A farewell to the carbon era as US believes next energy revolution is less than five years away
The world's next energy revolution is probably no more than five years away. Cutting-edge research into cheap and clean forms of electricity storage is moving so fast that we may never again need to build 20th century power plants.
The US Energy Department is funding 75 projects developing electricity storage, mobilising teams of scientists at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the elite Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge labs in a bid for what it calls the "Holy Grail" of energy policy.
You can track what they are doing at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). There are plans for hydrogen bromide, or zinc-air batteries, or storage in molten glass, or next-generation flywheels, many claiming "drastic improvements" that can slash storage costs by 80pc to 90pc and reach the magical figure of $100 per kilowatt/hour (kw/h)in relatively short order.
"Storage is a huge deal," says Ernest Moniz, the US Energy Secretary and himself a nuclear physicist. He is now confident that the US grid and power system will be completely "decarbonised" by the middle of the century.
The technology is poised to overcome the curse of "intermittency" that has long bedevilled wind and solar. Surges of excess power will be stored for use later at times when the sun sets, and consumption peaks in the early evening.
One front-runner - a Washington favourite - is an organic flow battery at Harvard that uses quinones (a type of organic compound) from cheap and abundant sources such as rhubarb or oil waste. It is much cheaper and less toxic than current flow batteries based on the rare earth metal vanadium. Its reactions are 1,000 times faster.
Professor Michael Aziz, leader of the Harvard project, said there are still problems to sort out with the "calendar life" of storage chemicals but the basic design is essentially proven.
"We have a fighting chance of bringing down the capital cost to $100 a kw/h, and that will change the world," he said. "It could complement wind and solar on a very large scale."
The latest refinement is to replace toxic bromine with harmless ferrocyanide - used in food additives. The battery cannot catch fire. It is safe and clean. "This is chemistry I'd be happy to put in my basement," he said.
The design is simple. It uses a tank of water. You could have one at home in Los Angeles, Lagos, Buenos Aires, Delhi, or Guangzhou, storing solar power in the day to drive your air-conditioning at night. It could be scaled up for a 500-megawatt windfarm.
Italy's Green Energy Storage has the European licence. It is building a prototype with the Kessler Foundation at Trento University, backed by EU funds.
"We have a chemistry that is 10 times cheaper than anything on the market," said Salvatore Pinto, the chairman.
"We are speaking to three utilities in Europe and we will install our first battery as a field test next year."
It is a race. Tim Grejpak, an energy expert at Lux Research, said Lockheed Martin and Pacific Northwest labs are both working on their own organic flow batteries, while others are developing variants with designed molecules.
Consultants McKinsey & Co estimate that the energy storage market will grow a hundredfold to $90bn a year by 2025.
Once storage costs approach $100 kw/h, there ceases to be much point in building costly "baseload" power plants.
Nuclear reactors cannot be switched on and off as need demands - unlike gas plants. They are useless as a back-up for the decentralised grid of the future, when wind, solar, hydro, and other renewables will dominate the power supply. (© Daily Telegraph, London)