NAATBatt Blog

The Politics of Distributed Generation

September 26th, 2014 by

One of the most interesting presentations this year at The Battery Show was the Fireside Chat – The State of Energy Storage Both Sides of the Meter panel, hosted by Dirk Spiers of ATC New Technologies.  The panel discussed the implications of storage and distributed generation for the traditional utility model.

A last minute addition to the panel was Haresh Kamath of EPRI.  EPRI is an independent research organization that is funded in large part by investor-owned utilities.  Haresh shocked a number of people in the audience by taking a somewhat hostile view of distributed generation and behind the meter storage.  Haresh said that it was unfair that wealthy people, by installing new distribution and storage technology, were imposing costs on poorer people.

I was also shocked by Haresh’s remarks, though less than by their content than their timing.  Distributed generation, of which behind the meter storage will be a key enabler, really does pose a long-term existential threat to the centralized electric utilities that have historically provided much of EPRI’s support.  That some of these utilities might react to that threat in whole or in part by using “rich vs. poor” political demagoguery in order to obstruct the deployment of new energy technologies is not a surprise.  It’s just that I thought we had about 10 years before we had to fight that battle—before any of the major players in the utility world started taking distributed generation and behind the meter storage seriously.

Judging from Haresh’s remarks, I was wrong.  The gauntlet has just been thrown down, though by whom exactly is unclear.  Supporters of distributed generation and behind the meter storage are in, I suspect, for a tougher and dirtier fight than many may imagine.

With respect to Haresh’s remarks, I would take exception to them, though I would acknowledge that, as with all good demagoguery, they contain some seeds of truth.

Properly understood, and properly represented, wealthier and better informed consumers are using distributed solar and behind the meter storage to do what they have been trying to do for years with other technologies: use electricity more efficiently and reduce their energy costs.  This includes investments in better home insulation, LED lighting and energy efficient appliances, as well as in PV solar panels and electricity storage.  Whether it is fair that it often takes money to save (or make) money is a larger issue in society than energy efficiency.  But few will contest that a greater public good is served by using electricity more efficiently—unless those few happen to be in the business of selling it.

The seed of truth in Haresh’s remarks concerns how the costs of maintaining the existing, centralized grid will be handled for those who cannot afford to move away from it.  This is a real issue and one that needs to be dealt with fairly and honestly.  The grid as it exists today includes of billions of dollars in stranded asset costs that were historically incurred for the benefit of all consumers, whether or not they seek to reduce or eliminate their reliance on the grid today.  Users of distributed generation and behind the meter storage can no more rightfully walk away from their obligation to help pay for those costs than could the Scots walk away from their portion of the UK national debt had they chosen independence.  In fairness, over the past few years, many wealthy and politically powerful consumers have looked to distributed generation and storage as a way of avoiding responsibility for their fair share of those costs.  That should not be allowed to happen.  But advocating for fair assessment of stranded grid asset costs is far different than trying to obstruct consumers from using new technologies, including distributed generation and behind the meter storage, to reduce their energy costs going forward.

Haresh also made another point during his presentation that bodes a little better for the coming fight over distributed generation and behind the meter storage.  Haresh said that the real future of electricity will have less to do with where it will be generated than how it will be networked.  Progressive utilities around the country are looking at new ways to play in the quickly evolving business of electricity.  Facilitating communications and transactions among the growing number of generators, transmitters, storers and consumers of electric power may well provide a profitable business model for the utilities of the future.  This kind of thinking should be supported and encouraged.  The battle within the utility community between the facilitators of distributed generation and storage and the obstructers will be an important one to watch.

In the meantime it is necessary for those involved in distributed generation and behind the meter storage to play close attention to the political headwinds that may soon be blowing against those technologies.  What is clear from Haresh’s remarks is that not all utilities are likely to see themselves as facilitators.  I fear that we will be hearing more from the obstructers soon.

NAATBatt to Begin Educational Webinar Series

September 19th, 2014 by

The NAATBatt Education Committee met earlier this week at The Battery Show in Novi, Michigan.  At its inaugural meeting, the Committee decided to reinvigorate the NAATBatt program of educational webinars.  NAATBatt hosted 9 webinars in 2010 and this year co-hosted with the DOE Office of Electricity a webinar on the Section 1703 loan guaranty program for energy storage projects.  Audio files of these webinars are available to NAATBatt members on the Members Only page of the NAATBatt web site.

