Proposed Policy Reforms
1. Improved coordination of existing energy storage research and development under unified desire outcomes and goals
In recent years, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) energy storage research programs have increased in importance as the U.S. electricity system has evolved and demanded technologies to meet grid operation needs.2 That importance has led to increased federal investments. But a disjointed research effort that has yielded technological development could be better focused to facilitate the step-change breakthrough needed.
Ambitious technology goals were once successful in aligning the American innovation machine’s robust resources and competencies. In a few noteworthy cases, this practice continues today. The SunShot Initiative recently announced it has already achieved the 2020 utility-scale solar 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) cost target set back in 2010, and DOE has now expanded its mission to strengthening the grid’s reliability and resilience, while integrating solar energy. And DOE has now increased the ambition of the goal to 3 cents per kWh by 2030.3
A new crosscutting energy storage initiative to focus the various storage-related R&D programs around the development of grid-scale, low-cost, long-duration storage technologies would increase stewardship of taxpayer dollars, while facilitating efficiency and reliability improvements for the U.S. electricity grid. Utilizing DOE’s full capabilities to accelerate the development of storage technologies – including the basic research capabilities of the Office of Science, the technology expertise of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the grid level knowledge of the Office of Electricity, and the rapid technology development capabilities of ARPA-E – provides the best shot at an innovation breakthrough.
This initiative should consider the research needed to advance low-cost, long-duration energy storage, as well as opportunities for integration between vehicle and grid-scale technologies. Additionally, this effort should have standardized, ambitious technology goals to spur innovative solutions to this important effort in the private sector as well.
2. Bolster non-lithium ion battery research
As the world’s demand for energy continues to grow, the search is on for better battery technology — not just to keep smartphones charged for longer, but to run electric cars and to store energy produced by renewables. For nearly three decades, lithium-ion batteries have dominated the storage market and have continued to rapidly drop in price.4 This has produced dividends for electronics, electric cars and grid ancillary services. It is even possible that lithium batteries will replace gas turbines as the peaking capacity of choice (used when power demand spikes) by 2022. However, lithium-ion technologies also have their limitations. Lithium-ion batteries have a higher likelihood of overheating and degrading, and are more expensive over a longer lifetime than other energy storage.
Currently lithium-ion battery chemistries contain cobalt, which only exists in a few regions throughout the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Russia, Australia, Canada and Zambia. The largest concentration is found in the DRC, where mining practices include child labor and “word of mouth” based contracts, rather than long-term purchasing agreements. Supply constraints are not the only issue in the DRC supply chain.5 Chinese companies have largely captured the market and are utilizing strong African relationships to ensure Chinese primacy of supply as they expand battery production.6,7,8
Regions That Currently Have Lithium-Ion Battery Chemistries Contain Cobalt
There is a growing need for different battery chemistries that address long-term duration and season storage needs.9 While national labs are pursuing research in various types of battery chemistries, private organizations and universities are also pursuing similar research. The DOE should encourage the relevant labs to research specific types of chemistries, instead of having such a wide overlap of research in addition to fostering partnerships with organizations working on similar chemistries to work together.
3. Encourage and invest in research focused on non-electrochemical energy storage
Energy storage is key to solving the future of energy demand as the U.S. moves toward a lower carbon intensity. However, most research in energy storage focuses on batteries of various chemistries, while there are several types of experiments and designs in non-battery storage being pursued. DOE should foster growth of non-battery storage in national labs, along with private and university partnerships already working on non-battery storage. Examples include subsurface pumped hydro (Quidnet Energy)10, pumped hydro11, compressed air energy storage12, underground thermal-energy storage13, concentrated solar power, or the conversion of renewable energy to storable hydrogen for future use.14