Navigant Research Blog

Feeling Blue Is Sometimes a Good Thing for Batteries

— January 31, 2013

Source: Wikimedia CommonsThis is the first in a series of three blog posts about promising laboratory experiments that might show up as products in the battery industry in the coming years.

There are plenty of spectacular experimental battery cathode materials that have excellent voltage, cycling, or cost specifications.  There are none (yet) that boast all three.  That is what is so promising about a new technology out of Stanford.  If the battery can successfully be made into a mass manufactured product, it holds the promise to be high-powered, durable, and cheap.

This paper is out of the Stanford laboratories of Robert Huggins and Yi Cui; Cui is famous for being one of the most prolific battery scientists alive.  His lab has been described to me by a battery scientist as “a factory of useful patents.”  Huggins is also well respected in the materials science community as an innovative and rigorous researcher.

The problem that Huggins was trying to solve when he began his research was how to make an aqueous electrolyte that worked without any of the expensive and toxic solvents that are required to make traditional battery electrolytes work.  He stumbled upon an odd candidate for a cathode that would work with a water-based electrolyte: Prussian Blue.  The compound’s true name is hexacyanoferrate, but it’s better known to lab technicians as the dye you use to turn an iron-rich culture into a deep blue that’s easier to view under a microscope.  The compound works so well as a dye because it has such a rigid crystalline structure that consistently bends light in the proper direction to make the color blue.  For a battery cathode the color doesn’t matter, but a rigid porous structure does.

It’s the cost requirement that sets the Prussian Blue battery apart: most exotic cathodes cost a fortune to make.  Battery scientists often wave away the business strategists who question the economic viability of a technology by saying, “Someone will come up with a way to make this material cheaper.”  Huggins and Cui don’t have to make that argument.  I can buy a metric ton of Prussian Blue on the Internet for the equivalent of $2.60 per kilogram (kg).  That results in about $5 in cathode costs per kilowatt (kW) of power capacity, assuming that the end product can match the hypothetical specific power of 100 W/kg of the battery (the initial paper showed a maximum of 45 W/kg).  Compare that to the cathode cost of a Nissan LEAF  lithium manganese spinel battery, the cheapest large format battery in production today, which Pike Research estimates to be at least $58 per kilogram. Likewise, the material inputs for a lithium titanate battery, which better compares to the high power capabilities of the Prussian Blue battery, are probably upwards of $500 per kilogram.

The initial results of the Prussian Blue battery aren’t all so rosy.  The data for the initial experiments shows that the battery has a specific energy rating of only 5 watt-hours (Wh) per kilogram (versus more than 100 Wh/kg for most currently mass produced lithium ion batteries).  This is not a great long-term energy storage vessel. However, the authors expect to improve on that number as the ingredients are fine-tuned. Even incremental gains in that area will allow the chemistry to compete with ultracapacitors, which are extremely expensive.

The scientists behind the Prussian Blue battery have already formed a company to develop it commercially called Alveo Energy.  That company has already scored a major grant: a $4 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) project to develop the Prussian Blue battery.  While it’s still the early days for the technology, this is certainly one to keep an eye on.


Dreamliner Fires Scorch the Advanced Battery Industry

— January 30, 2013

Source: BoeingThe investigation surrounding the Boeing Dreamliner battery fires indicates that Boeing, and its ballyhooed but beleaguered new jet, will recover from this incident.  The causes of the fires appear to be isolated to the battery system and not endemic to the overall design of the plane.  But the fires could have very different consequences for the advanced battery industry.  At the core of the Dreamliner fires is a debate that engulfs all technological change – How to balance risk and innovation?

So far in 2013 it seems as though high-profile battery accidents are appearing nearly as frequently as new battery shipments are being made. From Hawaii to Japan, batteries on the grid or in vehicles continue to highlight the technical challenges associated with battery storage. This is bad news for an industry that is already struggling to garner demand for its expensive products.  Lithium ion batteries, which have taken something of a competitive lead in consumer products and electric transportation, are pushing into new applications every day as multiple industries move toward cleaner operations based on electricity rather than liquid fuels.  Early adopters, such as Boeing (the Dreamliner is the first passenger aircraft to have Li-ion batteries approved for on-board operation), always bear more significant risk than those that follow.

While Boeing’s reputation and that of the Dreamliner may emerge intact, the battery industry is left with fundamental issues to address.  For years the great debate in the industry has been about cost, but safety issues could prove a greater drag on the industry’s growth in the near term.  Each incident casts a longer shadow over the future of advanced battery technologies.

Advanced battery makers must publicly address these issues and forthrightly move safety to the center of the discussion.  The Dreamliner fires place the burden of proof squarely on battery makers.  Early adopters must be reassured that safety issues are resolved if they’re going to be persuaded to pursue these innovative technologies.


