A crucial component of creating a new green grid is the construction of wind and solar farms, but their energy production is halted at night. Finding and developing clear energy storage is equally important, and doing so on a large scale necessitates federal intervention as soon as possible, according to a recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The episode “The Future of Energy Storage” is part of a series on America’s energy transition and is especially pertinent given the current growth of the solar and wind industries. A city or area may feel the need to hedge their bets with a coal-fired energy plant or something similar if they can’t rely on renewable energy as their primary or only source of electrical energy. Too much renewable energy feels like a good problem.
The answer is largely found in batteries: store more energy when the sun is out and the wind is blowing strongly, and use it at other times. Not exactly a revelation, but the growing reliance on what the study refers to as “variable renewable energy” suggests that our current battery capacity may not be adequate. The nation as a whole (and ultimately the world, but not all countries are equally prepared for this shift) may want to be improved by orders of magnitude.
The problem, though, is that while storage doesn’t bring in money, wind and solar energy crops do. Yes, they will pay off in the long run, but it won’t be the easy money that solar farms have become. The best and most environmentally friendly energy storage options, like hydroelectric storage, are very expensive and constrained in where they can be built. Even though the most widely used technologies, like lithium-ion batteries, are widely available, they aren’t powerful or well-organized enough to improve the grid.
The Department of Energy should get involved here, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both subsidies for the use of current storage options and funding for in-depth research into new and promising ones are available from the federal government. The hydrogen energy storage system may well change the game, but the report points out that it won’t pay for itself. Similar to other crucial infrastructure, it must be funded initially by the federal government and repaid over time.
But it isn’t even close to writing checks. The Energy Department may want to evaluate the viability of initiatives like reusing outdated infrastructure, such as decommissioned energy plants, their grid connections, and the communities that were built around them. Jobs could remain while emissions would vanish if hydrogen electrolysis facilities were built instead of simply closing down coal-fired energy plants.
The cost of energy itself is another issue that needs to be addressed. According to the report, even with proper storage, the price of energy will fluctuate far beyond the limits currently established by our regular (though dirty) fuel-based energy sources. Although off-peak energy may currently cost twice as much as peak energy, in ten years the gap may very well be much wider. On the one hand, the minimum value might be almost zero, but the peak energy might be significantly more expensive.
The electrical energy market will undergo such significant change that consumers won’t need to wonder whether running a dishwasher will cost them pennies or “dollars” in the future. Instead, these price and supply points should be carefully modeled to remove volatility and ensure both consistency for consumers and return for energy producers.
The US is in a position where the federal government can intervene, and if they do, other countries may try to follow suit. According to the report, India may be experiencing a growing energy and emissions crisis for a variety of reasons, and the US may serve as an important testing ground for technologies that could benefit its larger population just as well.