Green energy is rising, with solar and wind leading the way, while climate think tanks report that the expansion of renewable energy sources is at a record high.
But the generation of clean energy is no longer “the big problem”. The challenge today is another: how do you store and distribute the energy you collect?
Reuters reported last month that the US battery storage capacity is expected to nearly double in 2024. California and Texas — currently under massive solar and wind expansion plans — are among those states with a growing need for energy storage systems.
While large-scale lithium battery projects are already being developed to meet those demands, these are taking longer than expected. A similar need for storage is playing out all around the world.
Techopedia talked to experts in the green energy sector to understand the challenges and the technology that could bring the world closer to zero carbon emissions.
Green Energy Storage: The Elephant in the Room
The history of green energy has always been tied to misinformation, PR attack campaigns, and stigmas. While the social perception of the value of renewable energy sources has radically evolved in the past decade, many issues are not openly addressed. Green energy storage is one of the major issues, and it is fundamental.
“Energy storage is arguably the largest obstacle standing in the way of a 100% renewable energy system. Without effective daily, weekly, and seasonal storage working in harmony, a huge amount of the energy being captured by the rapidly growing solar and wind fleets will go to waste.”
Hopen explained that the lack of proper energy storage systems means the world would have to build 2 to 4 times more solar and wind assets than would otherwise be needed, impacting costs, congestion, reliability, and risks.
Was The Solution Under Our Feet The Whole Time? Geothermal Energy and Storage
Andrew Van Noy, Founder and CEO of DeepPower, Inc. — a company at the forefront of groundbreaking geothermal drilling technology that believes that there is unlimited clean energy and clean storage under our feet — also spoke to Techopedia about the issue.
“The green energy sector faces a significant energy storage challenge to meet global carbon emissions goals.
“Efficient storage is essential for managing the intermittent nature of renewable sources like solar and wind. With practical storage solutions, the full potential of green energy can be tapped.”
Energy is Not Just Generation
The way electricity flows into our houses, industries, and businesses is the result of a set of complex engineering processes and components.
If we were to break these systems down and simplify them, we could say three central areas make things run: the energy generation plant, the storage system, and the distribution.
When demands for electricity are low, storage systems store surplus power. When demands for energy peak, the systems release them back to the grid.
Distribution systems connected to storage operations ensure everyone gets continual, reliable energy with the correct voltages. However, these systems predate the green energy revolution.
Van Noy said the current grid and storage systems often run legacy hardware. This hardware may not be fully compatible with the unique characteristics of green energy.
“They (grids) usually require updates, retrofitting, or, in some cases, a significant transformation to integrate renewable energy sources better.
“This transformation is critical because green energy sources often produce power variably, necessitating advanced storage and grid management technologies.”
Hopen describes the global energy grid as “the most impressive machine humanity has ever built” but warns that an aging fleet of assets needs to evolve dramatically and has no more than 25 years to make that jump if the world is serious about meeting urgent goals.
“The amount of electricity that needs to be moved by the grid is expected to more than triple, and the grid as it exists today cannot handle that.
“Storage technologies offer the ability to get the absolute most out of the grid possible, but the grid will need to be improved and expanded bigger and faster than we have ever done so.”
Decentralized Edge Energy Storage Systems
“It’s evident that the global green energy sector and international carbon emissions goals face a substantial energy storage challenge,” Jon M. Williams, Chairman & CEO at Viridi Parente, told Techopedia.
“The current energy landscape, responsible for 75% of global GHG emissions, demands urgent decarbonization.”
Viridi has been building up its solutions and designing fail-safe, cost-efficient battery energy storage systems for industrial, medical, government, and residential use cases.
Modern large-scale battery technology is currently poised as a leading tech for its potential energy storage. But it is not the only technology in play with solutions.
Williams from Viridi explained that our current electricity system is primarily based on centralized generation, usually with fossil fuels, followed by transmission and distribution through an antiquated system relying on imperfect demand signals.
“The variable end-user demand, coupled with extreme peaks, further exacerbates the inadequacies, and this will only intensify with the anticipated surge in gigatons of demand as the economy electrifies and energy use per capita increases with growing populations.”
Williams added that the way to modernize, improve, and decarbonize the grid is through a significant increase in generation through intermittent renewable sources, such as solar and wind. These sources of new green energy should be deployed at a utility-scale and distributed through multiple locations.
“Given the intermittent nature of these sources (e.g. solar and wind), effective storage is essential to utilize the energy when they are not producing.
“While some of this storage will take place at the utility sites, it will be uniquely efficient to have distributed storage to manage distributed generation.”
Additionally, grid support will also be needed. Williams described how on-site energy storage systems can be used to unburden distribution and transmission systems overloaded by peak demands.
Williams added that the American Society of Chemical Engineers gives our energy infrastructure a grade of C-.
“Clearly, there is a need for investment in the grid, but what’s most crucial is rebuilding it for the new reality, not the old one.”
