NAATBatt Blog

Can Home Energy Storage be “Cool”?

April 17th, 2015 by

There were more rumblings this week from Tesla Motors about a pending announcement of a launch of a home energy storage product.  The rumblings continue to generate counter-rumblings from skeptics, who point out, perhaps not without some justification, that even in light of the falling cost of lithium-ion batteries (recently pegged at about 14 percent per year since 2007 by Nature Climate Change), it still does not make economic sense for homeowners to put a battery in their home.

But are the skeptics really looking at the right metric?  The answer to that question turns on what exactly the homeowner wants his or her home battery to do.

If a home battery is nothing more than a power back-up system, to protect a homeowner from unreliable grid-based electricity, then the critics may have a valid point.  For the large majority of homeowners, there are more economic forms of back-up power than a battery.

But it is unlikely that Tesla is planning to sell homeowners something that is nothing more than an overpriced back-up power system.  Tesla’s vision, I suspect, is a battery that is the very heart of the future wired home.  And that home, like all things that are wired (and wireless), will have a coolness factor that brings satisfaction to its owner and value in the marketplace.

Tesla Motors has mastered the sale of coolness better than anyone in the auto business.  Experts persuasively argue that the battery and electric drive train in the Model S are inferior to many of its competitors and that EV’s in general make no economic sense.  But that is not what Tesla is selling.  Tesla is selling cool.  And while cool is not immune from economic considerations, it is not entirely governed by them either.

It is ballsy in the extreme for Elon Musk to believe that he can make the highly technical and largely invisible electrical system in a house seem cool.  But who eight years ago would have believed that stringing 7,000 camera batteries together and putting them in a car would one day be viewed as the apex of automotive technology by many wealthy consumers?

One of the possible mistakes the market has made in analyzing the electrification of automobiles and homes is relying too much on the metric of price in consumer choice.  It is clear at this point that something else is going on.  There are important, intangible considerations other than price that are driving consumer adoption of new electronic technologies.  Whether those considerations will drive consumers to buy home batteries is still very much an open question.  But if Elon Musk is betting that it will, that is a bet to watch carefully.

NAATBatt to Pursue Pre-Competitive Research

April 10th, 2015 by

NAATBatt International President Davion Hill and I recently had a long talk about what we can do to make NAATBatt more relevant and more valuable to its members.  One of the ideas we discussed was the possibility of having NAATBatt organize and administer a pre-competitive research fund for the benefit of its members.  The concept is that interested members would make a capital contribution to the fund in exchange for a seat on its steering committee.  NAATBatt would seek to match the member contributions with federal and state grant moneys.  Davion and I are very confident that a neutral, industry-led research fund working on pre-competitive issues important to the advanced battery industry would be virtual magnet for government support.

There is, of course, plenty of precedent for industry organizations organizing research funds and doing pretty much exactly what Davion and I envision.  USABC, EPRI and ALABC all sponsor member-funded, pre-competitive research programs and in many cases successfully leverage those funds with government grants.  NAATBatt would do well to learn from the experience of these other industry programs.  It must also avoid duplicating their efforts.

There are many areas where NAATBatt members share pre-competitive business interests that are not already the subject of other organizations’ research efforts.  Three such areas, which seem to cry out for attention, are the safe transportation of advanced batteries, the safe containment and fire-suppression of advanced batteries once installed in stationary ESS system, and the cost-effective recycling of advanced batteries at the end of their useful lives.  The non-resolution of each of these issues imposes a uniform cost on all companies operating in the advanced battery business.  A uniform effort to address these issues is fully warranted.

NAATBatt International plans to host a general meeting later this year of companies that might be interested in participating in a fund and shaping its structure and direction.  This will be a great opportunity to make meaningful progress on some of the issues that promise to limit the upside potential of the entire industry.  Please keep an eye out for future announcements and give serious consideration to participating.

Net Metering vs. Self-Generation for Solar PV

April 3rd, 2015 by

Earlier this week, NAATBatt member Tucson Electric Power (TEP) announced a change in its net metering program, whereby TEP will compensate new solar PV customers for net metered electricity at the same rate that TEP pays for power from large solar arrays, rather than at the higher retail electricity rate. It is expected that the typical customer with rooftop solar will see their bills increase by about $22 per month as a consequence of this change.

