Renewable energy sources – wind and solar – have become the cheapest and fastest growing form of electricity generation. But the industry has not yet escaped the perennial criticism that keeps many from believing that the world could run entirely on renewable energy: what happens when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing? To date, batteries have not been a particularly convincing answer, due both to their cost and their limited ability to store industrial scale electricity for more than a few hours at a time.
But that might be changing. After more then three decades of remarkable innovation, the price of lithium batteries has dropped 97%, and the power storage potential of a battery has increased 3.4-fold. Nate Blair, who manages the Distributed Systems and Storage Analysis Group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), joined Climate Now to discuss where we are today in developing grid-scale energy storage systems. Stay tuned to find out what role batteries will play in the transition to clean electricity, why lithium batteries are currently leading the way in grid battery storage, and what other technologies we might expect in grid storage portfolio in the next 10-30 years.
Group Manager - Distributed Systems and Storage Analysis, NREL
Group Manager - Distributed Systems and Storage Analysis, NREL
Nate Blair is the group manager of the Distributed Systems and Storage Group in the Integrated Applications Center at NREL. He has expertise in modeling and projecting renewable energy adoption and storage capabilities. He is a member of both the American and International Solar Energy Society.
Climate Now Host
Climate Now Host
What might future energy storage look like? Will the grid be able to handle long periods without wind and sun? This week, we spoke with Nate Blair, group manager of the Distributed Systems and Storage Analysis group at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) and lead author of NREL’s Energy Futures Study.
14:00 – Li-Ion batteries have become cheaper and could be a solution to the variability of solar and wind. Energy storage is one of those ways, but it has been difficult to build more of that.
Did you know? Electric vehicles have been a major driver in cost reduction of Li-Ion batteries.
17:24 – What are the storage needs that the grid has and the different types of storage that are used for each?
- Short-term batteries (<1hour) provide steady voltage to end-user. Think alter-capacitors, super capacitors, flywheels. There aren’t a lot of batteries needed to meet that need.
- Time-shifting: e.g. save solar from day and use it at night.
- Capacity: provide power capacity in place of fossil fuels.
20:07 – The NREL Storage Futures study estimates a 5x battery storage growth by 2050.
22:19 – the battery pack is less than 50% of overall costs, but as battery pack costs come down, stepping up to longer duration batteries will cost less.
24:45 – 5 years out we will likely see solar PV with battery storage, wind, and natural gas. The NREL study of how we can reach 100% clean electricity by 2035 suggests there might be new nuclear built, but typically it’s very expensive to build new nuclear.
26:54 – Based on NREL studies, with up to 80% of renewable energy on the grid, you’ll still have natural gas to fill the times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. At 100% renewable on the grid, you need long duration storage, so more than 10 hours, and maybe less than a week. You also need seasonal storage, which will most likely be hydrogen.
30:18 – Building out a lot of transition lines will be key. If we can better connect our different grids within the country, we can share energy from farther away. But because building transmission is difficult, they also have a model where more large-scale transmission doesn’t happen, and we find that it just costs more because you’re building in less optimal locations.
Takeaway: batteries are getting cheaper, we’re building more battery storage to help from overloading the grid, we can get to 100% clean electricity with the help of existing energy storage options.
James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome everyone to Climate Now, a podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the practical on the ground solutions that we’ll need to address the global climate crisis and achieve a net zero future. I’m James Lawler, and if you like this episode, leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts, share it with your friends, or tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today in our interview segment, we’re going to discuss grid energy storage, the different types of energy storage available, and if it’s economically feasible for batteries to support a hundred percent renewable energy electricity grid. Our interview will be with Nate Blair, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Lab, or NREL, one of the premier energy storage research labs in the United States.
This Week in Climate News
But first, our news segment: This Week in Climate News. Today, to discuss what’s going on in climate news, I’m joined by Darren Hau, staff manager of charging ops and product strategy at the autonomous electric vehicle company, Cruise.
Darren, welcome back.
Darren Hau: Hey, thanks for having me back, James, [00:01:00] happy Thanksgiving to you, or rather welcome back from Thanksgiving. Hope you had a good one.
James Lawler: Likewise, likewise. What did you… what did you get up to?
