Solving Renewable Energy Storage

Governments and companies need to work together

Since the drive for renewable energy began, critics have dismissed it as unreliable and inefficient. Solar power, for example, is all well and good until you don’t have any sunlight. As soon as the renewable energy source is unavailable, supply simply reverts back to fossil fuels. The biggest task for the renewable energy camp is working out how to collect clean power, store it, and distribute it over time – even when the source itself isn’t available. This has proved to be one of the biggest obstacles to the rise of renewables, but a new project based in Hawaii could provide an answer. On the island of Kauai, Tesla and SolarCity have come up with a solution that saves 1.6 million gallons of fossil fuel per year. This is yet another key step towards efficient solar energy storage, and could encourage the further adoption of renewable technology.

How do you solve a problem like storage?
Although Kauai uses a combination of renewable technologies including wind and biomass, the island still burns fossil fuels at night. However, a 13MW SolarCity solar farm with over 54,000 panels, plus 272 Tesla power packs, will reduce the need to use finite resources. The project is the first joint venture since the energy firm was acquired by the automotive company. It’s also complimenting Hawaii’s aim to achieve 100% renewable power by 2045. If the project can be scaled up, energy storage issues could be solved on a mass scale. Musk is confident about the ability of the sustainable batteries and has even promised to resolve the recent energy woes of the South Australian government. He isn’t the only one working towards a solution. MIT and Carnegie Mellon University have worked on environmentally friendly, non-toxic energy storage for a number of years, producing renewable battery companies Ambri and Aquion Energy respectively. Denmark is one of the most ambitious countries in terms of renewable energy goals, and this month robotics company ABB integrated the first urban energy storage system based on a Lithium-ion battery with Copenhagen’s grid. Also in Europe, the Prosper-Haniel hard coal mine in Germany will be converted into a 200MW hydroelectric reservoir by 2018. There’s clearly some impressive progress taking place, but how will this change things for the industry as a whole?

How will reliable renewable storage disrupt energy?
Tesla and SolarCity’s work in Hawaii represents the first example of reliable, nocturnal power that doesn’t require fossil fuels. By installing a solar farm and power packs, the government is now far less reliant on finite energy resources. Other countries are also committed to finding an answer to energy storage issues. Combine these efforts, and innovative storage is set to disrupt the entire industry. If 1.6 million gallons can be saved in Kauai alone, just imagine how much fossil fuel usage will be reduced if this is scaled up. Any change to energy is obviously going to have disruptive implications for established utilities. But it won’t be the end of the line for legacy companies if they can adopt a new role. Instead of acting as providers, utilities need to become carriers, managers and distributers. If they fail to alter their business models, then they will lose their position in the industry. Moving away from non-renewable energy can only be a good thing for future sustainability. Fossil fuels are not a maintainable option, so the faster society can transition to clean energy, the better. There will be teething problems along the way, as has been demonstrated by energy shortages in South Australia. Even so, the continued commitment of energy companies and governments alike will eventually result in a workable solution.

Until Tesla and SolarCity’s joint venture, the resources to store renewable energy on a large scale simply weren’t available. The project in Kauai is a small scale example of how clean energy could be successfully stored and distributed, even when the source itself is temporarily absent. If you can apply efficient batteries to solar power, what’s to say that the same can’t be done for other renewables? And if you can do it on an island, why not on an entire continent? Ironically, it’s not technology that is restricting the rise of renewables. Despite the cold hard fact that fossil fuels will eventually run dry, the opinion that renewable energy is not a viable solution still exists. These sceptics are arguably the most important obstacle to overcome in terms of renewable adoption, and it’s not just up to clean energy companies to convince them.

Does your business use clean energy? Is Kauai a prototype for the use of reliable, efficient energy storage across the globe? What other barriers stand in the way of the rise of renewables? Share your thoughts and opinions.