batteries Stu Campana A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © Gudellaphoto \ Fotolia.com

During the Ontario ice storm of 1998, millions of people were left without power for weeks in the middle of January. Since then, questions have been raised about how so many could go without electricity in a province which often has so much it has to pay neighbours to take its excess power.

Producing energy is easy. The hard part is storing it.

Ontario sells its extra energy because it has nowhere else to put it. Yet, without any real storage capacity, the province is at the mercy of events such as the famous ice storm, which brought military personnel to the streets of Toronto.

Renewables such as wind and solar have suffered a great deal from the lack of strong storage options. The variability inherent in these technologies limits their ability to compete head-to-head with more reliable fossil fuels – in part due to fear of energy blackouts. In order to level the playing field, renewables need to be able to efficiently store excess energy during periods of peak production, such as when the sun shines or the wind blows.

Despite the exponential advances in other technologies over the past few decades, batteries have somehow lagged behind. There are theoretical limits to the amount of energy storage available through current battery technologies that have held the industry back. For example, the graphite in the current generation of lithium-ion batteries is notoriously inefficient, as anyone who has ever cursed at a dead cellphone can attest.

But now the cavalry is ready to, uh… charge.

A wave of new batteries has already begun to hit the market, promising to revolutionize the way we use energy.

Phil Giudice, CEO of battery start-up Ambri, predicts that “wind and solar resources paired with energy storage can completely replace the diesel infrastructure, resulting in lower electricity prices and a more reliable electricity grid.”

Ambri’s shipping container-size prototype pumps out an impressive 2000 kWh. The average citizen of a city like Calgary could thus expect to use roughly 3.5 batteries worth of electricity in a year.

Another start-up, Amprius, has already launched a lithium-ion battery 25 per cent more powerful than anything else on the market. Using nano-structured silicon, Amprius was able to shrink the battery’s anode, thus increasing energy density.

It’s not just one technology powering this advance either. Liquid metal, nanotechnology, zinc (as a replacement for lithium) and even batteries made out of Prussian blue dye are a few of the paths being explored by battery innovators.

The Atlantic recently speculated that doubling or tripling the energy density of a battery would reduce its cost by half or more, and make it a “total game changer for transportation: electric vehicles would approach the cost of gasoline-powered ones.”

There’s no particular reason why advanced batteries should be designed for renewables over fossil fuels, from the perspective of the producers. One makes as much economic sense as the other. Nevertheless, battery innovators clearly have their sights set on leveling the playing field for wind, solar, et al.

Ambri co-founder Don Sadoway has been very explicit in presenting his breakthrough as “a bridging technology between sustainable energy production and consumption.”

Battery start-up Envia, meanwhile, has modelled their entire sales pitch around breaking down barriers for electric vehicles. Other companies are also looking for manufacturing partners with a renewable energy bent.

If homeowners begin to associate renewable energy with strong battery storage then that can only be good news for the industry. Where blackouts exacerbated fears about unstable energy sources, maybe the next generation of energy storage will become part of the popular perception of renewables as well.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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