Darren Hau: Oh, nothing much. Stayed local. Just spent some time at the beach enjoying California.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Darren Hau: What about yourself?
James Lawler: Upstate New York. Warm weather, which would be particularly surprising. It was so warm that I found myself on the New York, New York State website looking at projections for the future climate in New York. And they have a, a sort of dispiriting graphic that shows the state of New York migrating south over the next several decades.
And I think that under sort of a business as usual case by 2070, we’ll be somewhere around the latitude of Georgia, basically Southern Georgia.
Darren Hau: Oh, that’s, that’s interesting. So I know most climate maps show kind of a heat map of the U.S., but is this a graphic that shows different states actually moving
James Lawler: Yes.
Darren Hau: In time or in space? That’s, that’s pretty fun actually.
James Lawler: Yeah, it shows New York. I hate to [00:02:00] start off This Week in Climate News with such doom and gloom.
Darren Hau: Well, this, this is a good segue to your little point about Qatar and how the temperatures…
James Lawler: Yes, that’s right. One of the items in the news obviously is soccer or football. The World Cup kicked off in 90 plus degree Fahrenheit temperatures. It’s interesting, since Qatar won its bid for the World Cup, which was 12 years ago, they’ve been planning for this. The average annual temperature in Qatar has increased around one degree Celsius or almost two degrees Fahrenheit according to the Journal Nature, in a story that was just published the other day.
Darren Hau: You know a lot of people say climate change is an existential risk. I’m probably not as alarmist. I don’t think we’re gonna go extinct, but there’s definitely going to be a very severe degradation in quality of life if we don’t address it. And if you think about the issue with Qatar, you know, if average temperature is rising two degrees, that means that the peak [00:03:00] temperatures, right, because we’re talking about average here, are actually gonna be much higher than that.
And it’s, this is already a desert and they’ve been focusing on spending and constructing and trying to shift the economy to a more kind of tech forward future. But if temperatures are fluctuating, getting higher and higher, those are days when construction workers can’t go out and build stuff. Right?
Just to use a simple example, you mentioned athletics, talking about construction, so that’s gonna have a significant impact on just economic growth throughout the world.
James Lawler: Yeah, absolutely. Another interesting article that we picked out this week is about the transformation of gas stations and what the future holds for the automobile fueling business whether you’re thinking about gas or electricity. David Ferris had an article in Politico about this recently titled “The Gas Station’s Hidden Battle to Survive.”
Darren Hau: Yeah, I’m actually really interested in this article because, as you know, this is my bread and butter, what I deal with every day. But essentially what David Ferris was mentioning was the complex dynamics between the utility industry and the gas station [00:04:00] industry and how they’re actually quite upset with each other these days. So for a bit of context, there is a ton of money on the line in Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. They allocated seven and a half billion to help fund the build out of EV charging infrastructure. And obviously that’s not nowhere near enough to what we need, but it’s an important and substantive step.
James Lawler: And that’s contemplated to build something in the order of 500,000 fast chargers, right?
Darren Hau: I don’t recall the exact number, but that sounds about the right order of magnitude, yeah. In addition to the dollars on the line, we’re at this massive inflection point today, which is who gets to fuel the transportation system of tomorrow? Historically it’s been oil majors and gas stations, and now utilities want in, and both of these industries have market sizes that are in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
So this, so this is a really tense situation here. One of the reasons there’s this huge tension between these two industries is they’ve developed in very different ways. So the gas [00:05:00] market is extremely transparent and hyper competitive. Any driver can go and say, “Hey, that store across the street is 5 cents lower than this one over here.
Maybe I’ll go to that one,” so the drivers know exactly what they’re getting at every single location. Contrast that with the electricity market. How many people can actually tell you how much they’re paying per kilowatt hour of electricity at their home? I can’t. I have no idea what it is. It’s extremely opaque and part of the reason is because it’s very monopolistic.
When the electricity system was being built out, it didn’t make sense to have multiple parties trying to send separate wires to your house, so you needed a bit of a regulatory landscape for it. What has happened then is each utility gets to set a certain rate for you and they’re the only one that provides it, and then they recover the expense that they incurred by charging you your electricity tariff. But gas stations see it as: “well, if everything’s gonna be electric and we no longer sell fuel. What is, what are we in the business of?”