The move by TEP to reduce the benefits of net metering to customers with rooftop solar underscores a longstanding tension between grid operators and solar PV advocates. Net metering—the ability of solar PV owners to sell to the grid PV-generated electricity they cannot use—has long served as an important and effective subsidy for PV technology. Historically, solar advocates have loudly protested reductions in net metering benefits, seeing them as an attack on the technology of distributed solar PV itself.

My sense in reading about TEP’s action this week, and the somewhat muted criticism of it, is that the world of net metering in changing. That change has a lot to do with storage. The falling cost of solar PV means that the need to subsidize solar PV deployment is falling as well. But more importantly, the falling cost of solar PV combined with the falling cost of electricity storage means that it is becoming increasingly economic for solar PV owners to self-generate, i.e., to save the electricity they cannot immediately use and use it themselves at another time.

After years of pushing hard for net metering programs, the solar industry is slowly waking to the realization that customers who perceive a benefit to maximizing their self-generation (i.e., by using storage) will buy more solar panels than those customers who do not. The benefit of self-generation to storage suppliers is obvious.

The real issue begged by net metering is the non-dispatchability of solar power. There simply is a cost to not being able to control when electric energy is generated. Customers that self-generate bear this cost themselves, either by spilling excess electric power or investing in a storage system. Customers that net-meter simply offload this cost onto the grid.

The answer to the question of which alternative is more fair and socially beneficial is inherently subjective. But from a business standpoint it is important to remember that grid operators who must bear the cost of solar non-dispatchability (because they are obligated to net meter) have many ways to defray that cost, including, but by no means limited to, storage. By contrast, solar PV customers that self-generate have no way to defray the cost of non-disptachability other than to store their excess electricity generation. This is something worth thinking about as the storage industry’s position on net-metering evolves.

New Executive Order May Open An Important Market for Energy Storage

March 27th, 2015 by

On March 19, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order aimed at maintaining Federal leadership in sustainability and greenhouse gas emission reductions. The new Executive Order creates significant new purchasing requirements for Federal agencies. These new requirements are something that NAATBatt has long advocated.

While other organizations have devoted significant resources to advocating legislative initiatives in support of energy storage and electric transportation, NAATBatt has long maintained that the most important thing the federal government can do to promote new, market-ready energy storage technologies is simply to use its own spending power to create a market for them. The ability of the federal government to create markets for energy products is particularly powerful. The federal government is the largest user of energy in the United States economy — encompassing 360,000 buildings, 650,000 fleet vehicles and $445 billion in annual spending on goods and services.

Some of the requirements of the new Executive Order that will impact the market for advanced batteries and energy storage systems are:

• Reducing agency building energy intensity by 2.5 percent, including by participating in demand management programs (regrettably this objective is still expressed in terms of reducing total aggregated energy intensity rather than terms of reducing demand peaks).
• Ensuring that renewable and alternative energy accounts for not less than 25% of total electric energy and thermal energy consumed in federal agency buildings by 2025.
• Ensuring that renewable and alternative energy accounts for not less than 30% of the total amount of electric energy consumed in federal agency buildings by 2025.
• Implementing other alternative energy approaches (presumably including storage) that advance the goal of reducing scope 1 and 2 and scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms by the end of fiscal year 2025 relative to a fiscal year 2008 baseline. (Note: Although installing fuel cell energy systems at Federal facilities is specifically identified as an approved action, installing battery storage is not).
• For agencies that operate a fleet of at least 20 motor vehicles, planning for agency fleet composition such that by December 31, 2025, zero emission vehicles or plug-in hybrid vehicles account for 50 percent of all new agency passenger vehicles.
• Planning for appropriate charging or refueling infrastructure or other power storage technologies for zero emission vehicles or plug-in hybrid vehicles and opportunities for ancillary services to support vehicle-to-grid technology.
• Ensuring, beginning in fiscal year 2020 and thereafter that all new construction of Federal buildings greater than 5,000 gross square feet is designed to achieve energy net-zero.

