Category Archives: Energy Storage
With Switch To EVs, Will Lithium Countries Become The Next OPEC?

As the world switches from petroleum fuels to lithium batteries in electric vehicles, do we need to worry about creating a new Middle East-type cartel that can once again hold the world’s energy supply hostage?  The concern might have some justification, as just four countries have the largest reserves of lithium (Australia, Chile, Argentina and China). Chile, in particular, is thought to have more than 50% of known economic reserves.

The Conversation describes where battery raw materials come from, and concludes somewhat positively:

The supply of major materials for lithium batteries is not under threat any time soon, but demand is likely to open up new areas for extraction, bringing new risks.

The political situations of countries with large reserve shares and large shares in the processing of these metals can quickly become uncertain. Will countries like Bolivia allow unrestricted export of lithium? Will Democratic Republic of Congo or China restrict cobalt supply?

Environmentally, the lithium-ion battery’s future is also worrying. The production of electrode materials may become more environmentally damaging. On the other hand, the impact of the lithium supply itself is likely to improve.

Ultimately, recycling lithium should play a part in mitigating political, environmental and economic risks in the future, but high rates of lithium battery recycling are yet to be seen.

It’s always a risk once we become overly dependent on one source of energy (or in this case, energy storage) that it will lead to national security issues with foreign control over those resources.

But it’s worth noting that the U.S. has its own supply of lithium, and also that current estimates from the U.S government at least indicate an adequate worldwide supply to meet demand (although Greentech Media raises some alarm bells on this question).

Ultimately, this is a long-term potential problem that can likely be addressed with further innovation in manufacturing, battery development, and recycling and reuse of existing batteries.  And it’s certainly not a reason to avoid investing in battery electrification of transportation.

But at the same time, if I was working in national security, it would be an issue to track going forward.

EV Drivers Get Up To $1540 To Let Their Utility Delay Their Charging — New BMW & PG&E Pilot

Electric vehicles are good for the environment not just because they decrease petroleum fuel burning, but because the batteries in the vehicles can help support a cleaner grid.  To test that concept, BMW signed up drivers of their electric i3 vehicle for a project with Pacific Gas & Electric in the Bay Area.  The basic goal was to reduce demand from a fleet of vehicles at a time when the grid was constrained, by activating software in the vehicles to halt charging for up to an hour.

The upside for drivers who participated?  They got $1000 for signing up, plus as much as $540, depending on how many days they did not manually opt out of the program.  Drivers were notified by a software app when a delay was about to happen and could use it to opt-out if needed.

In practice, that meant eight delays in charging over the 18-month pilot period for the typical driver.  However, some vehicles, based on when they were plugged in and how little they opted out, had more delays.  Of the 100 participating drivers, for example, three vehicles participated in over 50 events.

If it sounds like a good deal, that’s because it is.  In fact, 500 drivers ended up applying for just 100 spots in the pilot.  The report did not mention if the payments were cost-effective from a ratepayer standpoint (I suspect not).  In other words, could that electricity have been more cheaply supplied or reduced elsewhere?  But given that this was a pilot, it was important to get data and participation first.

During the 18 months (from July 2015 to December 2016), PG&E asked BMW 209 times to “provide capacity of 100 kW over an hour-long period.”  This is actually a lot of times.  As a point of comparison, residential “demand response” (as this kind of moderated demand is called) programs are capped at 15 events per year.

Ultimately, BMW met 90% of the events.  The reason for the failings was mostly due to technical problems, which apparently got fixed as the pilot went on.  And the response time to actually delay the charging once the utility sent the signal was 2.3 minutes on average, which was fine for the day-ahead market and not bad for the real-time market, which requires 4 minutes at most of delay.  The lag was mostly due to communications issues that seemed to get fixed as the pilot unfolded.

Drivers seemed not to mind the delays.  The most opt outs for any one event was on Thursday, October 14, 2015 at 11 PM, when three customers opted out. The majority of events had no opt-outs and only two participants opted out for more than two events over the entire pilot.  Meanwhile, 95% of the drivers surveyed said that they never, or rarely, had to change driving or charging behaviors.  Ultimately, 98% indicated they were satisfied with the experience.

But there was one relatively big hitch to the findings: not enough EV drivers were plugged in at any given moment to meet the demand response events.  As a result, BMW had to rely on “second-life” used electric vehicle batteries to meet almost 80% of the power requested during these events.  The vehicles on average supplied the other 20% of the demand reduction.