James Lawler: Right, right.
Darren Hau: And maybe playing off of what I just mentioned about the different [00:06:00] ways the industry’s developed, um, this is also a source of tension because the way utilities make money, as I mentioned before, is they spend a certain amount of capital, and then the public utility commissions will say, “okay, based on that, we’ll we’ll guarantee you a certain profit margin”. So gas station operators are concerned that if they’re competing with utilities, selling EV charging, utilities can undercut them by selling at rock bottom prices because they have a guaranteed rate of return that they can make up with retail electricity rates.
James Lawler: Right. Yeah. And that’s kind of the crux of the issue, isn’t it? It’s like they’re, they’re playing by different rules.
Darren Hau: Yeah. That’s a great way to summarize it.
James Lawler: Right. So on a related note, Tesla just recently made its technical specifications and design specifications for its charger public and has recommended that this be the North American, what is it?
Darren Hau: North American Charging Standard or NACS,
James Lawler: North American Charging Standard. So they make the point in this press release, which you can find on their website that the Tesla [00:07:00] charging network is about, you know, 60% larger than all the other networks combined, that its charger is, you know, mechanically the simplest, and that it involves the fewest moving parts, it doesn’t rely on special communication between the charging device and the auto and the car. So Tesla’s making the argument that everyone should now adopt this charging standard. Darren, you were involved at Tesla in designing that whole system. What, what do you make of this?
Darren Hau: I think this has been a very controversial thing in the EV industry because yes, it’s true that Tesla is a technically superior product and operationally superior product, but you know, we have all this momentum behind the the CCS standard, the Combined Charging System Standard which is prevalent in Europe. There’s a different variation of it in North America, and all the OEMs have basically adopted the CCS standard by this point: like GM, Ford, original equipment manufacturer. Some people have accused [00:08:00] Tesla of being somewhat hypocritical saying, “Hey, why didn’t you release a standard earlier?
Now you’re, the only reason you’re doing this, frankly, is because. Biden’s, uh, climate and infrastructure bills have basically allocated funding that is available only if you’re charging station can charge more than one brand a vehicle.” So for Tesla, there is an incentive to have someone else adopt that so that they can tap into those funds.
James Lawler: Interesting.
Darren Hau: What’s interesting is there is one startup that is very keen on doing this, it’s called Aptera. They make this very like small solar powered, super efficient vehicle that has basically said yes, they’re gonna adopt it. So, It’ll be interesting to see whether that alone is enough for Tesla to tap into those credits.
James Lawler: You know, with all this talk of electrification, one of the things that the world will need a whole lot more of is copper. And there’s some interesting news this week on some developments in the copper mining industry.
Darren Hau: I’m not an expert in mining, but I find it fascinating. So let’s take a step back and ask why is copper important? Well, we were just talking about [00:09:00] the electrification of transportation. And speaking of which, an EV requires two and a half times as much copper as an internal combustion engine vehicle, and that’s just the transportation industry. Solar and offshore wind needs two to five times more copper per megawatt of capacity than power generated using natural gas or coal.
So all of this means that demand is, you know, going to skyrocket.
James Lawler: Yeah.
Darren Hau: So the challenge with this growing demand is that a new copper mine takes many years to bring online. I think the IEA, the International Energy Agency says it takes 16 years on average to get a new copper mine built. However, we do have a lot of unprocessed copper ore sitting around because we had no economical way to extract it.
What happens is ore is mined and the easiest metal is extracted in anything that’s too hard or expensive to convert to copper is just tossed aside as waste and in the past decade, they estimate that 43 million tons of copper have been mined, but never processed for this [00:10:00] reason, which is worth more than $2 trillion at today’s prices.
James Lawler: Wow.
Darren Hau: So this is obviously a big economic opportunity. So a company called Jetti Resources has uncovered a way to potentially solve this problem, and it’s a bit deep in the weeds, but essentially they found out, it’s kind of interesting for anyone interested in electronics, the surface of that sulfite ore which they call chalcopyrite is actually an n-type semiconductor. And during oxidative leaching, a copper rich surface forms on that, on top of that surface, which is a p- type semiconductor. So if anyone who knows semiconductors know when you have a p-n junction, you basically have a diode and that blocks further transfer of electrons, which basically halts the process of leaching.
