July 2018 Column: The Need for Battery Technology Development
Creating battery-testing centers in Massachusetts was a proposal from my campaign for state representative and a focus of my efforts since.
Last week, the House passed a bill to do exactly that, the culmination of two years of work and conversations that I and others had with the chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. It also took discussions with numerous battery startups, professors and other researchers, and experts who could explain the workings of our electric grid and global energy systems.
Energy storage is essential for solving climate change. Solar and wind are intermittent. All solar or wind capacity on our grid must have some kind of backup. Right now in New England that’s mostly natural gas power, which can ramp up and down almost instantaneously to account for changes in renewable generation. When we produce more solar or wind electricity, we use less gas. That’s great, but it only works when solar and wind are small portions of our grid.
To solve climate change, the entire world must decarbonize all energy systems by 2050 at the latest. In that 2050 grid, all electric generation will have to come from clean sources, so solar and wind will need to scale up immensely. They might be as much as half our global grid by that point. But sometimes for as long as a full week, depending on location and season, solar and wind may produce almost no electricity. For that week, the world can’t run on half power — there needs to be some non-fossil-fuel backup.
Storage is an attractive option because batteries can be used for much more than the lowest-renewable week of the year. Batteries can also buy cheap electricity at off-peak times to use during peak times. Today’s fossil fuel infrastructure is built for the peak demand of the whole year, so storage that lowers our peak could have a big impact in reducing New England’s fossil fuel use.
Batteries can also pair with wind and solar directly and allow those resources to be more competitive. Or they can integrate with homes or communities that run off-grid, moving us closer to a decentralized electricity system.
The problem is that current energy storage is expensive. We will need innovation to bring down costs.
Several of the companies and professors I talked with are working on a battery technology that’s particularly suited to long-term, grid-scale storage. It’s called a liquid flow battery, and without getting too technical, it involves electrolytes being pumped from tanks through a stack of metal plates. The stack determines how many megawatts can be put onto the grid at any instant (“power”), and the size or number of tanks determines how many hours worth of energy can be stored (“capacity”).
Liquid flow battery capacity can be scaled simply by adding more tanks (without needing to scale up the power components too, which is what makes lithium ion and other batteries expensive at large scales). This makes them uniquely suited to provide eight hours, or even a week, of grid storage.
I have expressed the vision of making Massachusetts “the Silicon Valley of the new energy economy.” Liquid flow batteries are one great place to start, as several professors and companies working on this technology are already in Massachusetts. Last month, the House passed an environmental bond bill, and I was delighted to get $500,000 added to it for liquid flow battery research. That will pair well with the new Energy Storage Testing Facility and related battery innovation initiatives created by the House bill last week.
These successes relied on several years of work and some degree of luck. I initially hoped to create such a facility in last year’s budget process, and settled at that time for a study commission, which I chaired this winter. I followed up with more detailed conversations with experts and House leadership. Similarly and in parallel, I created the Clean Energy Caucus this year to get larger energy issues on the agenda.
This process of cultivating an idea over time is emblematic of lessons learned in my first term as state representative. Above all, I’ve discovered how the current culture and process of the House work. It takes a lot of groundwork ahead of time to set up any policy idea for success if and when an opportunity comes along.
If we are to truly capitalize on Massachusetts’ unique position to be the center for clean energy innovation, we will need inclusive coalitions to achieve more, bigger, successes.