Possibly because of time-of-use rates and cheap off-peak power, many drivers did not plug in until after 9pm.  As a result, these drivers simply missed any demand response events happening during the daytime or early evening.  In fact, only 37% of the drivers charged at work during the day, due to the lack of availability of chargers at their place of employment.

Meanwhile, the drivers that were able to participate in the top 10%:

[A]re characterized as frequent drivers, who have regular charging patterns and are not on a [time-of-use] rate. These drivers habitually plug in and begin charging around 8 PM in the evening and typically charge for about 3 hours. Since a majority of the events were called from 8–9 PM, these vehicles were frequently called upon and able to participate.

So in the long run, more workplace charging and electricity rates that encourage demand response participation could address these challenges.

Meanwhile, the benefits to the grid look very promising.  Each vehicle contributed 4.43 kw of demand response delayed usage.  It may not sound like much, but assuming by 2030 the state has 1.2M electric vehicles, with 250,000 drivers enrolled in this kind of program and 17,000 participating in a demand response event:

[T]he potential load drop of a single event in 2030 is about 77.6 MW, which is enough to power approximately 58,000 homes in California. Thus, on a larger scale, a similar program has the potential to provide a significant resource.

So while more work remains to be done, this pilot project is overall very encouraging.  Coupled with reforms related to boosting workplace charging and improving electricity rates (the subjects of a forthcoming report from UC Berkeley and UCLA Law), this kind of demand response could be very beneficial for the state.

And it could put a healthy dollop of cash in EV drivers’ wallets to boot.

Nevada Becoming A Leading State For Renewables & Energy Storage

What a difference a year (or two) makes. Back in 2015, Nevada became the enemy of rooftop solar advocates when state regulators arbitrarily ended all rooftop solar incentives, including for customers who had already invested in them with an expectation of a 20-year return.

But Governor Sandoval just signed AB 405, which will officially restore those rooftop solar rates almost back to where they were, with a slow phase-out to encourage more energy storage options (see his Twitter post above).

But more legislation is on tap, as the  legislature has passed some ambitious clean energy bills.  Specifically, AB 206 will boost the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030 (by comparison, California has a 50% target for 2030).  And as Greentech Media reports, the innovative part of this bill is that energy storage can count for up to 10% of the portfolio, with special privileges for geothermal energy.  Let’s hope the governor signs this bill, too.

While the solar industry had a lot to do with this win, environmental groups may also have played a key electoral role.  Specifically, according to E&E News (pay-walled), the League of Conservation Voters spent more than a half-million dollars on state races in Nevada last year and helped flip the statehouse, paving the way for legislation like this.

It shows how effective political dollars can be at the state level, and how important state leadership is at a time of federal retrenchment on clean energy policies.

Is The Tesla Solar Roof Viable?

Tesla solar roof tiles

Tesla’s tiled solar panel roof made a big splash when Elon Musk unveiled it last year (photo to the right).  But the roof comes at a pretty steep price, as Bloomberg reports:

A Tesla solar roof will also lose some of the energy-generating density of a traditional panel, because the cells must be spaced farther apart to account for the edges of the tiles, BNEF’s Bromley said. Therefore, the percentage of the roof that will be covered by active solar cells will be higher, as will the total cost of the roof. All told, a traditional solar setup might be 30 percent cheaper than a Tesla roof, he said, but Tesla’s will look better and come with a lifetime warranty. “A 30 percent premium could well be acceptable.”

“It is the most affordable roof you can buy, all things considered,” said Peter Rive, co-founder of Tesla’s recently acquired SolarCity division.

Perhaps the extra cost is worth it in terms of getting a new roof and possibly not having the visual impacts of a traditional solar array (I personally don’t mind the look of traditional solar panels, but some people do, which could decrease home values I suppose).  But only so many homes need a new roof at a given time, so right away the market seems limited.

There also may be technical issues with this new type of technology.  I talked to a solar engineer recently who thought the tiles would have problems without having the cooling air space underneath, like with traditional mounted panels.  The extra heat would supposedly hinder the lifespan and energy production value.  I don’t know how to evaluate that claim or whether or not Tesla has addressed it, but it points to concerns people may have with adopting a new form of the technology.