So what they did, what Jetti Resources did is they found a way to break that layer that allowed the leaching to occur. And if this technology is successful and fully embraced by the industry, they [00:11:00] estimate that we could unlock 8 million tons of additional copper each year by the 2040s, which is more than a third of last year’s total global mine production.
James Lawler: Wow. Wow. So copper is notoriously hazardous chemical to produce. And those $2 trillion or so that are, that are lying around in big piles of, you know, what is formerly been thought of as waste, you know, mine tailings, this new process can mine that waste essentially, and produce copper from existing mines. There wouldn’t be as much of a need to create new mines. As Darren mentioned, copper is ubiquitous, used more and more in our cars, buildings, and batteries. And with that, let’s dive into our interview today on energy storage. Thanks, Darren.
Darren Hau: Thanks.
James Lawler: Today I’m speaking with Nate Blair, who works at the National Renewable Energy Lab, or NREL in Golden, Colorado, outside of Denver. As the name implies, NREL focuses its efforts on basic [00:12:00] research and technologies around clean energy. Nate’s role there is to model what the electric grid across the United States will look like and what it will cost in the future to meet demand by accounting for changing resources and technologies . That will help us today as we unpack the topic of energy storage systems for the grid, which is becoming extremely important as society shifts to more renewable sources of energy like solar and wind.
Nate will help us answer some key questions, including why lithium ion batteries are becoming the default energy storage option for the grid. What will the future battery storage for the grid look like as renewables eventually dominate electricity production? And how does that future grid handle longer periods of time when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing?
We start with a conversation about lithium ion batteries. We then dig into some of the data and predictions from the [00:13:00] Storage Futures Study that Nate co-authored. We wrap up the conversation by exploring some of the potential strategies for addressing the intermittency of wind and solar, including other energy storage solutions like hydrogen.
All right, Nate, glad to have you with us today. Thank you so much for making the time to to be on the podcast.
Nate Blair: Oh, I’m really happy to be here.
James Lawler: Why don’t we start by hearing a little bit about your experience working in grid energy storage, and perhaps you could also define for us what that means in the first place.
Nate Blair: Sure. I think it’s been an interesting progression for storage and in particularly battery storage. We talk a lot about lithium ion batteries at the moment, which started back in the 90s, all the way in these consumer electronic devices. Industry started putting those into to vehicles. They started to grow them.
The cost really came down, and now people are looking at them to provide value to the electric grid often in [00:14:00] conjunction with what has also gotten cheaper in price, which is solar PV technologies. Many of us have been thinking about how do you deal with the variability of solar PV and wind, and there’s a number of ways to do that.
And historically, battery storage has been one of those ways, or energy storage in general, but it has been difficult to build more of that. So we have a, a really significant resource of pumped hydro storage in the US and we’ve looked at compressed air energy storage and there are other storage options out there.
But as you go to longer and longer time durations, we were looking at other options, maybe building more solar and other things. But now with the advent of cheaper lithium batteries, in particular, people are saying, okay, this is now an option for the grid to move energy around to provide capacity when the sun isn’t [00:15:00] shining, the wind’s not blowing, et cetera.
James Lawler: It’s worth noting here that pump storage hydropower is a type of hydroelectric energy storage that involves pumping water between lower and higher reservoirs to operate a turbine as it falls back. Hydropower accounts for about 23 gigawatts of energy capacity. To put that into perspective, we have about a hundred gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity in the United States. So it’s about a fifth. Compressed air energy storage is kind of like pumped hydro power. But instead of pumping water, these facilities compress and store air underground. When electricity is needed, the pressurized air is released. It expands and it drives a turbine generator to produce electricity.
While there are other types of storage systems, the NREL report covers 15 different ones. We’re going to focus on the combination of batteries and renewables because that represents the most cost effective scenario based on the NREL models. The cost of lithium ion battery packs in particular have dropped 80% over the last 10 years.
Let’s get back to Nate.
Nate Blair: There are [00:16:00] a number of electrochemical battery options. Right now we’re focused on lithium ion because there’s a cost advantage, but there are a number of people looking at zinc-air, sodium batteries, and there’s been a number of other ones that have kind of also been in this space as well.