Although significant work needs to be done by the advanced battery industry in order to ensure that the concept of energy efficiency contained in the Executive Order reflects an appropriate time component (i.e., a grid connected Federal facility that uses 1 MW of electricity each hour of a day is far more environmentally friendly than a grid connected Federal facility that uses 23 MW of electricity in a day, but all between 3:00 – 4:00 p.m.) and more certainly includes energy storage, the new Executive Order should provide a robust new federal market for advanced batteries and energy storage systems. This new federal market will allow those technologies to mature and move more rapidly into the private sector market.

Updated NAATBatt Web Site to Debut Soon

March 21st, 2015 by

NAATBatt International will soon launch a new website containing a number of new features for the benefit of our members and for members of the public interested in advanced battery technology.  Although the new site is still a work in progress, I would like to alert you to some of the interesting new features that we will soon launch.

One of the noteworthy new features will be the member’s presentations section of the Web site.  As almost anyone involved in the advanced battery industry can attest, attending conferences to see what is new in the industry and to talk about what is new at one’s company is a major time commitment Our members spend hours preparing 20-30 minute conference presentations only to have them disappear from public and industry attention within minutes of stepping away from the podium.

No more.  The presentations made by our member firms are valuable source of information about the industry as a whole, as well as about individual participant in it.  The new NAATBatt International web site will offer a place for the employees of any member firm to republish presentations given during the year at major industry conferences.  And it will provide member of the public looking for information about the industry and individual products a chance to see the latest thinking and product offerings by industry participants.

Also featured on the NAATBatt web site will be content from major energy storage publications.  The NAATBatt Web site will allow visitors to peruse samples of the best content from numerous industry publications.  Visitors will be able to compare and contrast the quality and coverage of industry news from multiple publications and to make subscription and advertising decisions based on a side-by-side survey of competing content.

The members only section of the NAATBatt web site will also be improved.  NAATBatt members will continue to enjoy quarterly summaries of ABC PatentEdge™, a survey of new patent filings around the world in advanced battery and supercapacitor technologies compiled by IP Checkups in cooperation with NAATBatt International.  NAATBatt members will also enjoy free access to all content from NAATBatt Annual Meetings, workshops and webinars.  Missed the show?  No problem.  With your NAATBatt membership, you will always have free access to the materials.

Watch out for the rollout of the new Web site within the next few weeks.  You won’t be disappointed.

Lithium-Ion Safety Regulations Should Focus on System Safety, Not Bans

March 13th, 2015 by

Earlier this month, United Airlines became the second major airline to announce that it will no longer carry bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries. Delta Airlines stopped bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries in February. The announcements followed fatal fires on two Boeing 747 cargo planes that may have been caused by lithium-ion batteries and a series of earlier incidents in which batteries are suspected as possible contributing factors.

Unease over lithium-ion batteries was further fueled by the recent release of the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the January 7, 2013, thermal event aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Boston and two similar incidents. Those incidents led to the grounding of the entire Dreamliner fleet from January 16 – April 26, 2013. The NTSB and UL LLC presented a detailed summary of the report at the NAATBatt 2015 Annual Meeting & Conference last month in Phoenix.

Additional regulatory activity to limit the carriage and use of lithium-ion batteries in transportation and in stationary applications is almost inevitable. Intelligent regulation of lithium-based batteries that protects public safety should be welcomed by industry.

But there is a larger issue in the regulation of lithium-ion batteries that needs to be recognized: The danger to public safety does not come from lithium-ion batteries. Rather, the danger comes from the ubiquitous use of technologies by the public that demand that increasingly more energy be stored in increasingly smaller mass. The uncontrolled release of a lot of energy stored in a small mass will always be a potentially catastrophic event. The degree of potential catastrophe increases as the amount of stored energy increases regardless of the form in which it is stored.

Banning lithium-ion batteries is not the solution. Today’s lithium-ion cells will eventually be replaced by more powerful lithium-ion cells, or perhaps by lithium metal batteries, lithium sulfur batteries, magnesium batteries and the like. Each new generation of battery will be more powerful, and its failure potentially more catastrophic, than the battery technology it replaces.