I like the idea of Tesla combining with SolarCity to package clean energy and energy storage together with the vehicles, but the solar roof concept may have a rocky start.

Solar + Batteries As A Lifeline For Indigenous Communities

We certainly need cheap renewables like solar, coupled with batteries, to clean our grid and mitigate climate change.  But these technologies also hold incredible promise as economic development lifelines for remote indigenous communities.

The Guardian recently profiled a growing indigenous renewable energy alliance in Australia:

Only a handful of Indigenous communities have embarked on renewable energy projects in Australia. The Indigenous-owned and -operated company AllGrid Energy, for instance, has installed solar panels and battery storage systems to replace diesel generators in the Aboriginal communities of Ngurrara and Kurnturlpara in the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tableland. Within two months of the system being installed in May 2016, people were moving back to their homelands from Tennant Creek, the communities growing from just two permanent residents to about 40.

As these technologies become cheaper, not only will the developed world benefit, but historically disadvantaged communities across the globe will have access to clean, cheap power for their hospitals, homes and businesses.

The Future Of Energy In 2030: California State Bar Conference On April 12th

How we generate, distribute and use electricity is key to meeting California’s environmental and greenhouse gas reduction goals.  We need to be much more efficient with the electricity we use, while ensuring that it comes from greenhouse gas-free sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal, coupled with energy storage technologies. We also need to electrify almost everything, from transportation to home heating.
commercial-solar-panels1
The state has ambitious goals in all these areas for 2030, including a 50% renewable energy mandate, a requirement that we double energy efficiency in existing buildings, a related energy storage target, and electric vehicle deployment goal, among others.

But with so many technology changes, uncertainty over federal energy policies, and challenges related to financing and cost, what will the grid of 2030 look like?

The State Bar’s environmental law section is hosting a conference to explore this question, on Wednesday, April 12th in downtown Los Angeles.  Co-sponsored by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, the conference will feature:

  • Keynote by new California Public Utilities Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen;
  • Panel on the impact of the Trump Administration on California’s energy policies;
  • Discussion of the rise of community choice aggregation as an alternative to the traditional utility model; and
  • Speakers from leading utilities, renewable energy companies, public agencies and nonprofit groups.

You can see the full agenda and register at the State Bar’s conference website.  Reduced rates are available for students and government/nonprofit employees.  Register now to secure your spot!

**UPDATE: California State Senate President pro Tem Kevin De Leon is now confirmed for the afternoon address.

Trump’s Budget Assault On The Environment

If there’s one area where Trump is likely to have legislative success, it’s probably the budget and taxes.  A partisan majority of Republicans in Congress will go along with any tax and spending cuts, leaving Trump in a good position to get his way.  And his current budget proposal is nothing less than a full-scale assault on environmental protections and public health.

It’s a bad combination of Trump’s seemingly genuine antipathy to government regulations and his party being captured by big polluters in the oil and gas industry.

My UC Berkeley Law colleague Dan Farber runs through the numbers on Legal Planet, but they basically include massive cuts to environmental enforcement, restoration and monitoring, including on climate data, as well as eliminating research in clean energy.

The last part on clean energy cuts is particularly frustrating.  I’ve blogged before about the success of ARPA-E, the most important governmental agency you’ve never heard of.  It’s the “moonshot” agency that is funding breakthrough technologies in batteries, solar power and other vital technology.  Since 2009, it has provided $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects, of which 45 have then raised $1.25 billion in private sector funds.

So of course Trump and his allies want to eliminate the agency completely.

But all is not yet lost.  The budget will go through a lot of sausage-making in Congress, and even many Republicans are invested in some of these programs, given the benefits they provide their districts.

But environmental and public health advocates will be starting from a tough position, and this is one area where Trump is likely to get a lot of what he wants.

Leapfrogging Traditional Electricity Grids With Renewables: Tanzania’s Example
Elizabeth Mukwimba is a 62-year-old Tanzanian woman who now has solar lighting and electricity in her home at the flick of a switch, thanks to an off-grid project.  Photo from Off-Grid Electric.

Elizabeth Mukwimba is a 62-year-old Tanzanian woman who now has solar lighting and electricity in her home at the flick of a switch, thanks to an off-grid project. Photo from Off-Grid Electric.

