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We all want an energy grid that’s cleaner and better for the environment. In fact, most scientists agree that unless something is done majorly to curb CO2 emissions worldwide, the Earth will reach a tipping point and climate change will cause irreparable harm over the next several hundred years to both people, and the environment. Many other scientists argue that it may already be too late to stop the damage done by these emissions.
There’s no easy fix to these sorts of issues, but we do know where to begin. First and foremost, we need to get both gas and coal off the grid, and as quickly as possible. Renewables are not in a position presently that they can actually augment our needs, as usually 60% of the grid needs to be baseload, which cannot be supplied by wind or solar. One hypothesis is that we can build enough batteries to augment this, but this is a serious problem. In the whole of human history combined, we still have not produced even 10 GWhr of Lithium Ion batteries. A typical city of 1 million would need 100 GWhr of storage to augment its needs for electricity during periods of low wind or low solar production. This is just one city, the world would require millions of GWhr of storage, far more than all Lithium on earth, and would likely cost 10s of trillions of EUR to produce the facilities to mine and manufacture this supply of chemical storage. Clearly, new thinking is needed.
The First Step Forward
This may sound grim at first glance, but there are many ways that we can reach these goals, and hopefully do so before the Earth is irreparably damaged and our place in it is threatened. France has a very strong nuclear energy mix, and this is highly advantageous. It will be very easy for a high infrastructure country like France, with such green production sources, to augment this with renewables and drive down to zero energy grid emissions. However, for much of the world, those that seem to value the environment at less than zero dollars, this will be much harder to achieve.
The biggest challenge, isn’t this front of the energy scheme. We already know completely green ways to produce electricity and energy, and know of several of them! Nuclear is definitely the greenest, with the lowest CO2 emissions per KWhr by far, even compared to renewables, but automotive and heating are really the contributors that we need to get under control. Automotive requires significant technological leaps forward, as batteries are not energy dense, last long enough, nor are cheap enough for cars. They also carry some significant risk for fire and thermal runaway during charging.
We all want to charge our cars are night and be able to go 500 miles on a charge tomorrow, or recharge our cars in 90 seconds. Yet, the engineering obstacles between now and then are monumental. One of our major goals, as a result, is to highlight the need for nuclear buildout, advanced nuclear reactors with minimal waste (such as the ASTRID project in France), get funding to the hands of talented engineers to pursue research on these next generation battery and capacitor systems, and really transform the energy landscape. The energy landscape may be something we all already know about, but it’s also something we need to remember as the most important area to improve going forward.
One of the greatest obstacles we must overcome is the challenges faced in storing electricity made from non-reliable sources, such as wind, solar or tidal energy. These sources already produce energy that is above the rates people want to pay, so if it is not used, it presents an even bigger problem with getting utilities on our side and developing these resources. There have been some tremendous efforts in recent years to store energy for later use, harnessing it when it is needed at another point. Yet on demand electricity like this is still one of the greatest hurdles to climb going forward.
For generations utilities have been plagued by a lack of storage for grid electricity, forcing companies to attempt to follow demand with fringe sources, such as natural gas, coal or other technologies. Only nuclear, coal and natural gas can successfully load follow demand. Beyond that, even with these sources, its neither efficient nor as cost effective as it could be to do so. There is always some significant parts of electricity being generated which is never used. Power companies would love to be able to store this for longer periods and release it on demand later.
A number of technologies already exist that can storage electricity, from capacitors, to mechanical storage to batteries. All have their advantages and disadvantages, but few are ever economically competitive in the current marketplace. The greatest challenge faced in this field is to make the viable, and energy dense enough utilities would want to use them – while maintaining a good degree of economic advantages, long term stability and fast response times. In this we will be discussing some of the most promising technologies as well as outline the progress they have made so far in this area, and what they could potentially accomplish in the future.
Battery (Chemical) Storage
One of the most promising and easiest for people to understand is the use of batteries to store energy. However, there are some major reasons these have not taken off for grid electricity. They are quite expensive (1000-15,000 US dollars per KWhr of capacity) and have a finite number of cycles they can operate in. Technological progress in this area has been painfully slow as well, further compounding the problem.
A solution that’s been proposed and tried so far, is to use NaS chemical exchanges. By initiating a chemical reaction between two pools of material they can store energy and release it later (thousands of times). It’s also a lot cheaper than most battery technologies with similar cycle life. There are still many problems, such as Na salts being highly flammable in air and the baths need to be kept at 300 °C, also the batteries will suffer permanent damage if allowed to discharge completely.
Uphill Water Reservoirs
A novel idea is to pump water uphill and then allowing it to flow down again, similar to a dam. The need to store electricity derived from wind and solar is greatest in areas of Northern Europe presently, where countries like Denmark produce around 20% of their electricity with offshore wind. Pumping water from there up to a storage area of later use could be a potentially excellent solution, however, similar to battery storage this is fraught with issues.
In order to even take advantage of this possibility, the location will need to be close to where wind is producing electricity, but also needs to be high up and mountainous. These areas seldom occur in the same place, making it tremendously challenging to effectively do this today. In addition, efficiency from this process is quite low. Electricity generated is used to drive a pump which in turn drives a turbine later. Turbines for hydroelectricity are not particularly efficient compared to heat driven steam generation. As a result, you lose about 70-80% of the energy in this process once its used later. Still, given the complexities faced by battery based storage systems this could be a viable option in the future. These dams also are quite damaging to the environment to build typically.
Fondaterra promotes methods to store all electricity however is economically feasible, given the scale of this problem and how much of an impact it could have on our ability to maintain resources in the future.