The renewable energy revolution is here. Global wind and solar energy capacity additions are set to shatter previous records by the end of 2023, with an expected 440 gigawatts to be added by the end of the year, according to figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA). With the unprecedented catalyzation of the global clean energy transition, plus the skyrocketing rate of adoption for electric vehicles (EVs), the world could be on track to hit peak fossil fuel emissions by 2025.
While the rapid rise of renewables is inarguably great news for the planet, the speed of the transition means will likely lead to some energy security hiccups. To support that new clean energy capacity, many other sectors and processes need to keep pace – which won’t necessarily be easy. One of these key sectors is energy storage, a vital but nascent industry. Energy storage is essential because key renewable energies like wind and solar power are variable – meaning that their production levels shift up and down according to weather patterns, seasons, and the time of day. Often, the periods in which these energies are least productive are the same periods when energy demand is rising – at the moment the sun is setting on your local solar farm, rendering it essentially useless, the grid is getting a massive hit as locals turn on the lights in their homes and fire up appliances to make dinner.
If we can store surplus renewable energy when production is high and then feed it back into the grid when needed, we can solve a huge energy security issue. While energy storage is still in its infancy, it’s set to be an incredibly lucrative industry. Law firm Morgan Lewis recently referred to the storage sector as “the technology that will cash the checks written by the renewable energy industry,” and went on to describe that “the global energy storage market will continue its rapid growth, with an estimated 387 gigawatts (GW) of new energy storage capacity expected to be added by 2030—a 15-fold increase in global energy storage capacity compared to the end of 2021.”
Currently, the sector is dominated by lithium-ion battery packs. However, these present some major drawbacks for the industry as a whole, such as competition over increasingly pricey and geopolitically contentious rare Earth minerals and relatively short-term storage capacity. For these reasons, there is a major race underway to discover the next big long-term energy storage solution. Hacking the equation is such to be an extremely profitable pursuit. The innovative solutions being proposed are incredibly creative and diverse, ranging from high-concept green hydrogen schemes to ideas hinging on some of the simplest tools: pulleys, weight, and gravity.
Indeed, some of the simplest solutions for achieving reliable, efficient, and cost-effective long term energy storage are the most promising. “Natural batteries” based on heating abundant and naturally occurring elements such as sand, salt, and rock to hold onto thermal energy have recently emerged as a frontrunner. In a recent article titled “Could sand be the next lithium?” the Washington Post dug into the issue and found that natural batteries have significant advantages over traditional batteries and circumvent some of the stickiest issues currently faced by renewable energy expansion.
In batteries where sand is heated to upwards of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the sand can hold on to that energy for a long time, with temperatures remaining over 200 degrees even when the battery’s energy is running low. “The sand can hold onto the power for weeks or months at a time — a clear advantage over the lithium-ion battery, the giant of today’s battery market, which usually can hold energy for only a number of hours.” Plus, the technology doesn’t hinge on supply chains and materials dominated by China – another problem faced by lithium-ion batteries. Indeed, these materials can be produced pretty much anywhere on Earth at a relatively low cost.
“Renewables are democratic,” Claudio Spadacini, founder of Italian company Energy Dome, told the Washington Post. “The sun shines everywhere and the wind blows everywhere, and if we can exploit those sources locally, using components that already exist, that will be the missing piece of the puzzle.”
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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