The new series of webinars will be managed by members of the Education Committee and will be offered on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.  The purpose of the webinars will be to offer education on issues important to the industry to employees of NAATBatt member firms and to target audiences that NAATBatt member firms would like to reach.  There will be no charge for NAATBatt members to listen in on the webinars and an audio copy of each will be made available on the Members Only page.

The first webinar will be entitled “Lithium-Ion Battery Safety: Myths and Realities” and will air on November 18, 2014.  The program, which will be aimed at regulators, government employees and the general public, will address a number of misperceptions about the safety of lithium-ion batteries that are rampant in the market today.  The program will also discuss how lithium-ion battery manufacturers mitigate safety risk at the cell and the system level with a multiple, layered system of protection.

The second webinar will be entitled “Global Survey of the Advanced Battery Market” and will air on January 27, 2015.  This webinar will address the global market for advanced battery technology on a geographic basis.  Consultants and trade associations based in China, Asia ex-China, Europe, India, Africa and South America will discuss the battery applications that are expected to drive demand for advanced battery technologies in those particular markets over the next few years.  NAATBatt members wanting to get a high level understanding of where the markets will be for what should plan on listening in.

Plans for future webinars on battery applications for buses and supercapacitor applications in automotive systems are in the planning process.  Please watch your e-mail for information about upcoming programs.  NAATBatt members interested in planning and producing these educational programs should contact Education Committee co-chairs Ralph Brodd (Broddarp), John Warner (XALT) or John Butkowski (Beckett).

What Would Andrew Carnegie Do?

September 12th, 2014 by

This past week I and many NAATBatt members attended the NY-BEST Battery Supply Chain program in Rochester, New York followed by a NAATBatt members’ meeting and tour at the BEST Test & Commercialization Center operated by DNV-GL.  Both programs were excellent and very informative.  The BEST Test & Commercialization Center was particularly impressive in its size, capabilities and pristine, state-of-the-art equipment.

One of the highlights at the NY-BEST Battery Supply Chain conference was the presentation by Sam Jaffe of Navigant Consulting.  Sam, who has become a regular and welcome speaker on the battery conference circuit, as usual did not disappoint.

But one slide in Sam’s presentation in particular caught my attention and that of many other attendees with whom I spoke.  In discussing the business case for the Tesla Gigafactory, Sam pointed out that a single lithium molecule used in an advanced lithium-ion battery today makes 7 distinct stops through a convoluted supply chain, traveling about 29,875 miles, to get to its end user.  Elon Musk’s vision of consolidating the entire lithium-ion supply chain around the gigafactory is intended, said Sam, to eliminate those logistical costs.

My initial reaction to Sam and Elon’s business logic was not positive.  After all, the whole point of the globalization of trade is that the cost of transporting goods has become less than the cost savings that can be obtained by sourcing the components of those goods from the lowest cost suppliers located pretty much anywhere in the world.  Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, tracing the complex journey of a simple t-shirt around the world to back of an American teenager, illustrates this phenomenon.

But as I thought about it more, another example came to mind.  I grew up just north of Chicago in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  At that time, if you looked south over Lake Michigan, a large black cloud perpetually obscured the southern portion of the lake.  The cloud came from the steel factories located in and around Gary, Indiana, which provided much of the steel plate and bar used in the United States.

Sometime in the 1980’s that cloud suddenly disappeared, as did much of the steel production in Gary.  Foreign steel producers, mostly from Japan, were able to undercut U.S. steel producers on price and drove them out of business in dramatic fashion.  Gary, Indiana never recovered from this loss.

Years later, I remember someone speculating what Andrew Carnegie, the storied king of the U.S. steel industry in the 19th Century, would say if informed that in the 1980’s it was cheaper for a steel producer to mine iron ore in Minnesota, ship it by boat to Chicago, transport it by railroad to the West Coast, ship it across the Pacific Ocean to Japan, refine it into steel bar and plate, ship it back across the Pacific Ocean, load it back onto railroad cars and sell it in Chicago, than to manufacture and sell it in Gary, Indiana.  What Andrew Carnegie would say that it is a wonderful time to be going to the steel business in the United States.

