Energy Storage – a Better Target

A recent CBS 60 Minutes segment called “Cleantech Crashserved an important purpose by reminding us of failures in government grant-making.  Even with plentiful funds, government often lacks the good judgment needed to pick winners over losers in commerce and science, especially if the topic is the ever-so-stylish “green energy.”

60 Minutes reviewed Solyndra, a subsidy horror which was allegedly a solar power expert.  Solyndra used up a $535 million Department of Energy (DoE) loan then went bankrupt.  Fisker was supposedly an electric car maven.  Fisker received $529 million from the DoE, chose to use it to manufacture cars in Finland, and soon went bankrupt.

Another form of subsidy is the higher than wholesale price that power grids pay to customers who generate “renewable” energy such as from solar.  These government-encouraged “feed in tariffs” increase costs borne by the regular customers.  This problem of energy subsidies, sometimes called net metering or distributed generation, often works to benefits higher income customers at the cost of lower income customers, as ACI has previously discussed.

Before the TV episode had finished airing, green energy enthusiasts began cyber-hissing at 60 minutes, because it focused on poor federal judgment in extending subsidies.  They would much prefer that 60 Minutes had devoted the time to bow in homage to wind and solar energy with obligatory mentions of climate change.

When the topic does not favor you, it’s nice to change the topic.

Wind and solar have energy generation track records.  While most of the infrastructure comes from strong-armed government intervention (especially in Europe), in some cases the investments provide a substantial part of a region’s energy budget on sunny, windy days.  For example, on average 3.9% of Texas energy consumption comes from renewables (and 57% of that is from wind energy).

The well-understood shortfalls of wind and solar generation are intermittency (capacity rates), cost and storage.  A windless or overcast day would force most regions to fire up a “just in time” smokestack generator (coal, gas or oil).   But regardless of source, energy must aim to meet the typical 11 cents/kwh target.  That means wind and solar must either shoulder the cost of a smokestack handicap, find an efficient battery storage technology, or buy power at some high “spot” price from an adjacent grid.

Currently there is no cost-effective way to store energy from a good day’s sunshine and wind production at large scale.  But there are some technologies that are promising.  Quinones, a carbon-based storage medium stores twice as much electricity per unit of volume than conventional batteries, but that energy density is still too small to be very useful.  Lithium ion batteries have been a major advance, but improvements in their energy density is expanding at just 5% per year, which is not enough for an electrical grid to use them.

“Flow” batteries use dissolved chemicals to carry charged ions for energy storage, and liquid metal batteries use molten metals to generate energy.  Both are in the experimental stage, and may be promising for large scale storage as in an electrical grid.  But until a storage breakthrough is achieved, storage, not large scale generation is the sane target for research and development projects – whether they are government subsidized or not.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research