The Catch-22 of Energy Storage

“It’s important to understand the nature of this EROEI limit. This is not a question of inadequate storage capacity – we can’t just buy or make more storage to make it work. It’s not a question of energy losses during charge and discharge, or the number of cycles a battery can deliver. We can’t look to new materials or technological advances, because the limits at the leading edge are those of earthmoving and civil engineering. The problem can’t be addressed through market support mechanisms, carbon pricing, or cost reductions. This is a fundamental energetic limit that will likely only shift if we find less materially intensive methods for dam construction.

This is not to say wind and solar have no role to play. They can expand within a fossil fuel system, reducing overall emissions.”

Brave New Climate

Pick up a research paper on battery technology, fuel cells, energy storage technologies or any of the advanced materials science used in these fields, and you will likely find somewhere in the introductory paragraphs a throwaway line about its application to the storage of renewable energy.  Energy storage makes sense for enabling a transition away from fossil fuels to more intermittent sources like wind and solar, and the storage problem presents a meaningful challenge for chemists and materials scientists… Or does it?


Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT, holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry, and is an experienced industrial R&D leader.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorgan First published in Chemistry in Australia .

Several recent analyses of the…

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Germany’s Energy Policy Is Failing the Poor, While Being a Poor Way to Help the Climate

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Graphic credit Bjorn Lomborg

The captioned title is from Bjorn Lomborg, who is one of the few energy policy thinkers who is paying close attention to the impacts of policy options on energy poverty – especially of the bottom 1.6 billion. But also of the developed-world poor who are being shoved into this miserable state by their misguided government policies. Germany is a standout for the failing Energiewende.

So how is it going over there in Germany? Poorly says Lomborg: 

The German government recently said that 6.9 million households live in energy poverty, defined as spending more than 10 per cent of their income on energy. This is partly a result of Germany’s Energiewende, the country’s turn away from nuclear and towards renewable energies.

This year alone, German consumers are expected to subsidize green energy to the tune of a whopping €23.6 billion ($33 billion) on top of their…

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Hard hats and heels

Image from Goar’s article in the Toronto Star

The electricity industry faces a major shortage of skilled workers in the coming years. It needs 23,000 new recruits by 2016 just to replace retiring baby boomers. When the imperative of upgrading Canada’s half-century-old power grid is factored in, the number balloons.

Women are the sector’s largest untapped labour pool. Hoping to change that, the industry group has launched a $350,000 campaign called Bridging the Gap. It aims to persuade women to become engineers, electricians, power line technicians, construction millwrights, power station operators and industrial mechanics.

Women currently make up 25 per cent of the electricity industry’s workforce, but they are heavily concentrated in administration and marketing. “We want to get them working on the technical side,” Branigan [chief executive of Electricity Human Resources Canada] says.
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Wrong way round

A truly independent local paper is now a rarity in Ontario.

The Wellington Times is the best I know of, so I was well flattered to see my name, and original content blog, in Rick Conroy’s Wrong Way Round:

Bit by bit, the Ontario government is recognizing the futility of its renewable energy strategy. Still, it can’t help but throw more public tax dollars at developers eager to cash in at our expense.

This week, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) announced it was letting five contracts worth a total of $42 million to develop electricity storage technologies. The money will be used to develop a dozen demonstration projects around the province designed to capture and release energy— schemes that use batteries, hydrogen, flywheels and even bricks. Yes, bricks.

The problem is that none of these technologies work—certainly not on a scale sufficient to serve a regional electricity grid. Nor is Ontario the first to dabble in the search for this Holy Grail. Every jurisdiction that has dabbled in intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar has grappled with the same dilemma; what to do when the sun doesn’t shine and wind doesn’t blow?

It would have been wiser and more productive had these jurisdictions pooled their money to solve this problem before each erected forests of industrial wind turbines and covered vast tracts of land with solar panels. This may seem obvious with hindsight—except I, and many others, made this same point in in 2006.

Of course, it is far too simplistic to limit the challenge of intermittent electricity sources to its inherent unpredictability. The bigger issue is that it messes with the entire system— not just with the wires and transformers, but with the way we buy and sell electricity. How we match demand with supply.

On most days, we generate enough electricity to serve the province from our hydro dams and our nuclear power stations. Yet wind turbines and solar panels continue to push useless electricity into the grid. The excess must be dumped or the entire system is put at risk. It is why we spend about a billion dollars each year paying Ontario’s neighbours to take our energy. Now we also pay wind and solar energy producers to disconnect themselves from the grid.

Scott Luft does a great job on his blog Cold Air chronicling and describing the challenges that intermittent electricity wreaks upon Ontario’s system. He makes the point, backed by closely observed data, that the IESO has effectively lost its bearings.

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Danes on Ottawa, Monbiot on Toronto, et al…

A couple of articles I read today of interest:

I thought John Michael McGrath’s In Defense of Danish Tourists was terrific, although I suspect people like living in Ottawa more than most other places. We’d be better off concentrating on more pedestrian concerns more often.

I didn’t find George Monbiot’s Sick of this market -driven world? You should be a pleasant read, but I am a fan of Monbiot and he’s made a special request on this one.

This section struck me as relevant to what I’m usually writing on…

If neoliberalism was anything other than a self-serving con, whose gurus and thinktanks were financed from the beginning by some of the world’s richest people (the US multimillionaires Coors, Olin, Scaife, Pew and others), its apostles would have demanded, as a precondition for a society based on merit, that no one should start life with the unfair advantage of inherited wealth or economically determined education. But they never believed in their own doctrine. Enterprise, as a result, quickly gave way to rent.

All this is ignored, and success or failure in the market economy are ascribed solely to the efforts of the individual. The rich are the new righteous; the poor are the new deviants, who have failed both economically and morally and are now classified as social parasites.

The market was meant to emancipate us, offering autonomy and freedom. Instead it has delivered atomisation and loneliness.

The workplace has been overwhelmed by a mad, Kafkaesque infrastructure of assessments, monitoring, measuring, surveillance and audits, centrally directed and rigidly planned, whose purpose is to reward the winners and punish the losers. It destroys autonomy, enterprise, innovation and loyalty, and breeds frustration, envy and fear. Through a magnificent paradox, it has led to the revival of a grand old Soviet tradition known in Russian as tufta. It means falsification of statistics to meet the diktats of unaccountable power.

Perhaps that reminds me on Toronto because I occassionally pull the figures on curtailments at wind generators – which Ontario’s Premier Wynne arbitrarily decided ratepayers should pay them for instead of enforcing the contract terms where turbines were built where power can’t get to market. While the theme is that renewable energy generators need to be supported, the big beneficiaries of Wynne’s decision are Enbridge, Bookfield and TransAlta(I estimate $20+ million in the first 10 months) . The companies made bad investments to provide low-quality electricity. Kathleen Wynne decided to rob from ratepayers to enrich them anyway. That elite isn’t defined by competence, and those outside that elite are treated poorly regardless of competence.

My take on the winners and losers may be far too rosey a take from Monbiot’s column.

There’s nothing to curdle the blook like hearing of a local suicide, and I was surprised to find, when investigating how common suicide was, that it’s quite common, particularly among our your people. I think Monbiot’s conclusion is worth communicating often:

if you don’t fit in, if you feel at odds with the world, if your identity is troubled and frayed, if you feel lost and ashamed – it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You are a deviant. Be proud.