Tanzania exemplifies so much of the future of energy infrastructure in developing world countries, as Greenbiz describes:

The East African country of Tanzania faces a serious electrification challenge. Only 2 percent (PDF) of rural households have access to electricity, and most of the rural population relies on expensive, hazardous and low-quality fuels such as kerosene for lighting and charcoal for cooking.

Access to electricity and other modern energy services is fundamental to human well-being and to a country’s social and economic development. In many countries, electrification through off-grid applications has become a cost-effective alternative to conventional grid expansion in remote areas — and this could become a model that propels Tanzania’s next phase of economic growth. Already in the country, energy systems based on wind, small hydropower, biomass and solar resources are being used successfully to meet energy demand in isolated villages. By integrating these renewable-powered off-grid systems, rural communities are increasing their access to affordable energy supplies while contributing meaningfully to climate change mitigation.

Much like the leap to cell phones over landlines, many countries like Tanzania are better served going directly to decentralized, renewable technologies rather than building expensive and dirty traditional power grids with central-station power plants and far-flung transmission lines.

The upside is a cleaner, more resilient energy system with potentially few impacts on the land.  It also means more immediate electrification for rural residents, rather than making them wait for government and utilities to build a centralized grid to reach them.

I note that in this article, batteries do not seem to be on the table for Tanzania’s rural areas, while biomass may make up a crucial portion of the electricity mix.  I have nothing against biomass in concept, but depending on the technologies and incentives involved, it can sometimes lead to increases in emissions.

These opportunities in many ways come from the developed world’s investment in renewable technologies, which has brought prices down to the point where they are now viable options for poorer countries like Tanzania.

Microgrids On The Rise

As the price of solar panels and batteries decreases, our electricity system is starting to look a lot cleaner and more decentralized.  While some people think the rise of community-based electricity technologies will undermine utilities, utilities are in fact embracing one version of decentralized power: microgrids.

Utilities are finding microgrids to be a great resilience strategy for avoiding outages, particularly in rural areas or crucial population or job centers. Greentech Media reports on the trend:

San Diego Gas & Electric delivers power to the town of Borrego Springs via a single radial transmission line running through the desert. Lightning strikes and desert flash floods threaten that line, resulting in historically poor reliability, Chief Engineer Thomas Bialek explained at the DistribuTech panel.

The utility needed to maintain or improve reliability for the nearly 2,800 Borrego Springs customers, but the traditional fix — building out a parallel transmission line — was pricey. A microgrid would be three or four times cheaper, Bialek said. So that’s what they did.The system, paid for by SDG&E, the Department of Energy and other partners, combines diesel generators, large and small batteries, and rooftop solar PV.

The microgrid has already proven itself in the face of adversity. When a flash flood in September 2013 downed transmission poles and lines leading to the town, the microgrid fired up and restored power to 1,056 customers while the grid repairs unfolded. That covered the core city center, so that those residents who didn’t have power yet could move to central facilities for shelter from the heat.

The Microgrid that saved Borrego Springs

The Microgrid that saved Borrego Springs

The future portends even more investment in microgrids, as Utility Dive notes:

Last year, GTM Research estimated there were 156 operational microgrids in the country, making up 1.54 GW of capacity, and that number is expected to rise to 3.71 GW by 2020. Globally,  Transparency Market Research believes the microgrid market will be worth about $35 billion by 2020 — up from $10 billion in 2013.

But as microgrids — and the technologies that underpin them — become cheaper, utilities may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.  With a few additional breakthroughs, these technologies could eventually allow entire communities to defect from the grid, leaving utilities and their remaining ratepayers stuck with stranded assets.

But for now, these installations will provide an environmental and energy win, while furthering investment in the technologies needed to clean and decentralize the electricity sector.

The Search For The Super Battery

No clean technology is more important than the battery (or energy storage more broadly, given that batteries are just one — albeit critical — version of storage). Batteries will soon help power almost all of our vehicles with cleaner electricity instead of fossil fuels. And they’ll help store our surplus renewable power to clean our electricity grids.

The PBS show NOVA just ran a fascinating episode on the subject, called The Search for the Super Battery. It features interviews with UC Berkeley colleagues Dan Kammen and Venkat Srinivasan, as well as car company representatives and other industry leaders. As far as shows on batteries go, this one is pretty fascinating and accessible and well worth the watch:

Happy Friday viewing!

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