The convoluted lithium-ion supply chain bears more than passing similarity to the convoluted steel bar and sheet supply chain of the 1980’s.  Eventually, some U.S. steel manufacturers were able to struggle back to relevance and profitability, in large part by using new manufacturing techniques, such as mini mills, which allowed them to address their cost challenges.  When they did, they were able to capitalize on the geographic advantage of being close to their market.  But improvements in manufacturing technology preceded improvements in logistics, not the other way around.

I think that Andrew Carnegie would probably recognize what Elon Musk is trying to do with the Gigafactory.  But he would probably also recognize that disrupting the convoluted lithium-ion supply chain of today requires more than just geographic consolidation.  There is a reason why t-shirts are manufactured in Thailand and not in Los Angeles.

If the Tesla Gigafactory succeeds, it will do so because it operates more efficiently than its competitors and can make a better product.  It is just possible that Tesla will figure out a way to do that.  After all no one has yet made money shorting Elon Musk.

Nevada Makes Its Choice

September 5th, 2014 by

The big news in the battery industry this week was the much anticipated announcement of where Tesla Motors is going to build its gigafactory for lithium-ion batteries.  Five states were at least nominally in the running.  The winner is the State of Nevada.

For those who follow such things, the interesting question was not so much “where” as “how much”.  It was rumored that Tesla would require the winning state to provide economic incentives equal to about 10% of the total $5 billion project cost.

As it turns out, the rumors were conservative.  Forbes reports that the incentive package provided by the State of Nevada totals $1.25 billion, including $725 million in the form of a 20-year, 100 percent sales tax abatement, $332 million in the form of a 10-year, 100 percent property tax abatement, and $120 million in transferable tax credits.  Nevada is therefore underwriting about 25% of the total project cost—an investment ratio that might make more than a few private equity investors blush.

The Nevada investment will inevitably rekindle the debate about whether government should be investing in businesses or picking winners in the private sector at all.  I could not help but notice one comment on the Forbes Web site purportedly posted by a Forbes staffer suggesting that the better alternative to state economic packages such as the one offered by Nevada to Tesla is “competitively low tax rates for all.”

The sentiment expressed by the Forbes staffer (who, if he is a Forbes staffer, should know better) is at best naïve and at worst the kind of political gobbledygook that routinely paralyzes government decision making in the United States.

In the context of economic development programs, governments do invest in businesses and do routinely try to pick the winners in the private sector.  This is not because government decisions are clairvoyant or fair.  It is because governments have no choice but to make those decisions if they want to incent businesses to locate in their jurisdictions.  Many businesses make siting decisions based on government incentives and actively shop for them, both in the United States and abroad.  There is a market for government incentives in the very same sense that there is a market for cattle.  You may think that the market for cattle is unethical or economically inefficient.  But if you don’t play in the cattle market, you are not going to be eating a lot of steak.

Governments should not be criticized for making investments in private businesses in the form of economic development incentives.  But governments can and should be judged by how wisely they make those investments.  ROI’s for state governments (and the federal government) on economic incentive investments should be devised, calculated, compared and made a matter of public record.  The elected officials who are ultimately responsible for those investment decisions can and should be held accountable for the ROI that their governments generate, no different than a private fund manager.

How successful Nevada will be on its investment in Tesla is at this point anyone’s guess.  But our Forbes staffer can probably take some solace in the fact Nevada government officials are in this case not substituting their judgment for that of the market.  With a P/E ratio of 1,682.59 for 2013 (versus an average P/E ratio of 18.15 for S&P 500 during the same time period), Tesla Motors is unquestionably a darling of the private sector.

Nevada has simply made what they call in the private equity world a “tag-along” investment.  Time will tell whether Nevada government officials are just as smart or just as stupid as the professional money managers who have piled private investment into Tesla.  I simply wish them all the very best of luck.