Regulation of lithium-ion batteries should focus not on bans and prohibitions but on ensuring the adoption of systems that can reduce the risk or mitigate the consequences of a catastrophic, uncontrolled release event. The modern automobile is a good example of system risk mitigation. A often-told joke suggests that if the automobile was invented today, the government would ban it from the roads, as no regulator would ever approve a vehicle in which a tank of highly flammable gasoline is located just beneath the rear passenger seat. The reality, of course, is that modern regulators permit automobiles today, not because there is an absence of hazard, but because the automobile, as a system, is designed to ensure that the hazard is minimized. Regulation of automobiles focuses on ensuring that the system is designed to minimize the hazard (e.g., the Ford Pinto), not on banning the hazard itself.

We need to get to the same place with batteries. Technologies that rely on powerful, electrochemical energy storage are ubiquitous and energy storage is destined to become only more powerful and more ubiquitous over time. Simply banning the use or transportation of powerful electrochemical energy storage devices will ultimately be as useless and counterproductive as King Canute ordering back the tide. Regulations must focus on designing containment and event mitigation systems that can deal with this inevitable hazard, not just wishing it away.

Section 1703 Guarantees Should Focus on Battery Performance Warranty Obligations

March 6th, 2015 by

Last July, NAATBatt International hosted a webinar on the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, authorized under Section 1703 of Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Under the program, the DOE can make up to $4 billion of loan guarantees available to developers of projects that, among other things, use new technology to produce or facilitate the production of renewable energy. The impetus for the webinar was the DOE’s designation of “advanced grid integration and storage” as one of five areas of special focus of the loan guarantee program.

During the webinar, one of the concerns raised about the loan guarantee program was that its design was better suited to facilitating the financing of large, single megaprojects, such as a wind farm or a bio-fuel refinery, rather than multiple smaller deployments of energy storage technology supporting, for example, distributed solar energy generation. More than six months after the webinar, the concern raised about the suitability of the Section 1703 program for supporting storage technology seems to have been validated. The DOE has not issued a single loan guaranty in support of a distributed energy storage project anywhere.

But the need for DOE guarantees to support the commercialization of new energy storage technology is real. Using advanced batteries to provide ancillary services on the grid is still in its infancy. Few, if any, major financial institutions are willing to accept the technology risk that an advanced battery will reliably perform its function on the grid over a ten or more years, since no advanced battery has ever been deployed on the grid for such a length of time. This is exactly the problem that Section 1703 of the Energy Policy Act is supposed to address.

A close read of the Energy Policy Acts indicates that, though the DOE has confined the use of Section 1703 guarantees to guarantying the loan indebtedness of large megaprojects, the Energy Policy Act empowers the DOE to issue guarantees in forms that would be much more suitable, and much more helpful, to the development of distributed renewable generation and distributed storage. Section 1701 of the Act specifically defines an obligation that can the DOE can guarantee as including a “loan or other debt obligation…”. Those “other debt obligations” would include manufacturers’ warrantee obligations as to the performance of their batteries on the grid or behind the meter over time.

The United States electricity grid is evolving in a way that would have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago. Distributed generation, enabled by the rapidly falling price of solar PV systems and the rising costs of maintaining many centrally located generation assets, is going to account for a major portion of the power used on the grid. Electricity storage technology will be essential to facilitating the transformation of the U.S. electricity grid from one based on centralized generation to one in which distributed renewable generation plays an important, if not eventually a leading, role.

The DOE’s current approach to Section 1703 loan guarantees of large megaprojects is a relic of an electricity system based on centrally generated electricity. That was yesterday’s grid. The Section 1703 guarantee program should be reformed to support the new technologies that will enable the grid of the future — one in which smaller, distributed projects relying on technologies that are still relatively new and unproven today will play a major role.

One approach would be to use Section 1703 authority to guarantee the performance warranties of advanced battery manufacturers whose systems are deployed in support of distributed, renewable energy projects on the grid or behind the meter. Those guarantees might initially be confined to warrantying the performance lithium-ion batteries that comply with certain standards, are manufactured in a certain way, and are operated within certain specified parameters. Industry already knows, by extrapolation, what those standards and parameters need to be. The problem is that for the financial markets, and for many potential customers, extrapolated data is not good enough. Financiers and customers want to see actual data — data that, by definition, will not be available for many years. Addressing this problem is exactly what Section 1703 is supposed to do.

