If humanity wants to avoid permanent climatic changes one step is a radical rethink of the current electrical grid. This is what I discovered in the research for my internship advisory report on energy storage options.
Over the century’s humanity has consistently made use of fuel with an increasing factor of energy density. Using wood for energy, then coal, then oil and finally the most energy dense material available to us, Uranium with nuclear fission. Utilizing solar and wind power seems to be a de-evolution of this chain, since wind and solar energy greatly lack the desired energy density.
However, since nuclear fusion is still written in the stars, we today have little other options for producing our electricity in a way that does not generate tonnes of greenhouse gases.
One thing that renewable energies do offer us is abundance. A small patch of solar panels in the Sahara Desert can generate enough electricity to fuel the world but it this does not help if the sun don’t shine.
The abundance of renewable energy does come with a curse, we cannot control it. There is no power when its night or when there is no wind.
The conventional approach to this problem was to either, shut of renewable energy production should there be a surplus of electrical power, also known as curtailment. Or if there is a deficit of energy like at night, expensive and inefficient gas-powered turbines are started up. So called Peaker plants then make up the rest of the electricity needed to meet the demand.
It is very expensive to up or downregulate a coal power plants electrical energy output. Often renewable energy is shut off to allow coal plants to run economically. Previously it was never needed to store energy as you simply used less fuel if the demand for electricity was lower.
The entire energy grid is based around this concept and is also the reason why renewable energy production didn’t bring the relief to our climate problems as previously thought. Fossil fuels provide grid security and convenience which solar and wind cannot offer.
Allow me to introduce energy storage technology. Storing electrical energy when renewable electricity generation exceeds the demand, allows for that energy not to be wasted but to be used at a later stage.
Energy reservoirs are capable of smoothing out the difference in production and demand of electricity and offers the same if not better grid security as coal and gas.
The problem is not the technology since that has been readily available. The biggest problem is economics, even though the global price per kW/h of solar has fallen below that of coal, coal is still too cheap to use. The cost to store electricity is only now starting to become competitive, one example is the Hornsdale battery power reserve in Australia that has beaten both the cost and construction time of a comparable gas fired Peaker plant. This was only possible due to the infrastructure and manufacturing processes provided by the Tesla company that’s becoming a pioneer in battery production and energy storage.
There is an enormous infrastructure behind mining, transporting and burning coal. Millions of employees and millions of dollars invested into those systems. Dismantling the coal powered grid presents huge problems of its own.
However, once electrical energy storage becomes cheap to implement and humanity can make full use of the abundance of renewable energy, we would not only be saving ourselves, from the climatic disaster that we created. We would also be building a gift of cheap abundant energy for future generations.
A blog by Daniel Haus, second-year student Mechanical Engineering
Daniel did his graduation at Living Lab EnTranCe – theme Sustainable Buildings