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Don Pettit: Clean energy plus storage

Clean energy from the sun and wind continue to lead energy growth around the world, with massive ramp ups expected over the next few years.
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The largest energy storage system in the world became operational less than two years ago in south Australia, installed by Tesla using their grid-scale Megapack lithium-ion technology. In it’s first year of operation, it saved the utility $40 million and stabilized the region’s unreliable grid. An even larger one is coming on-line this year in Monterey, California. Supplied

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Clean energy from the sun and wind continue to lead energy growth around the world, with massive ramp ups expected over the next few years. This transition to clean energy will not only clean up our troubled environment, it will also slow and then stop climate change while creating millions of new jobs.

Energy storage

But sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. If these new energy sources are to become the energy sources, obviously some of that energy will have to be stored for later use.

Hydro electricity stores energy as water behind the dam, but around the world dams are becoming increasingly unpopular: they usually flood river valleys, destroying the world’s richest ecosystems. Nor are they truly carbon neutral: methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is released for decades from submerged organic material, as well as toxic mercury which accumulates up the food chain, contaminating fish and other wildlife. That’s a big impact for a small amount of reliable power.

Lithium to the rescue

Adding energy storage to solar and wind power systems changes everything. Suddenly, they become just as reliable as hydro, coal or gas power plants, but immensely cheaper to run because they burn no fuel and have very, very low environmental impact.

Around 99% of today’s storage solutions use lithium-ion chemistry to make batteries. These batteries are extremely long-lived and prices continue to fall as production and quality ramp up. These can be small systems for a home, or very large grid-scale installations. Both are in full swing, with six-fold global growth in storage expected between now and 2025.

At grid-scale, peak demand times have normally been met by firing up “peaker” natural gas plants that run only when demand is high. Because they are expensive to run and maintain, the power they produce is expensive, and they have a slow start-up time of 30 minutes or more. Batteries, which require no maintenance and produce no pollution, can dispatch full power in less than a second.

For those worried about all that lithium and other materials in all those batteries, rest assured that full life-cycle manufacturing, as pioneered by Tesla, ensures 100% recycling, and by re-using every gram of material over and over again, cheaper prices too.

Home solar with storage

Add solar storage to your home grid-tied solar power system, and suddenly the grid becomes back up, hardly needed.

Germany, even with fairly poor sunlight, is a world leader in solar with 1.8 million solar installations as of 2019. The number of home solar power storage systems has grown by 50% for three years in a row. There were 88,000 new home storage systems installed in Germany last year, with a capacity of some 775 megawatts (MW) for a total of 272,000 home storage systems across the country.

Depressingly, in Canada there are only about 40,000 solar installations in total, about 3,000 of which are in BC, even though we have a much better solar resource than Germany. As the Canadian federal and provincial governments dither, the rest of the world is marching ahead.

Energy from EVs

Around the world, the adoption of electric vehicles is exploding. Right now, there are 1.4 million EVs on US highways, expected to reach 6 million in three years. Norway’s vehicle fleet reached 54% electric last year, the first country to pass the 50% mark. In Norway, EVs are now more than 60% of new car sales, and growing quickly.

Most of the time, personal vehicles just sit around doing nothing, either at work or at home. When EVs are sitting around, they are usually plugged into the grid and charging. During that time, they can also become energy sources to the grid or your home.

And that’s nothing to sniff at. Each EV has up to a 100 kWh battery on board, enough to power everything in your home for three full days. Or they can supply cheap energy to the grid during peak hours when electricity is most expensive, plus income to the EV owner. Millions of EVs connected to the grid and scattered across the country will eliminate the need for expensive “peaker” plants and make running an EV even more ridiculously inexpensive.

Clean energy plus storage: a win for the natural world, a win for utilities, and a big win for you and me.

Don Pettit is a community columnist living in Dawson Creek and Executive Director of the Peace Energy Cooperative.