Epic Changes Coming for Electric Power, Transportation and Energy Storage

by: John Petersen

Epic is the only word I can use to describe an evolving tragedy that killed tens of thousands of people, inflicted hundreds of billions in property damage, destroyed 3.5% of Japan's base-load power generating capacity in a heartbeat and will cause recurring aftershocks in the global electric power, transportation and energy storage sectors for decades. While I'd love to believe the worst is behind us, I fear the times of trouble have just begun.

Since it's clear that Japan will have to turn inward and serve the urgent needs of its own population first, the following direct and immediate impacts seem all but certain:

  • Lost electric power from Japan's ruined nuclear plants must be replaced with oil, natural gas and coal because alternative energy technologies like wind and solar can't possibly take up the slack;
  • Cleanup and reconstruction must increase total Japanese demand for liquid motor fuels;
  • Japanese demand for industrial metals and construction materials must skyrocket; and
  • Crushing limitations on Japan's base-load power generating capacity must:
    • complicate supply chains for equipment, components and materials from Japan;
    • increase the cost of Japanese exports;
    • increase demand for all types of electric efficiency technologies;
    • increase demand for HEVs and other fuel efficiency technologies;
    • increase demand for grid-based energy storage systems; and
    • force utilities to shed non-essential loads and abandon their support for plug-in vehicles.

Some years from now, I expect to see rows of headstones in the EV graveyard that read "Lost to the Tsunami."

While I'm still trying to puzzle my way through the primary, secondary and tertiary impacts, it's a virtual certainty that nuclear power will be immensely unpopular even if things go spectacularly well in Japan. Switzerland has suspended pending applications for two planned nuclear plants and anti-nuclear activists are on the offensive in France . Germany just declared a moratorium on nuclear power and ordered the "temporary" cessation of operations at seven reactors that were built before 1980. Other jurisdictions, including earthquake prone California, can expect immense public pressure to follow suit. In time things will stabilize at a new normal, but that new normal will be very different from the normal that existed two weeks ago.

Some readers will be offended by my offhand dismissal of wind and solar as viable solutions. Others will be enraged by the suggestion that utilities will abandon their support for distributed and inherently unpredictable power demand from plug-in vehicles. All I can say is that reality is inconvenient that way. Japan just lost 7.6 gigawatts of base-load capacity. The German moratorium slashed their base-load capacity by 8.3 gigawatts. As the nuclear dominoes continue to fall, the strain on power grids everywhere will get far worse than any of us can begin to imagine. The last thing the world needs in times of plummeting base-load capacity is rapid expansion of demand. We simply can't have it both ways.

Nuclear power plants typically operate at 90% of nameplate capacity while wind and solar operate at something closer to 25% of nameplate. The nuclear reactors that have recently gone off-line in Japan and Germany accounted for roughly 125 TWh of electricity production last year. In comparison, global electricity production from wind and solar power in 2009 was 269 TWh and 21 TWh, respectively. In other words, we just lost base-load power that represents 43% of the world's renewable electricity output. The gap cannot possibly be filled by new wind and solar power facilities.

There is no question that Japan will be forced to use conventional fossil fuels to replace its destroyed nuclear plants and unless its residents choose to endure extreme hardship for the sake of principle, Germany will be forced to do the same. Comparable power shortages will arise in every industrialized country that decides the risks of vintage nuclear plants outweigh their benefits. When you start stripping base-load power out of the grid, plug-in vehicles become wildly extravagant. My cynical side is tickled that Armageddon Entrepreneurs will finally be forced to choose between stoking fears over (A) imported oil and turmoil in the middle east; (B) global warming; and (C) nuclear power plants. My practical side foresees an immensely difficult time when reality finally sinks in and people are forced to come to grips with their own wasteful behavior. The panacea possibilities were washed away in the tsunami. Now we have to get serious about conservation and abandon the childish notion that we can waste one class of natural resource in the name of conserving another.

Over the last few months the mainstream media has been abuzz with stories about high-profile demonstration projects that will use battery-based systems to help stabilize the grid and smooth power output from wind and solar installations. As usual, the mainstream is getting it wrong and creating expectations the energy storage industry can't possibly meet.

A classic example of overblown media hype is Southern California Edison's plans to spend $55 million to demonstrate a battery-based solution from A123 Systems (AONE) that will provide 32 MW of power and 8 MWh of energy to smooth power output from the Tehachapi wind complex. The following graph from the California ISO highlights the variability issue that's the bane of alternative energy facilities everywhere.