They aren’t all appropriate for electric vehicles, which is what has in part driven some of the cost reductions in lithium ion batteries and there’s some chemical advantages to lithium typically too. So there’s a lot of effort going on there and that’s what has deployed… depends on what day you look at the numbers, but several gigawatts at this point in the US and there’s quite a pipeline of those to be deployed, and not just here but globally. And I think we are seeing lithium ion batteries deployed instead of natural gas peaking plants on the grid, which is sort of one of the potential big markets.
James Lawler: When we talk about energy storage, I think a lot of [00:17:00] people have in their minds the Duracell battery or the battery that goes in their device. But when we talk about storage for the grid, we’re actually talking about a couple of different types of storage services that matter, and I think this is often kind of a revelation to unpack this. I wonder if you might be able to do that.
Nate Blair: Sure. Well, I think maybe another way to think of it is what are the needs that the grid has, right? If you’ve ever been in your house and you’ve had the lights flicker maybe a slight change in voltage or a slight change in frequency. There are a lot of resources on the grid to try and make the frequency in the voltage stay as constant as possible. And so batteries , particularly short term batteries, so less than 30 minutes, can be providing some of that, where they’re kind of trying to raise the voltage or lower the voltage very quickly, faster than I can explain it actually.
So we’re talking about very short kind of microsecond type capabilities, and there’s ultracapacitors and [00:18:00] supercapacitors and a variety of flywheels kind of live in that space as well. People have maybe heard of those. So there’s that piece, and that kind of expands out in kind of a 30 minute or one hour kind of timeframe.
At the end of the day though when you think about, well, how many batteries could be deployed to meet that? It’s pretty small compared to the other two needs of the grid that are much larger. And so the second one, we would, I think you think about time shifting, right? You’re like, “oh, well I’m gonna save my solar from the daytime and use it at night.”
Right? That’s a totally normal thing. And we will eventually start to get there as we end up with so much solar on the grid that there are periods particularly in the spring and the fall where there’s more solar energy being produced than there is need for that on the load side. Right. So that’s time shifting.
But the last one is perhaps even providing [00:19:00] more value to the energy storage system, which is capacity. The way the grid works is you pick the peak day of power needs. This is the day when everybody’s using the most they can. So it’s typically a hot day, maybe a little wind, et cetera. The way the the grid operators work, they’re like, “well, we kind of have an idea of what the maximum load is.”
Then we add something called reserve margin, which is another 10%. So it’s like a safety factor, and we have to have that much capacity ready to bring online. And so batteries can sit there charged up for those days and provide that capacity value, and then in a lot of markets, they can get paid for that capacity value.
James Lawler: What does the curve look like for battery storage coming onto the grid? I saw recently that we added about a 170- something megawatts of capacity worldwide in 2020. That then went up to 2000 megawatts, I think in 2021. So there was more than a 10x [00:20:00] increase in the amount of battery storage we added to the grid in one year, which is a just like mind-boggling.
What is the trend look like over the next, let’s say year, five years, 10 years, you know, out to 2050?
Nate Blair: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think we’re looking at like a five x growth in storage by 2050 in our storage futures scenarios. So this is not driven by any policy, didn’t include the Inflation Reduction Act. We didn’t have any of those incentives in there. This is just all kind of economic adoption and we started with kind of this two hour battery, then four, and then we start building out six hour batteries and then eight hour batteries as the shape of the peak day day kind of changes, but probably about a hundred to 650 gigawatts, which is, as these durations [00:21:00] increase, it’s like somewhere between 600 to over 3000 gigawatt hours in 2050.
So in none of our scenarios did we end up economically not building storage. So that’s number one. In all cases, we built a significant amount of storage by 2050, and then in some cases, if you had even lower PV costs and even lower battery costs, which might be reflective of some of the incentives that have now been passed, you get even to that higher end of the range where you get even more solar and batteries on the grid than you would if the cost reductions were more conservative in the future, or if they stayed, cost stayed flat. The other thing that I think is helpful to say is that part of the grid battery that’s gonna reduce cost the most is the battery pack.