NAATBatt Education Committee to Meet and Plan New Programming

August 30th, 2014 by

NAATBatt member firms are about to see a new benefit from their membership, as the NAATBatt Education Committee, under the leadership of our Chief Technology Officer, Ralph Brodd, begins a series of educational programs for employees of our member firms.  The Education Committee will endeavor to organize free, bi-monthly webinars on technical topics that the Committee believes will be of interest to our membership.

It is fitting and proper that NAATBatt should do this.  The number of for-profit webinars on advanced battery technology seems to grow by the day.  Yet NAATBatt, within its membership, has access to the leading authorities on advanced battery and ultracapacitor technology in the world, many of whom are happy to share their knowledge with the rest of the industry.  This knowledge can and will be shared with employees of NAATBatt member firms as an additional benefit of NAATBatt membership.

The NAATBatt Education Committee has adopted a new charter, which sets out the goals of its committee and its dedication to the advancement of knowledge in the field of electrochemical energy storage technology:

The primary goal of the Education Committee is to ensure that NAATBatt companies and their employees are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st Century battery marketplace through providing regular meetings for the exchange of information, tutorials and workshops for company employees to keep them current on new technology developments as well as advanced manufacturing practices and new government regulations relating to battery safety testing and chemistries.  The rapidly evolving global battery market, the introduction of new battery technologies and the need for a highly skilled workforce create new challenges for our members.

The mission of the NAATBatt Education Committee is to (1) provide essential information to member companies on developing battery technologies, to identify significant emerging technical issues, (2) address the issues of training to develop a highly skilled battery related workforce to produce high energy battery systems,  (3) to sustain and grow the nation’s battery related economic vitality and technology leadership, (4) create forums for the exchange of ideas, information and guidance to maintain a leadership position, (5) assist in the planning and organizing technical conferences offering members the opportunity to learn about issues and opportunities for  emerging technology in the marketplace.

The Committee on Education oversees NAATBatt technical programs and initiatives such as newsletters, workshops and tutorials updating members on developing technologies, government rules and regulations as well as newsletters to update happenings worldwide in new promising technologies.  The role of government regulations has increased significantly in recent years at all levels of company operations.

The evolving global economy has increased the demand for a highly skilled workforce in order to meet the demands for commercialization of new higher energy battery systems as well as support the growth of existing commercial products.  In recent years, the number of new battery technologies has exploded, especially in areas related to developing electric battery powered automobiles, trucks and busses as well as portable electronic devices.  Based on demand, short courses will be offered by industry experts to keep company employees current on new technology developments, advanced manufacturing practices and acquaint NAATBatt members with the impact of new government regulations relating to battery safety testing and chemistries.

The inaugural meeting of the Education Committee will take place next month in Novi in conjunction with The Battery Show.  It is anticipated that the subject of the first educational Webinars will be discussed and decided upon at that meeting.  Notices for the meeting will be sent out next week.  Please consider participating if you are going to be in Novi.

NAATBatt Prepares for Members Site Visit Meeting at DNV-GL’s BEST Testing Center

August 22nd, 2014 by

Less than three weeks from today, NAATBatt members will gather in Rochester, New York to tour the BEST Testing and Commercialization Center.  The BEST Center, managed by NAATBatt member DNV-GL, is a unique asset for anyone involved in developing and commercializing new battery and energy storage solutions.  It gives a user access to high-quality testing facilities without the user burdening its own lab resources or having to make a large capital investment.

The BEST Center represents a new business model in the advanced battery industry:  third party testing and validation of new energy storage technologies.  Battery testing equipment being notoriously pricy and testing data being notoriously difficult for customers to verify, the high cost of testing resources has been a significant barrier to all but the largest companies trying to get into the advanced battery and energy storage businesses.  The BEST Center and other third party testing entities, such as the Battery Innovation Center in Newbery, Indiana, and the Kentucky-Argonne Battery Manufacturing R&D Center in Lexington, Kentucky, are addressing this important market need.  As the advanced battery and energy storage businesses grow, there may be more market entrants soon.

On the morning of September 11, NAATBatt members will be able to see first-hand what a state-of-the-art third party battery testing laboratory looks like and understand exactly what it does.  This is an opportunity for members to see what capabilities the BEST Center has and to understand what needs a third party testing center, such as the BEST Center, may have for equipment, supplies and expertise.

