The good, the bad, and the ugly truth about batteries

Posted on November 11, 2015
Posted By: Davis Swan

If we had affordable and reliable utility-scale battery systems our energy problems would be over. We could easily develop enough wind and solar power to meet our energy demands by storing excess energy generated at mid-day and when the winds were blowing strongly. It would then be available to use at night and/or when the winds are calm.

Inexpensive and abundant energy from renewables would also go a long way to solving water shortages in coastal areas around the world because desalination on a large scale would become economically feasible.

One energy writer back in 2013 stated that we had already reached the promised land and that concerns about the reliability of wind were effectively over. She was talking about the building of the Notrees battery complex in Texas - the largest such facility in North America. At that time I pointed out the fact that the installed batteries could deliver only 25% of the capacity of the wind farm. More importantly, the batteries could deliver that power for a total of 15 minutes. The facility, which cost $44 million, was not designed to replace the energy output of the wind farm. It was intended to stabilize the output over very short periods of time and to allow for a few minutes to bring on other rapid response power sources when wind was ramping down such as when a weather front passes.

Despite the limitations of the Notrees battery complex it appeared to be a step in the right direction. That is, until it was announced that all of the batteries have to be replaced after less than 4 years of service.

Oh well, maybe they just got unlucky ... or maybe not.

The Kauai Island Utility Co-operative also installed a large battery complex in 2012 using the same technology as that used at Notrees and all those batteries also have to be replaced. In both cases the replacement batteries will be lithium ion - from Samsung for Notrees and SAFT for KIUC. My personal experience with Lithium Ion batteries in laptops and smart phones does not make me confident that they can last more than 5 years but only time will tell.

Regardless of the potential longevity of large battery systems the cost of truly backing up renewable resources such as wind remains unacceptably high. It is worth considering a real world example in order to understand the scope of the problem.

Texas currently has over 12 GW of wind energy capacity, the largest amount of any state in the U.S. Many renewable energy advocates make the claim that "the wind is always blowing somewhere" so that periods of calm in one area can be handled by shipping electricity from distant locations where the wind is blowing. I would dispute that contention.

There are frequent occasions when large high pressure systems cover much of the North American continent resulting in calm conditions over very large areas. For example, from November 22 to 26, 2013 the winds across the whole of Texas were calm even as electricity demand increased.

The average capacity factor for Texas is about 28% so for this period of time there was a shortfall of at least 1.5 GW of wind generation. In order to replace this "missing" wind generation with energy produced from storage it would be necessary to have 4 days x 24 hours x 1.5 GW = 144 GW-Hours of energy storage. The battery complex at Notrees cost $44 million for 36 MW x 0.15 hours = 9 MW-Hours of storage which translates into about $4.8 Million/MW-hour or $4.8 Billion/GW-hour.

The bottom line? It would cost 144 x $4.8 Billion = $690 billion to provide backup for a relatively short period of calm weather for just the state of Texas. If that enormous capital expenditure could be amortized over 30 or 50 years (as can be done with a hydro dam or a coal or natural gas fired thermal plant) then it might make sense. But it seems unlikely that any batteries implemented today would last more than 10 years.

Despite the many problems that have been encountered with large scale battery installations and the rather daunting costs there are still interesting projects under development. Once again, Kauai Island Utility Co-operative is blazing new trails with the proposed 52 MW-hour array at Kapaia. The batteries will be charged using the output from a new solar array which, for the first time, will not be used to provide electricity to the grid during the daylight hours. The project is going to break ground in the spring of 2016.

If successful this project will be the new benchmark for renewable energy storage based upon MW-Hours (the largest such facility currently in operation that I am aware of is a 36 MW-Hour iron phosphate battery project in China).

Authored By:
Davis has been involved with energy policy development and the exploration of innovation in energy use throughout his career. For more than 20 years he worked in the oil & gas industry where he had broad exposure to the technologies used in the development of natural gas, conventional oil, heavy oil, and tar sands resources. He has also acted as the energy policy advisor for the Official Opposition in the

Other Posts by: Davis Swan

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November, 11 2015

Richard Vesel says

Load balancing technologies are already available which permit up to 50% renewables penetration (solar+wind) without storage. A small modicum of storage extends this even further.