So there’s a lot of other costs when you put something on the grid. So there’s the development cost and the boxes that you [00:22:00] put ’em in, and the land that you have to lease or buy, and the connection to the grid and all the planning and
James Lawler: Permitting.
Nate Blair: Yeah. And so the actual battery pack is less than 50% of the overall cost.
James Lawler: Oh, wow. interesting.
Nate Blair: But as the battery pack costs come down dramatically, the difference in costs between say a four hour duration battery and a six hour duration battery on the grid right now is maybe an extra 40% or something. But in the future, the step up to a longer duration in terms of costs will be lower, and so you might see utilities saying, “oh, well, our modeling says we maybe need six hours of battery duration right now. Let’s just buy eight hours to be safe,” right? So we, we anticipate that there might be some overbuilding on in terms of the duration of the, of the storage. Storage is tricky because we talk a lot in terms of gigawatts when we talk about solar and wind and other generators, but [00:23:00] in batteries, you’ve gotta talk about both the, the power and then the duration. And so the two of those together really create the overall cost.
James Lawler: I wonder if you could paint a picture, and it could be a range, if you like, of what do you think the grid and storage system looks like in five years and in 10 years? Looking forward, what combination of generating resources do we have? How much storage do you think we have on the grid? Are we able to get away from natural gas fired power or nuclear in that period of time, or are we still using those resources? Like paint that picture if you would.
Nate Blair: Yeah, sure. I think the five year picture, we don’t really even need to do a, a lot of complicated modeling cause because there’s utility plans that are out there that are quite robust at this point. We can also look at over the last couple years what’s been installed, for the grid and the bulk of that has been [00:24:00] solar PV , wind, and natural gas. There’s been a lot of announced retirements of coal plants and some of these other plants on the grid as well. So NREL has just released another study, which I’m not an author on, but it’s looking at how do we get to a hundred percent clean energy by 2035, and looked at a whole range of different scenarios and different cost trajectories.
There are some where there is nuclear that gets built, you know, out towards 2035 or or more. Typically we run out to 2050 and look at a hundred percent there. But in our kind of typical set of assumptions, nuclear is quite expensive to build new nuclear, and so the model tends to pick a cheaper mix of options to provide that same kind of overall capacity for the grid. And so I think over the next five years you can look at what’s [00:25:00] in the pipeline, what’s being planned, what’s being developed, and we are headed towards. A larger and larger fraction of renewables on the grid solar PV, wind in particular as the two cheapest. We’re seeing a lot of plans for offshore wind as well.
And so that’s gonna continue to develop quickly. It’s been slower than the Europeans and there’s some geography reasons for that, but also just sort of a whole lot of other regulatory and other issues around that, so, so I think we’ll see more and more of that developing. What we have seen to date is for a lot of solar companies have started to put some level of battery storage with each solar plant.
To help smooth out the operations, provide for clouds coming by, et cetera. And I think we’ll continue to see some of those solar battery hybrids. Those are in the pipeline as well. And then we’re [00:26:00] gonna start to see, at least from our modeling, as we get into that kind of five to 10 year range, we’re gonna start to see the utilities saying, “Hey, it’s gonna be cheaper for us to deploy more of these batteries than to deal with, you know, ABC problem on the grid.”
James Lawler: That’s super interesting. What about this problem of longer periods of time where you don’t have wind, you don’t have solar. How will the grid deal with that in a regime where the generators are dominated by solar and wind? Is, will that just be better, like more batteries or?
Nate Blair: The way we have talked about it, at least, is you know, up to about 80% renewable energy on the grid annually.
You’ve got a, still got a significant amount of probably natural gas capacity, and that capacity can fill in those periods basically. And so it’s a couple of days or a week maybe, where it’s not [00:27:00] as windy, it’s not as sunny, and you’re gonna rely on some of this remaining fossil generation to provide capacity during those periods.
It gets more complicated because typically the whole country isn’t covered by a cloud, right? So you might be making solar in California and shipping it to Las Vegas, which happens to have a storm coming through, or vice versa, right? You’ve got clouds in San Francisco, but you know, in the Central Valley of California, it’s still sunny.