The visit to the BEST Center continues the popular series of NAATBatt Members Site Visit meetings.  These meeting provide NAATBatt members with a unique opportunity to see what is really going on in the trenches of our industry—far better information than anything you can glean at a trade show.  Members tell me repeatedly that the opportunity to attend these meetings is one of the most interesting and most valuable benefits of NAATBatt membership.

I hope you will be able to join us in Rochester next month.  For details about the meeting, and the related NY-BEST Energy Storage Supply Chain program the day before, please click here.

NAATBatt Launches “Members Only” Website

August 15th, 2014 by

Over the coming months, NAATBatt will be going through a number of changes in order better to reflect the interests of our members and to provide better value for their membership dollar.

I am pleased to announce that the first of those changes will become effective today: The launch of the Members Only section of our Website. The purpose of the Members Only section is to provide our members with proprietary content and information that is not generally available to those outside our organization.

The Members Only section contains links to the following information that NAATBatt members may find useful:

  • The ABC PatentEdge™ Survey of trends in advanced battery and ultracapacitor patent filings. The Survey, which is a joint project of NAATBatt and the intellectual property consulting firm IP Checkups, provides analysis as to where R&D dollars are really being spent in advanced battery and ultracapacitor technology. This is invaluable information for companies trying better to understand marketplace trends that will impact their businesses in years ahead. The survey for 1Q 2014 has just been published. Go to the Members Only section to read it.
  • Open RFP’s Received by NAATBatt for Member Goods and Services. More frequently than you might imagine, parties looking for goods and services relating to advanced battery technology ask NAATBatt for referrals and recommendations. In the past, these inquiries have been handled on a haphazard basis, with staff directing inquiries to the member firms that staff thinks may have an interest in the inquiry. The new Open RFP’s section site will impose method on this madness. The site will broadcast to all NAATBatt members all inquiries that NAATBatt receives. The advanced battery business is a tough, highly competitive business. NAATBatt is dedicated to making sure that its members win in that competition. Go to the new Members Only site to read about a solicitation for LiFePO4 battery cells (closing August 21), which NAATBatt recently received.
  • NAATBatt Conference, Workshop and Webinar materials. The Members Only page provides NAATBatt members with free access to presentations and conference materials made available at NAATBatt conferences, workshops and webinars. In a disturbing trend, many for-profit conference organizers now charge for copies of conference materials—even to program registrants. At NAATBatt, access to conference materials is free and included in the cost of a NAATBatt membership. Go to the Members Only section to see presentation materials from the NAATBatt Storage Workshop at Intersolar North America on July 10, 2014, and listen to the NAATBatt/Department of Energy webinar entitled “DOE Loan Guarantee Program for Storage Projects: The Essential Details”, from July 16, 2014.

NAATBatt hopes and expects in the months ahead to add new features to the NAATBatt Members Only site. Please contact me if there is additional information that you would like to see NAATBatt post.
Also, please remember the new RFP portion of the Members Only site. As your company looks for competitively bid goods and services, please send us your RFP’s, so that we can help disseminate your solicitation to our 60+ member firms.

Information about how to access the Members Only site will be sent by e-mail to the principal contact persons at each of our member firms within the next business day. That information may be shared with all employees of any NAATBatt member firms. Please note that the Members Only section may only be accessed from e-mail accounts with approved domains (e.g., siemens.com) corresponding to our member firms.

Please check back at the Members Only section often to see new information and materials that will be posted for the exclusive benefit of NAATBatt member firms. We are excited to bring this new benefit to our members.

Behind the Meter Storage and Rooftop Solar PV Share the Same Fate

August 8th, 2014 by

A few weeks ago, Peter Rive, the Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of SolarCity posted a blog entitled “Put Battery Storage in the Hands of Grid Operators”. In his post, Mr. Rive argues that while battery storage for residential, commercial, and utility-scale customers is one of the most anticipated developments in the energy space and might allow consumers to “cut the cord” on their relationships with utilities, that would be a bad idea. Mr. Rive suggests that grid operators, not electricity consumers, are best positioned to optimize the use of storage technology:

Grid operators are best-positioned to direct battery storage to discharge clean energy at optimal moments—for example when demand is at its highest, and when grid infrastructure is most under strain. Without this storage capacity, solar penetration in excess of 60% of mid-day peak could become problematic for the grid, as utilities have to contend with an abundance of power which can cause voltage and power balance issues.

