’s plea for bold investments in physical sciences research:

Nanotech could help solve the energy problem, Smalley contends, by providing new tools and materials that make widespread use of solar cells economically viable. But he believes it will take billions of dollars in funding and the focused efforts of the world’s top chemists and physicists to make that happen. So for the past two years, he has been crisscrossing the United States, evangelizing for nothing short of a modern-day Manhattan Project to use nanotech to deliver a sustainable energy system.

Smalley died from leukemia in 2005, but the vision he championed continues to spread and the advances he foresaw are being realized. My article on today presents nanotech-fueled advances that could multiply the energy storage capacity of lithium batteries. The immense potential of lithium batteries is the inspiration for today’s renaissance in electric vehicle development. But auto industry analysts say their cost will constrain EV expansion through 2020; see for example these uninspiring growth curves from PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Calum MacRae. More potent batteries should help by extending EVs’ range and thus improving their value proposition.

Nanotech, by the way, is already improving the lithium battery. Boston-area technology developer A123, for example, coats its batteries’ positive electrodes with nanoparticles of iron-phosphate to boost safety and reduce cost relative to conventional laptop-style batteries. A123 is believed to have lost its bid to supply GM’s Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid vehicle, but as TechReview editor Kevin Bullis points out recently A123 has plenty of other EVs to bid on.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

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Peak Lithium: EVs’ Dirty Little Secret?

Electric vehicles web-journal EV World has done the English-speaking world a favor by translating an excellent Peak Lithium story written last week by Le Monde journalist Hervé Kempf. What is Peak Lithium you ask? The notion that a wholesale shift to EVs powered by lithium batteries in response to peaking petroleum production could just as quickly exhaust the global supply of lithium metal.

Kempf credits a May 2008 study by consultancy Meridian International Research — The Trouble with Lithium 2 — as the source of growing concern over peak lithium; the study concluded that reasonable increases in lithium production over the next decade will generate enough of the light, energetic metal to produce batteries for only 8 million batteries of the sort that GM plans to use in its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid.

But he does his own homework, providing an accessible introduction to the geological distribution of lithium and its likely magnitude. I say ‘likely’ because Kempf shows that industrial secrecy makes it difficult to assess the probability of a peak lithium scenario prematurely squelching the electrification of the automobile.

As George Pichon, CEO of French metals trader Marsmétal puts it in Kempf’s piece, the world of a lithium metal is “un monde fermé.”

Alas, it’s just a little less closed today thanks to Le Monde and EV World.

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This post was created for Tech Talk – Insights into tomorrow’s technology from the editors of IEEE Spectrum.