The most recent meeting of The Economic Club of Phoenix featured a discussion of our energy future by Gary Dirks, the director of an innovative research center, called LightWorks, at Arizona State University. LightWorks brings together University-wide faculty whose work on sunlight has energy implications. Perhaps his focus on photovoltaics rather than storage was no surprise; this was Arizona where sunlight is abundant. However, Mr. Dirks’ comments on energy storage especially drew my attention. It was just a few days ago that Ucilia Wang had written about a West Virginia lithium-ion battery farm for grid storage in her blog, The World’s Largest Lithium-Ion Battery Farm Comes Online.
Mr. Dircks had stated that the future of energy storage was unclear. After all batteries, especially lithium-ion ones, are very expensive in addition to having other current shortcomings, including capacity. In the face of these challenges, Mr. Dircks argued for the need to time shift energy use in order to diminish the importance of the challenges of storage for our use of renewable energy derived from sun and wind.
Certainly, some shifting of the time of day for our use of energy is feasible with alternative life styles and new materials that retain heat and cooling for longer periods. However, the widespread availability of electrical energy, derived primarily from fossil fuels, especially coal, has led humans to make very rapid and attractive changes in their lifestyle. And attractive, reinforcing lifestyles make substantial change to human behavior unlikely without attendant, significant increases in energy prices. For the foreseeable future, the availability of coal, oil and natural gas make such significant price increases unlikely.
In the longer run, however, many of us believe that increasing dependence on renewable energy is likely. As nonrenewable supplies decline, prices for fossil-fuel-generated energy rise, and climate-related issues impinge upon us, renewables become far more attractive. With their attractiveness, reasonable energy storage solutions become essential.
The essential role of energy storage and rechargeable batteries like lithium-ion batteries can easily be understood in terms of the need to shave peak demand and level the intermittent supply of energy generated from renewable sources such as sun and wind. As these renewables become increasingly significant sources of our energy supply, the demand for efficient storage of large amounts of energy grows.
The good news is that the issue of energy storage draws the attention of a wide variety of researchers as can be seen from the annual Materials Science and Technology Conference that was held in Columbus Ohio a few days ago. Energy storage was a topic of some attention. Professor Xingbo Liu of West Virginia University chaired a program on Energy Storage: Materials, Systems and Applications. He and his colleagues from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are investigating advances in materials that will make energy storage devices affordable and efficient.
Professor Liu’s work concerns novel materials that can be highly conductive at low temperatures, and it has the potential to produce the kind of advances that will make energy storage something that we can depend upon. And with that dependability, we will be able to take advantage of the work on renewables coming from centers like ASU’s LightWorks without the need for fundamental and large-scale changes to human behavior.