However, with storage in the hands of grid operators and utilities, this problem becomes an immensely powerful solution. In this scenario, grid operators are suddenly empowered to store and discharge solar energy where and when it’s needed most, smoothing out peaks and ramps, while powering more of the total grid consumption with clean and renewable sources. Additionally, utilizing storage to unlock massive benefits in the areas of frequency and voltage support can further lower grid costs. Many of these capabilities are available now through distributed resources, even without storage, and we should work together to put them into the hands of utilities for the benefit of the ratepayers.

First, let me be clear: I completely agree with Mr. Rive. On an optimized power grid, the grid operator would control the storage resource for all the reasons that Mr. Rive suggests. An optimized storage resource would be deployed on distribution systems proximate to the customer in order to maximize the value and flexibility of the resource. But its dispatch would remain under the control of a central entity that could optimize its use on, and minimize its cost to, the grid.

The surprise for me in reading Mr. Rive’s post was not its argument but its source. For while Mr. Rive makes a valid point about the optimal use of storage on the grid, one could, of course, make that same point about generation.

It is near axiomatic that electricity generation is done most efficiently at scale. For example, it is far cheaper and more efficient for a grid operator to deploy 100,000 solar PV panels in a field than it is for 100,000 commercial and residential customers to put a solar panel on their rooftops. If the deployment of solar PV electricity was driven entirely by considerations of system cost and optimization, SolarCity and its competitors would not exist (at least not in their current form).

The market for rooftop solar PV exists for three reasons:

1.   There are a number of electricity customers that wish to do their part to improve the environment by deploying rooftop solar PV systems, and they are willing to pay a premium to do so.

2.   There are a number of electricity customers that value the increased reliability that comes from supplementing their supply of electricity with self-generated solar PV, and they are willing to pay a premium to do so.

3.   How society allocates the huge incumbent costs of the electricity grid across all electricity customers is entirely a political question. The kind of customers that are inclined to deploy solar PV on their rooftops, together with the business interests that service them, comprise a powerful political block. That block has the power to ensure that incumbent grid costs are allocated to the owners of rooftop solar PV systems in such a way as to reduce or eliminate the premium that the owners would otherwise have to pay.

My point is not that this is right or wrong. My point is simply that this is what is. What concerns me about Mr. Rive’s post is its implicit assumption that the factors that have driven adoption of rooftop PV solar systems apply only to rooftop solar PV systems and not to other customer-owned technologies that promote clean, reliable power, such as behind the meter storage.

How the grid will evolve over the coming decades is a fascinating question about which we can only speculate the answers. One hopes that its evolution will be driven as much as possible by the goals of efficiency and optimization. But one knows that its evolution will be driven by other factors as well.

I applaud Mr. Rive for his concern about the optimization of the grid. But there is no reason to believe that the same factors that have driven less than optimized deployments of rooftop solar PV systems will not also drive of less than optimized deployments of behind the meter storage.

A Mixed Week for Lithium-Ion Batteries

August 1st, 2014 by

For those tracking the health of the lithium-ion battery industry by reference to installed global manufacturing capacity and growing global demand, this was a confusing week.

This week Panasonic announced that it intended to invest in the Tesla battery “Gigafactory”.  Although Panasonic did not specify timing or amount of its investment, Panasonic’s announcement is important.  There had been speculation that Panasonic did not support the Gigafactory project on account of the global oversupply of lithium-ion battery manufacturing capacity.  But Panasonic’s announcement, while pointedly lacking in specifics, seems to indicate that Panasonic has gotten beyond that concern.  The Gigafactory is expected to cost about $5 billion, employ 6,500 people, and add about 30 gigawatts of production capacity for 18650 lithium-ion battery cells per year to the global market.

