When it comes to fueling America’s future, President Trump sees the answer as more fossil fuels and fewer regulations. Some industry experts beg to differ, including one who might be able to change the President’s mind. Their case: the Age of the Battery is closer than ever. By stringing together millions of small batteries, advocates say, our seemingly insatiable need for fossil fuels will be extinguished. But is that realistic when we consider the time and costs?
Take California as an example. Just this week, the mammoth state will see three colossal battery storage plants going live. The plants, built by industry leaders Tesla, AES Corp., and Altagas Ltd., would each in their own right have constituted the largest battery storage facility ever built. Working together, the three plants amount to 15 percent of the battery storage installed planet-wide last year. According to a Tesla representative, storage is growing as fast as can be humanly scaled. That’s a big deal.
To date, batteries have only appeared in a few grid-scale pilot projects. The California project changes that. Behind the push to draw these three companies together was the fossil fuel disaster that unfolded early last year in Aliso Canyon, near Los Angeles. A natural gas leak released thousands of tons of methane into the air before it was sealed last February. In the aftermath of the leak, Southern California Edison (SCE) rushed to organize energy storage alternatives to reduce the risk of winter blackouts.
Time was of the essence, and the battery companies delivered. All three projects coming online this week were completed within six months – a record time for the industry. Of the Big Three, Tesla moved particularly swiftly; the battery stalwart completed a task that in the past would have taken years in just three short months. A Tesla spokesperson interpreted this timeline as setting the pace for changing the world.
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That timeline could get a boost from an unlikely relationship. Tesla founder, Elon Musk, has become a close acquaintance with President Trump, who is famously open to non-traditional ideas. Perhaps Musk’s jawboning will, over time, change Trump’s attitude towards alternative energy.
Considering costs, the push towards batteries may be within reach on a larger scale than ever before. Just over the past three years, prices for lithium-ion batteries have fallen by almost half. Increasing demand and scale of manufacturing for these batteries is linked to the rise in popularity of electric cars, which use the same battery cells as grid storage. Despite significant growth in financial feasibility, however, exact battery costs and profitability for utilities remain hard to pinpoint. Why? These companies are reluctant to provide their pricing data, and the expense is highly variable.
The battery storage market has been around less than a decade. But, it has grown up considerably since its nascence. And it should. The benefits of battery plants abound. These power plants take up a much smaller footprint than their gas-powered analogs, they don’t emit pollutants, and their instant response can provide valuable services better than any other technology today. So, in a small but increasing number of settings, batteries are already the most economical option.
Skeptical? Of course you are. And you should be – we have a long way to go before we see large-scale applications of battery plants. Gas will continue to win out on price for projects that aren’t constrained by space, emissions, or urgency. But the landscape is definitely changing, at rates no one could have predicted ten years ago. So what will it look like in another decade? Only time (and money) will tell.
Cover Image: Tesla
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