Distributed generation and storage can enhance reliability for the end user, alleviate peak demand stress on the grid, and even function as virtual power plants, enabling utilities to capture and share the combined distributed storage and generation resources as a substantial supplement to centralized infrastructure.
The Leading Energy Storage Tech
The most talked about energy storage technologies are large-scale lithium batteries and Pumped Storage Hydro (PSH). Other contenders gaining momentum in the energy storage business include geothermal natural storage and clean hydrogen.
However, these technologies have strengths and challenges, with costs, environmental impact, or years of proven successful operational capacity weighing heavily.
Hopen said the best energy storage system available today is Pumped Storage Hydro (PSH), used in many countries, including the US. Hopen added that PHS is compatible with green energy generation sources but shared words of caution.
“These types of systems are incredibly valuable, but can only be built in locations with a topology that allows for it (hills or mountains).
“So, alternative storage methods (gravity-based, battery-based, compressed air-based, among others) will all need to be built and deployed and integrated with the existing grid, all while that grid is expanding.”
Williams also warned that PSH’s success hinges on specific geological and hydrogeological conditions. It requires adequate water availability and suitable geological features for pumping water to higher elevations, releasing it when generation is necessary.
“Constructing such features in the wrong locations can be extremely expensive and can lead to environmental impacts.”
Williams added that PSH is like any centralized storage system that requires distribution and transmission before utilization.
“While PSH undoubtedly has a role in the energy transition, it cannot entirely replace other storage types, including distributed storage.”
Van Noy believes that lithium-ion batteries are leading the way in terms of green energy storage innovation. “Promising technologies include flow batteries, compressed air energy storage, and advanced flywheel systems,” Van Noy said. “Each technology offers unique capacity, scalability, and suitability advantages for different applications.”
“Pumped-storage hydroelectricity (PSH) is a significant part of the US energy storage portfolio. While PSH is relatively sustainable and has a minimal environmental impact compared to fossil fuels, it does have limitations regarding site requirements and ecological effects. As energy needs evolve and new technologies emerge, PSH may become less dominant or need adaptation in the long term.”
Hopen also referred to new battery systems as exciting storage methods coming online, mentioning battery systems of different chemistries and architectures, such as flow batteries, iron-air batteries, sodium, alternative lithium, and others.
Hopen also spoke about geothermal energy, usually perceived as a valuable energy generation source but not as a storage solution.
“Thermal storage is a concept gaining traction where a material is heated to very high temperatures (thousands of degrees Fahrenheit) using excess renewables, and then that heat is either used directly by a process when needed, or it is turned back into electricity”
Lithium-Ion Battery Storage: The Golden Ticket and Its Pain Points
Van Noy added that large-scale lithium-ion battery storage systems, while crucial for the future of green energy, must address environmental impacts, particularly from mining and disposal, and the high costs it takes to build and operate these facilities.
Van Noy called for finding more sustainable materials, improving recycling methods, and developing alternative battery technologies with lower environmental impacts.
Costs and environmental impact have always been stigmas associated with large-scale battery operations. But Williams explained that these apprehensions can be effectively addressed.
“Regarding costs, ongoing innovation is consistently reducing battery energy storage system expenses, while strategic energy management offers opportunities for cost savings and potential revenue generation.”
Williams added that, in the US, incentives are provided for behind-the-meter battery storage by the federal government, several states, and utilities to support the grid and enable load shifting to optimize energy costs.
The savings of lithium batteries can also sometimes be difficult to quantify at first sight. Williams broke that down.
“When connected to on-site solar, battery energy storage systems not only avoid purchased energy costs but also reduce carbon emissions. Depending on the circumstances, the payback on battery energy storage systems can be attractive, with additional benefits such as enhanced resilience.”
“Rigorous regulatory, safety, and zoning requirements are paramount to curtail environmental impacts in the battery industry,” Williams said.
An Energy War Long Gone and the Hard Road Ahead
As the global population continues to skyrocket and technology, industries, and societies progress, our world’s hunger for energy rapidly begins to outpace the supply. Whether it be clean hydrogen, lithium batteries, wind or solar, geothermal, or new innovative technologies — yet to be fully operational — like fusion energy, no one can deny that the future of energy is green.
The world is way past the point of having a debate on whether renewable energy sources are necessary or not. Old grudges between the fossil industry tycoons and their lobbyists against the green energy industry seem to be fading away.
Despite all these efforts, the deeper complexities of green energy, carbon emissions, net zero, and sustainability are still taboo issues. If the most significant challenges are not openly discussed, addressed, and debated publicly, they will not be easily solved.
It will take the effort of the energy industry, governments, corporations, leaders, regulation bodies, and much more to transform the global energy storage and distribution system. This transformation is the only way the world can meet zero carbon goals.
Moving from centralized legacy systems to decentralized and agile green energy storage solutions that embrace innovation and refitting global grids is a monumental challenge. But it is also a massive opportunity.