So there’s a lot of opportunities to share that burden. One of the things you saw in Texas where they had this outage was that Texas isn’t very well connected to the rest of the country and the fact that they’re not well connected, they couldn’t buy power quickly from the eastern US and import it across transmission lines.
Where we really have a lot of questions still is as you approach a hundred percent renewable energy on the grid. That’s an area where there’s a lot [00:28:00] of interest in modeling that and analyzing that, and that’s one of the things we’re doing quite a bit of. And at that point, you start to see two things are needed, one of which is so what we call long duration storage.
So that’s more than diurnal or more than 10 hours of storage and probably less than a week or so. That’s kind of in that long duration storage bucket. There’s another bucket called the seasonal storage bucket where you say, “geez, we’ve got so much solar and wind in the spring and the fall.” But you know, the cheapest thing isn’t to build enough solar to always meet that peak in the summer. Maybe we can make hydrogen in the winter and in the spring and use that hydrogen either in a combustion turbine or a fuel cell during the peak of the summer. And so in the US in particular, we have these seasonal shifts that people are start to say, “what’s the optimum way to to handle that?” And then is [00:29:00] there a seasonal storage option? And in our modeling, if you achieve some of these green hydrogen cost points, then the models build out kind of these hydrogen or perhaps biofuel combustion turbines that can store hydrogen for months and months and months, and then really use it during these peak periods, which in the US are in the summer.
James Lawler: Very interesting. So my last question for you, Nate, is one, one that we actually get a lot in comments are… A lot of people are thinking about this. But the grid build out. So the actual, you know, investment in building transmission lines to accommodate increase use of electricity, increased, you know, renewable generators.
What kind of projections do you make there, and will that be a limiter in any way on our energy transition?
Nate Blair: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think, NREL has looked at, you know, the, there’s sort of three grids in the [00:30:00] US.. There’s the Eastern grid, the western grid, and Texas grid, as I just mentioned. And there aren’t good connections between them, and so if there were really strong transmission connections between them, that would lower the overall cost of the transition because you could build… say you could build solar in the tiniest parts of the country and ship some of that power to more cloudy parts of the country. However, building transmission is difficult in the US and so we also do modeling where we don’t build out, where we don’t allow the model to build out more transmission at least large scale transmission around the country.
It can still build some local transmission, but, and what we find there is, you achieve the same goals, potentially, particularly like if your goal is a hundred percent renewable energy, you can achieve the same goals. A couple things generally happen. One is the cost is [00:31:00] higher cause the model would love
James Lawler: Because you’re overbuilding.
Nate Blair: Yeah.
James Lawler: You’re effectively overbuilding.
Nate Blair: Well, no, I wouldn’t say you’re overbuilding, but what you’re doing is building in a less optimal spot. And so what you see is that, you know, the windiest parts of the country are in the Midwest. And what we, what we see if we don’t allow new transmission to build out is you start building wind farms outside of that area.
And the wind industry has actually done a lot in the last 20 years to say, “Hey, let’s have wind turbines that are optimized for less windy areas.” They call those low wind speed turbines…. very creative. And then we also have the turbines that are in the mid Midwest that are, you know, really built for stronger, more persistent winds. And then, we’ll, what we’ll see is solar being built all across the country much more so than if you allow the transmission to be built. So you’re, you’re basically building, a little more wind, a little less efficient wind, a little less efficient solar, but you’re [00:32:00] building it in other places basically.
And then the batteries kind of go. In general, we’re building batteries around the country, you know, particularly close to where the loads are. And what you see with without building new transmission is you build some additional battery storage to help keep from overloading the existing transmission grid. So it stores it and then dumps it later when that grid isn’t as congested.
That was Nate Blair with the National Renewable Energy Lab talking about how battery storage will potentially play a huge role in an electric grid, powered primarily by the sun and wind. One key takeaway from the Storage Future Study that we did not talk about is that the modeled scenarios result in significant decarbonization, how our emissions are projected to drop between 46% and 82% compared to 2005 levels while the share of renewables to the grid would climb somewhere between 43% and 81% nationally [00:33:00] by 2050. That’s it for this episode of the podcast. For more episodes, videos, or to sign up for our newsletter, visit climatenow.com where you can also find links out to interesting information pertaining to this episode. We hope you can join us for our next conversation.
Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation’s climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.