By Richard T. Stuebi
A radical breakthrough in energy storage has long been considered the “holy grail” of cleantech. With ubiquitous, scalable, reliable and (most importantly) low-cost energy storage, two main thrusts of cleantech adoption will be de-bottlenecked: much deeper penetration of zero-emitting and limitless but intermittent solar and wind into the electricity generation mix, and significantly reduced needs for fueled internal combustion in vehicles. Either of these is gargantuan in scope and implications. As I like to say, whoever solves just one of them in a commercially-attractive way will make Bill Gates look like a pauper.
Of course, the primary energy storage technology in use now, and for the past century, is batteries. The current state of battery technology has well-known performance characteristics that are generally satisfactory for present applications (e.g., starting automobiles, power quality management in uninterruptible power systems (UPS), portable consumer electronics), but not for the two above-noted game-changing applications.
And so the cleantech innovation and investment world has been searching near and far, high and low, for better energy storage solutions.
Some trailblazers are pushing entirely new technological platforms for energy storage. About a decade ago, flywheels were especially in vogue. As the name implies, this is a mechanical device that stores energy in a spinning mass. However, several issues – notably frictional losses for stationary applications and weight and containment (you do NOT want a flywheel disintegrating into a hail of shrapnel in an accident) for mobile applications – have been difficult to overcome. The two most well-known flywheel developers: Active Power (NASDAQ: ACPW) continues to make a go of it, whereas Beacon Power (NASDAQ: BCON) just announced bankruptcy last week after a very long slog.
Supercapacitors and ultracapacitors also horn in on battery territory. Like batteries, both supercaps and ultracaps are electrochemical devices. However, unlike batteries, they typically charge/discharge more quickly, thereby allowing rapid surges and refills of power. In truth, supercaps and ultracaps may be more of a complement than a threat to batteries: batteries being generally pretty good in slow/long energy flows but not strong in fast/short energy flows (i.e., high energy density and low power density) and super/ultracaps being the opposite (i.e., high power density and low energy density). Of course, if super/ultracaps can be matured to provide both high power and high energy density at attractive economics while meeting other key performance criteria (reliability, temperature tolerance, weight, etc.), then batteries will truly be under siege. Indeed, as one recent article on GreenTech Media suggests, Ioxus claims to be developing an ultracap that really begins to intrude on the battery space for electric vehicles.
Even so, don’t underestimate the challenges these upstart technologies face in penetrating the energy storage market. There’s a reason why batteries, as suboptimal as they may be, dominate the energy storage space: nothing else has been able to do better, consistently, at low cost.
Accordingly, a lot of attention, effort and money still flows to the battery space – to make improvements to the reigning energy storage technology champion. Of course, batteries can be improved on just about every possible dimension imaginable: energy density, power density, weight, cost, depth of discharge, speed of recharge, number of lifecycles.
Battery technology innovations can generally be lumped into two categories. One is better materials for the electrodes or electrolytes, to improve the performance of individual battery cells. Second, is battery management systems (BMS), which aim to improve the way multiple cells interact and affect overall battery performance.
Both types of innovations were on display at last month’s unimaginatively-named The Battery Show in suburban Detroit. It was a modest exhibition, as cleantech shows go.
With few exceptions – LG comes most to mind, with a demo of its lithium-ion battery-based whole-home UPS that it will be unveiling in the next year or two – most of the booths showed the wares of small little-known companies seeking to get a toehold in the battery space, selling to battery manufacturers or gaining the enthusiasm of battery users who can then apply pressure on the battery manufacturers themselves.
Among manufacturers of batteries, most of the biggest companies such as C&D Technologies (OTC: CHHP.PK), East Penn Deka and Exide Technologies (NASDAQ: XIDE) did not have visible presences. Although disappointing, it’s not surprising: the battery industry has consistently been characterized to me as sleepy and resistant to change, focused more on manufacturing and cost-minimization than technology advancement. The one company probably most shaking up the battery sector – A123 Systems (NASDAQ: AONE) – was in good force, although perhaps that should be discounted somewhat, since many of their employees are located just a few miles from the show venue.
While the battery sector may have largely been “fat, dumb and happy” for decades, I see that characteristic fading away in the coming years, perhaps quickly. Many staid management and operating teams of the big guys are nearing retirement, and there’s so much at stake in the future of energy storage that highly-disruptive and well-capitalized global players will no doubt be increasingly entering the market and stirring the pot. For instance, a recent article in The Economist mentioned the battery ambitions of Samsung (OTC:SMSHF), a formidable entrant-to-be.
Increasing dynamism will be uncomfortable for the battery incumbents, but then again, no-one said the cleantech market was easy.