3.16.11 Wind.pngClick to enlarge

(Click charts to expand)

While the new energy storage system will probably do a fine job of smoothing minute-to-minute variability, it will be absolutely worthless in the context of Tehachapi's average daily power production swing of over 200 MW. Tehachapi needs several gigawatt hours of storage, not a few megawatt hours.

I'm convinced that grid-based energy storage is an immense opportunity, but it won't be in the form of the headline grabbing projects the media is fixated on today. Two weeks ago the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory published a review of "Electrochemical Energy Storage for Green Grid" that describes the need for grid-based storage, identifies the leading storage technologies and explains the baseline economic requirements. Copies of the PNNL review are available from the American Chemical Society for $35. If you own stock in a battery company or are thinking about investing in one, it's the best $35 you'll ever spend.

In their discussion of storage economics, the authors said:

"Cost is probably the most important and fundamental issue of EES for a broad market penetration. Among the most important factors are capital cost and life-cycle cost. The capital cost is typically expressed in terms of the unit cost of power ($/kW) for power applications (e.g., frequency regulation) or the unit cost of energy capacity ($/kWh) for energy applications (e.g., load leveling). The life-cycle cost is the unit cost of energy or power per cycle over the lifetime of the unit.

... In the authors' opinion, the cost of electricity storage probably needs to be comparable to the cost of generating electricity, such as from natural gas turbines at a cost as low as 8-10 ¢/kWh per cycle. Thus, to be competitive, the capital cost of storage technologies for energy applications should be comparable or lower than $250/kWh, assuming a life cycle of 15 years or 3900 cycles (5 cycles per week), an 80% round trip efficiency, and “zero” maintenance. A capital cost of $1,250/kW or less is desired if the technology can last 5 h at name-tag power. ..."

A123's demonstration project at Tehachapi will cost $1,720 per kW and $6,880 per kWh for a 15 minute solution. It's a highly profitable project for A123, but light-years from cost-effective. The same is true of another high profile project where Ener1 (NASDAQ:HEV) will sell power quality systems with a combined capacity of 3 MW and 5 MWh to the Russian Federal Grid for $40 million, or $13,300 per kW and $8,000 per kWh. These projects are great headline events, but they'll never be the basis for a sustainable business.

In February and March of last year I wrote a series of articles that focused on grid-based storage. The first summarized a study titled " Energy Storage for the Electricity Grid: Benefits and Market Potential Assessment Guide " (pdf) that was commissioned by the DOE's Energy Storage Systems Program and conducted by Jim Eyer and Garth Corey. For that article, I calculated an average economic benefit for each of the 17 grid-scale storage applications discussed in the report and then used those averages to calculate the potential demand in MWh, the potential economic benefit per kWh and the potential revenue opportunity for storage system manufacturers. The following table summarizes my results.

Click to enlarge

The color coding is simply my attempt to separate high-value applications that need objectively cool technologies like flywheels, supercapacitors and lithium ion batteries from low-value applications that need objectively cheap solutions like flow batteries, lead-acid batteries, compressed air and pumped hydro. The bottom line is that revenue opportunities in grid-based storage will be 90% cheap, 8% cool and 2% in-between. Any way you cut it, the lion's share of the revenue opportunity will flow to companies that manufacture objectively cheap storage solutions. There will be niche markets in the $1 billion to $6 billion range for cool technologies like flywheels, supercapacitors and lithium ion batteries, but those niche markets will pale in comparison to the opportunities for cheap energy storage.

Until last week, I believed global demand for grid-based storage would ramp slowly over the course of a decade. Today it's beginning to look like grid-scale storage will rapidly eclipse all other potential markets. The universe of companies that can effectively respond to urgent global needs for large-scale storage is very small. It includes General Electric (NYSE:GE), Enersys (NYSE:ENS), Exide Technologies (XIDE), and C&D Technologies (CHHPD.PK) in the established manufacturer ranks, and Axion Power International (NASDAQ:AXPW) and ZBB Energy (ZBB) in the emerging technology ranks. Companies like A123, Ener1, Active Power (NASDAQ:ACPW), Beacon Power (BCON) and Altair Nanotechnologies (NASDAQ:ALTI) will undoubtedly have exciting revenue opportunities, but the cost of their products will exclude them from the competitive mainstream.

In November of 2008 I wrote, "what I initially described as a rising tide is now looking more like an investment tsunami as a handful of micro-cap and small-cap companies gear up to compete for $50 to $70 billion of rapidly developing annual demand for large format energy storage systems." While it took a real tsunami to bring things to a head, I'm more convinced than ever that every company that brings a cost-effective energy storage product to market over the next few years will have more demand than it can possibly handle. EVs may be dead men walking but grid-scale storage looks like the opportunity of a lifetime.

Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (AXPW) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.