Advanced Batteries: The Year Ahead

— January 22, 2013

Source: WikimediaThe energy storage team at Pike Research has developed a 2013 research roadmap for storage and battery-related coverage.  Armed with lessons learned in 2012, presented below is a brief summary of what this year might have in store for advanced batteries.

In the United States, independent system operators (ISOs) are making real market changes to implement Order 755, concerning pay for performance, handed down by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) in October 2011.  The ISOs are able to design their own approach to resource participation and compensation, and this move should increase the revenue-generating opportunities for battery-based storage (and storage in all forms).  While the ancillary service segment remains a nascent market, Order 755 could potentially unlock revenue potential bound up in dated regulatory policies.  While the real impacts of these market changes have yet to emerge, look for new projects to join the queue for interconnection in 2013.  These projects will likely focus on capturing revenue from providing frequency regulation to the grid.

Putting Out Fires

Pike Research published the latest version of the Energy Storage Tracker in the fourth quarter of 2012.  From the second quarter to the fourth quarter in 2012, 60 new storage projects came online and 107 new projects were announced.  Pike Research’s analysis reveals quite a bit more technology diversity in projects being deployed across the globe, as well.  Advanced battery technologies, particularly lithium-based chemistries, are capturing significant market share.  The new projects are essential to furthering energy storage players’ understanding of the technical and market issues.  These projects can leapfrog over older projects and demonstrate competency at weak points in the supply chain.  As more projects come online, 2013 will represent another year of maturation for the energy storage industry.

One of the primary issues that developers of large-scale advanced battery projects must pay attention to in 2013 is safety.  Scaling up delicate chemical reactions and interconnecting them with an electric grid is an inherently risky proposition, and already public accidents threaten to derail the market’s development.  In 2012, we saw several critical projects undermined by battery fires, including the Xtreme Power installation in Hawaii.  The lithium ion battery fire onboard the Japan Airlines Boeing Dreamliner showed that 2013 is not exempt from battery safety issues.  As lithium ion batteries reach the mainstream power sector, the discussion of safety needs to become more public.

The current year will also see several new players move toward commercialization of their technology.  This could be the year that the hype cycle dies down and the industry can address market and technical issues in a more sober and clear-eyed way.  Still, the abovementioned issues are just a handful of the challenges that will face both legacy battery players and new entrants.


In Energy Storage, The Numbers Don’t Add Up – Yet

— January 21, 2013

If you take a close look at Duke Energy’s Rankin Avenue Retail substation in Mount Holly, North Carolina, you’ll notice a few pieces of equipment that you usually don’t see.  Two 20 ft containers sit on cement pads in a corner of the fenced-in area.  Inside are a bank of batteries and the power electronics and inverter required to control them.  Even stranger is the large, H-shaped structure that looms over the trailers.  It’s an old-fashioned version of line disconnects that are rarely utilized in distribution networks anymore.   It’s been resuscitated for this project – and the reasons point to why most energy storage projects are not quite ready for prime-time.

The overhead switches installed in Rankin are there because the line crew that worked that sector was uncomfortable with a simple hand-operated lever-switch.  To move the overhead device from on to off, a linesman must hold a reach pole and physically disengage a blade from its enclosure.  It’s a 19th-century tool for a 21st-century battery system.  The switch itself costs approximately $15,000, but Duke Energy designers felt that it was important to include it to make the linesmen comfortable with the addition of the battery at the substation.

Making the Case

I heard about the Rankin overhead line disconnects during a presentation by Dan Sowder, a project manager at Duke who deals with energy storage, at the Marcus Evans Energy Storage Conference held in Phoenix last week.  The point I kept hearing in multiple sessions is that we’re in the very early days of understanding the economics of energy storage – both the cost of the systems and the value of the services they provide.  The overhead switches at Rankin are just one example: an extra $15,000 was spent on the system to ensure linesman safety (utilities never skimp on safety).  Here are two more examples I heard of energy storage systems that lack clearly visible costs and benefits:

  • San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) will soon hear from the California Public Utilities Commission about whether the request SDG&E made for rate-basing $50 million for energy storage systems is approved.  The ruling should come down by the end of February.  If approved, the program will be the realization of every battery vendor’s dream: a large, rate-based energy storage request for proposal (RFP).  However, Bob Lane, a consultant with SDG&E, stressed that even if the program is approved, that doesn’t mean that SDG&E will issue an RFP.  It might decide that there are better ways of spending the money than for energy storage units.  The financial case has still not been made for the utility to jump into a major energy storage project.
  • Nathan Adams of Puget Sound Energy also gave a talk on the financial models for energy storage – and why they just don’t work today.  He pointed out that any battery project will be at least twice as expensive than building a combined-cycle natural gas plant.  Distributing the energy storage units throughout the distribution network might make more sense, but Adams emphasized that he has no solid method for providing a viable dollar figure for the value of the services such a network could provide.

In other words, energy storage might make sense at the edge of the network – or it might not.  And until an electric utility can positively answer that question, no major orders will be placed.


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