Meanwhile, technology moves forward. Anecdotal personal experience with small consumer batteries should not be used as serious argument here. In fact, the two locations you mentioned used lead-acid batteries, which tells me that they tried to "go cheap" rather than "reliable". As with all things, you get what you pay for, and obviously these systems are valuable enough to the utility, that they are repowering them with lithium ion technology in order to retain what has proven to be valuable functionality.

It would be preferable to have such articles developed with a bit more intellectual rigor, and a bit less personal ax-grinding. As it is, I believe there was plenty of color commentary on the bad and the ugly, without much more than a token bone thrown in the direction of "good".

Because of the "holy grail" nature of utility scale, microgrid scale and automotive-scale energy storage, there is a huge amount of R&D going on, with weekly reports coming out about advances in nano-technology being applied to batteries to increase power density, power-to-weight ratios (not so important for stationary applications), discharge & recharge rates, and cyclic lifetimes. Commercialization is not so far away. Elon Musk is not a starry eyed dreamer. He is not investing in a billion-dollar battery manufacturing facility because it gives him some jollies. You can be sure as anyone can be about "the future", that he will be cranking out batteries that will do exactly what they are advertised and required to do.

I'll give ten-to-one odds on that...


November, 11 2015

Davis Swan says

I think it is a bit unfair to make the statement that my posts lack "intellectual vigor". I believe that the major points of this article - that batteries for utility scale backup of renewables are unreliable and expensive and that more research and development work is required - are fully backed up in this article with concrete facts. If you feel I have made a statement that is factually incorrect please be specific.

Your comment that "Load balancing technologies are already available which permit up to 50% renewables penetration (solar+wind) without storage." is completely unproven since no jurisdiction is close to that. As I stated when Germany and Denmark have that much electricity from renewables coming into the grid they have to dump it into neighbouring countries. That is a fact based upon the interconnection activity.

November, 12 2015

Richard Vesel says

"Rigor" not "Vigor", lol

And there are several island microgrid systems with higher than 50% penetration, as shown in ten functioning cases identified within these articles, where one of them is at fully 100% renewable (with storage).

(Kodiak Island is an ABB project, by the way.)

Using rigor means objectively validating one's claims before making them, and not using personal experience with only rhetorical relevance as backup. Cell-phone and laptop batteries are chemically but not physically related to the Li-Ion batteries to be used for mass storages. Better comparisons would be electric vehicle battery packs a la Tesla, where at least a few dozen kwhr are stored and where they must reliably function for many years at varying rates and depths of discharge, under many different temperature/humidity conditions, etc. They are not designed to be as low cost and as easily "thrown away" as the small batteries in your anecdotes.

Yes, right now, renewable curtailment and/or dumping is a fact of life, as the grids adapt and evolve to new generation. Problems are not any reason to cast aspersions on a technology - just the insurmountable ones. Kwhr and Mwhr battery installations will be ubiquitous soon enough, and renewables will become a larger part of the generation mix. Commitments to this increased penetration may be made as early as next month in Paris...perhaps.

RWV 98.73% rigorous

November, 13 2015

Ferdinand E. Banks says

I'm sorry, but this is just the kind of article on batteries that I need. Reading it makes me want to write the kind of book that I often tell colleagues that I am Writing or thinking about writing, so that they can have something else to worry about.

As for what people will hear in Paris, let me assure every interested party on the face of the Earth that every crank in Sweden will be in that marvelous city demonstrating their ignorance, and not just Sweden. Let me ask you (or anybody else) a question Richard. Since we have not gotten anything useful out of the other talkathons like the farce in Paris, why should we expect something out of this one?

November, 16 2015

Richard Vesel says

The bigger the issue, the longer it takes to build consensus, unless one major party takes the bull by the horns and steps up to make a major move and shows how it can and should be done. Rebuilding Germany via the Marshall Plan, and the restructuring of Japan, after WWII are examples of the lead party taking charge of and investing heavily in what needed to be done.

This is a different issue in that physical occupation is not appropriate, but still needing to win the hearts and minds of people and their governments is essential. If two or three influential countries did in Paris what Hawai'i has done, and established similar goals, embodying something like:

"Our goal is to be using 100% sustainable energy, meaning zero net-fossil carbon emissions, by 2050. Here are our intermediate targets for each five years along the way, beginning with 2020, and the five additional milestones between 2020 and 2050 (i.e. 2025, 2030, 2035, 2040 & 2045). Here are the methods by which we intend to stimulate these moves, and the expected levels of funding (in terms of % of GDP) that we intend to direct towards achieving these goals."