Also this week, Sony announced the closing of its lithium-ion battery factory in Shimotsuke, Japan in order to improve the company’s efficiency and allow it better to compete with foreign rivals.  The phase out of the Shimotsuke plant had originally been announced in 2012.  But this week’s announcement would indicate that Sony does not see the same need for more manufacturing capacity as do Tesla and Panasonic.

These conflicting announcements follow the announcement late last month of the acquisition of Rockwood Holdings, a leading global producer of lithium and lithium compounds, by Albemarle Corporation in a cash and stock transaction valued at approximately $6.2 billion.  It is difficult to imagine making a bigger bet on the future of lithium-based batteries than that made by Albemarle.

So what does this all mean?  My guess is that these news items stand as caution to those who would judge the prospects of individual lithium-ion battery makers by reference to global manufacturing overcapacity or global market demand.  Overall, the lithium-ion battery market is an exciting and growing market.  But how that translates into opportunity for an individual manufacturer or its supply chain partners is a very different, and largely unrelated, question.  Lithium-ion batteries are not fungible.  If the market for lithium-ion batteries grows (as it almost certainly will), success will go not to every company that makes batteries or to every company that works in the lithium-ion supply chain.  Success will go to those companies that are able to identify customers willing to buy a very particular battery for a very particular purpose.

Enthusiasm for the prospects of all companies engaged in the lithium-ion industry on account of the growth in lithium-ion battery demand may therefore be displaced.  So too might be concern for all lithium-ion manufacturers in light of the surplus in global manufacturing capacity.  A growing lithium-ion market will certainly provide opportunities for companies that can identify customers for their very particular product.  But the news this week provides sober reminder that boats can sink as easily in high tide as in low.

The Sun May Promote Storage Technology Adoption in More Ways Than One

July 25th, 2014 by

Earlier this month, NAATBatt completed a highly successful program at Intersolar North America, touting to solar developers and integrators the benefits of adding a storage component to solar PV projects.  NAATBatt’s interest in solar PV is driven in large part by our expectation that as the cost of solar PV panels fall, and as the price of centrally-generated power increases, the rise of distributed, renewable energy generation is nearly inevitable.  But large scale distributed, PV electricity generation is only possible if storage is used in conjunction with it in order to address its inherent variability.  NAATBatt therefore sees the sun as driving one of the largest, long-term potential markets for advanced electrochemical energy storage technology.

An interesting story in the press today may portend another major driver of the storage market, this one also driven by the sun.  NASA reports that in July 2012 the earth narrowly missed being hit by a powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) event, which would have devastated the electricity grid, had it hit the earth directly.  The CME crossed a point in the earth’s orbit that the earth had occupied only a week before.  Had the CME occurred one week earlier, the earth would have suffered a direct hit.

Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts.  Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.  A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that the total economic impact of such an event could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

According to NASA, based on historical data, the chance of the earth suffering a direct hit from a CME event within the next 10 years is about 12%.

Human society in developed nations relies on the electricity grid to supply most of the conveniences, and many of the necessities, of modern life.  The grid is, as many have noted, the most complicated piece of machinery ever designed by man.  But it is also a new invention, untested the forces of nature over any significant period of time.

What is clear from the NASA report is that the grid as currently design is fundamentally flawed.  It is not robust enough to survive an extreme CME event, the occurrence of which is statistically probable within the next 50 years.  Failure to address this flaw would be catastrophic to human society as we know it today.

The solution is to make the grid more robust by reinforcing it with a network of redundant systems, including microgrids and distributed generation firmed by storage.  At least some of those systems might be expected to survive a CME event and, even if they did not, would provide a basis for more quickly restoring power and societal function.

Whether the United States and the rest of the developed world is willing to invest in reinforcing the electricity grid against CME events and other significantly more minor natural disasters (such as Superstorm Sandy) is still very much an open question.  But what is clear is that the price of truly reliable electricity is higher than what consumers are used to paying historically.

The storage industry needs to take the lead in educating the public about the danger to their safety posed by the current, flawed design of the electricity grid.  This will not be an easy story to sell; it is not a good news story.  But telling that story and selling that story will aid not only our industry but the well-being of the nations and societies that our businesses strive to serve.