Then another page or so of "details".

Without this kind of firm leadership and commitment from participants such as: USA, Germany, China, India, Russia, UK, France, Italy, Brazil, etc. then there will be no "thought leadership" or "moral leadership", and the discussion then again descends into haggling over the science and evidence of climate disruption, who is to blame, who will be hurt v. who will benefit, is this a plot by thousands to redistribute the wealth milliions, blah blah blah blah blah.

Actions speak louder than words. If no one is going to put forth a plan and commitment to act, then it will be seen as yet another exchange of hot air. Farce is to cruel of a word, I believe. And, I have hopes that by January, that we will see that it will have been the opposite of a farce, with ideas and plans and commitments of substance that will come out. Ah yes, the Audacity of Hope...


November, 17 2015

Richard Howe says

For an alternative perspective, see the recent article "This could be the biggest sign yet that the battery revolution is here".

November, 18 2015

Richard Vesel says

Facts that should be on the table in Paris:

US and China, combined, represent 40% of the world's CO2 emissions. Add in Europe, Russia and India, and that's close to 75%.

Great article on batteries - thanks, Richard!


November, 19 2015

Xisto Vieira Filho says

Thanks for this interesting article,with some valuable information about installed batteries.

November, 21 2015

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Please give me strength Richard. All the consensus in the world does not make scientific truth. As someone who apparently likes facts to back up your statements (do not confuse weblinks with facts) I find it bizarre that you equate consensus amongst scientists with provable facts.

The consensus 20 years ago for the cause of stomach ulcers was stress, eating the wrong foods and so on and I am sure those scienmtific "facts" were borne out by inumerable weblinks and treatise on the subject from all the "experts in the world. By accident two australian researchers happened to notice that people taking antibiotics appeared not to get ulcers and as it was eventually proven that it was indeed a particular bacteria in the stomach that was the cause of by far the majority of ulders. So much for consensus amongst experts.There are dozens of examples like that. No scientist or engineer would base a course of action on consensus.

Your comments on Hawai'i are just a laugh a minute. Yes indeed the goals of the Hawaiian State Government are laudible and they certainly have great goal statements. I just came from Honolulu on Oahu and Kona on the Big Island (I was there twice in the last month) and I saw very little signs of it except for a wind farm that was a blot on an otherwise beautiful landscape. There were a few solar panels on roof tops but not much to speak of. However the State Government clearly does not include in this "100% sustainability" that the only way to get there is by gas guzzling 300 ton airliners without which the island economy would collapse. That statement is backed up by observation at Honolulu Airport where largte jets land about once every three minutes fron Los Angeles, San Fransisco, Brisbane, Sydney, Vancouver, Auckland, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Bejing and just about every major city in the region. Is the State Government planning to stop those aeroplanes using fossil fuel. I doubt that is what they mean. But I suppose we can ignore that. After all the islands survived without tourists before and no doubt can do so again. Indeed they survived for thousands of years without the American Government so I think the native Hawai'ians know much more about sustainability than you do.

November, 21 2015

Malcolm Rawlingson says

PART TWO: So let us ignore the fact that the only practical way to even get to Hawai'i is by jetlinerand and the millions of tons of jet fuel oil burnt to get to the islands every year and focus on what they probably mean. Perhaps by 100% sustainability they mean having electric powered container ships deliver all the goods and services required by the population. I spent some time at the Port of Hawai'i and the Port at Kona and can verify by observation that all of the ships in both ports were of the oil burning variety. I did not see a single nuclear powered ship or 100% electrically powered ship.Apparently not a dent has been made in the millions of toms of fuel oil burnt moving goods to and from Hawai'i. I have no idea how much fuel these large container ships use but I do have a benchmark from a South Pacific cruise I went on a couple of years ago. It was on the Paul Gaugain which is a beautiful ship that sails the waters of the South Pacific. I highly recommend it. While a bit expensive ($30,000 for 14 days) seeing the islands of Bora Bora, Tonga, Tahiti and the Cook Islands was a memorable experience and worth every penny. However I digress. At the end of our trip (which was highlighted with fascinating talks from Professor Hay (a well known proponent of AGW) the ships Captain noted that our excursion had burned about 500,000 tons of fuel oil. The MV Paul Gaugain is a small ship by comparison the the giants I saw in Kona and Oahu so I can only imagine the enourmous quantities of fuel oil that these ships burn to keep the State of Hawai'i in comfort.So I am presuiming that this is also not included in the sustainable development plans of thje State of Hawai'i.

Perhaps you mean the conversion to electrically powered sightseeing helicopters that are a major tourist attraction there? My wife and I had the opportunity to fly over the volcanoes in one of these and the machine consumed about 100 gallons of fuel for a 2 hour flight. I did not observe a single electric helicopter. They were all powered by fossil fuels. Is the State Government planning to ban these clearly unsustainable machines....somehow I think that is not in their meaning of sustainable energy.

Clearly then you must be referring only to the fuel oil used for electricity generation when you refer to sustainability for the Islands - correct? So we can conveniently ignore all the rest eh!!

I have been going to Hawai'i since 1981 and they are spectacularly beautiful in every way. It would be such an awful shame to see them covered in windmills....but that is what is happening as a result of their "sustainability dogma". In 1981 I heard much the same goals stated then. Nothing much has changed.

November, 21 2015

Malcolm Rawlingson says

PART THREE: There were many highlights of our latest trip there but one that really stands out for me was a restaurant owner from Iowa who was practising TRUE sustainability not the hocus pocus put out by governments. All the food and all of the coffee in his facility was sourced locally. The herbs, seasonings, fish, meat and ALL the fruit and vegetables were from local farmers and fishermen...most only down the road. I can tell you that was the most delicious and tasty food I have had anywhere. He did not import anything from the mainland. If fruit or veg was not in season he did not sell it. I did not see anything in the way of home power generation but he certainly is a shining example of what TRUE sustainability is all about. These are the people I support 100%. He was living his life and running a good business the way the Hawai'ian native people used to do. That is the example the Hawai'ian Government needs to follow.

So when you board the jet plane from LAX Richard....don't worry about the tons of CO2 you and your luggage are causing to be dumped into the atmosphere from the jet engines getting you there. These are not in the "sustainability" calculations so they don't count and your conscience should be clear.

Suggest that, if you truly were to practice what you preach, you would wait until solar powered planes are available. But then you may not ever get there.

While it may appear that the State Government does not rate highly, they are doing some things which are worthy of note. Firstly they have banned billboards from the Islands...full marks for removing that unsightly trash from these islands. Secondly they have prohibitted the use of plastic shopping bags from stores so you do not see these being dragged out of the mouths of endangered turtles and other marine and animal life. So they do some good things but planting windmills all over the island is going to ruin the landscapes that so many people flock to see.


November, 21 2015

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Part FOUR:

So to use your own words right back at you Richard

"Actions speak louder than words. If no one is going to put forth a plan and commitment to act, then it will be seen as yet another exchange of hot air. Farce is to cruel of a word, I believe. And, I have hopes that by January, that we will see that it will have been the opposite of a farce, with ideas and plans and commitments of substance that will come out. Ah yes, the Audacity of Hope...

To avoid being a complete hypocrite I strongly suggest you take ACTION and put forth a plan to cancel your trip to Hawai'i....or is that yet another excahn ge of RVW hot air.

Apparently it is OK for RVW to burn tons fossil fuel and inject the resulting tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Hypocrisy at its finest Sir. Practise what you preach.


November, 23 2015

Richard Vesel says

That's quite the rant there Malcolm. I'm sure you have absolutely no interest in a rational reply, but I hope you enjoyed venting your spleen.

Suffice it to say that I am a residential consumer of green carbon-free electricity, and as soon as green fuels are readily available, I will be using those as well. Meanwhile, I tread lightly 340 days out of the year, so you might permit me my bi-annual vacations, which going round-trip to Hawaii (the farthest I ever go) put out about 1 ton for the round trip.


November, 23 2015

Richard Vesel says

Biennial, not bi-annual, that is.

November, 24 2015

Richard Vesel says

Oh, it slipped my mind, for about eight years now, I also routinely buy offsetting carbon credits from:

So, hypocrisy factor is not an issue, you see.

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