NAATBatt International respectfully calls on the DOE to start thinking outside the megaproject box and to address the needs of the emerging technologies that will make distributed, renewable energy generation an important part of the United States’ energy future. A good way to do that is to use Section 1703 guarantees to backstop the performance warranties of qualified advanced battery manufacturers that deploy systems in support of distributed, renewable energy generation.

The Race for the Super-Battery

February 28th, 2015 by

This past week I attended a presentation and book signing by Steve Levine, who was promoting his new book, The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World.  Steve Levine was joined in the presentation by Jeff Chamberlain, Deputy Director of Development & Demonstration for the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR).

The Powerhouse tells the story of a race to develop a super-battery that will “undermine Russia’s Vladimir Putin, endanger Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, threaten OPEC and transform China…”.  Levine developed his material while “embedded” for two years in the JCESR program at Argonne National Laboratory among many of the scientists who figure prominently in the book.

Based on the talk by Levine and Chamberlain and a quick skim (so far) of the book, The Powerhouse seems like an interesting read and a good insight into the science and many of the personalities driving the progress being made today in advanced battery technology.

But my concern with the book (which is highly qualified as I am still reading it) is that Levine may have sacrificed much of the real story of battery technology in his quest to develop high drama and a compelling story line.  This is hardly a sin in the publishing business.  After all, how good is a book if it does not sell?  But in this case there is a more substantial danger.

It is certainly possible that scientists at Argonne or elsewhere will suddenly discover a new technology that transforms the science of advanced batteries and disrupts the economics of energy.  That “super-battery” discovery might help bring down Putin, threaten OPEC, transform China and solve any number of other problems in the world.

But the more likely scenario is that there will be no momentous breakthrough, no transformative moment in battery technology.  Instead over the next few decades we are likely to see slow and steady progress made in a number of the technologies that scientists are already reasonably familiar with today.  Step by step, battery scientists and battery companies will simply get better at doing what they are already doing today.

While slow, steady progress in battery technology over decades may lack the sexiness of a super-battery discovery, the drama of an international battery race, or the exuberant thrill of a Moore’s Law, it will nevertheless be transformative.  Improvements of just a few percent a year in the energy density of lithium batteries over decades will transform the world of energy just as assuredly as will the super-battery of Steve Levine’s imagination.

We should continue to invest in the race to discover the super-battery.  Sudden, transformative discoveries are always possible and never made without effort.  But we must not allow that race to distract us from the basic blocking and tackling from which most of the advances in advanced electrochemical energy storage are likely to come.

NAATBatt 2015 Offers Insight into the Future of Battery Technology and of NAATBatt

February 20th, 2015 by

The NAATBatt 2015 Annual Meeting & Conference concluded on Thursday in Litchfield Park (Phoenix), Arizona.  The meeting was marred only by the near perfect weather, while most of our colleagues in North America struggled through a particularly harsh stretch of winter.  Aside from the weather, the meeting was a great success.  Attendance was up about 10% from 2014 and the content and networking were as good as ever.

The UL workshop on lithium battery safety got particularly good reviews.  Bob Swaim from the NTSB gave a detailed report of the NTSB’s findings on the Dreamliner (Boeing 787) battery incidents.  Although the written record of the NTSB’s findings is now a matter of public record, that record is enormous and, as such, nearly indecipherable.  Several of the attendees who had read much of that record praised Bob’s summary of the NTSB findings for bringing clarity to the NTSB’s findings.  Bob’s summary engendered some great and at times quite pointed questions from the audience, which added considerably to the value of the presentation.

Another highlight was the panel on the future of lithium battery technology, featuring Stan Whittingham, Khalil Amine and Mike Thackeray. Drs. Whittingham, Amine and Thackeray are three of the leading experts in the world in lithium-ion technology (Stan Whittingham can lay claim to being the inventor of the lithium-ion battery, an accomplishment for which he received a lifetime achievement award at the meeting). During the course of their discussion, and in response to several questions from the audience, the panelists emphasized that lithium-ion battery technology is going to be an important battery technology for quite some time.  They also outlined their views as to what advances are likely to be made in lithium-ion battery technology over the next few decades and, perhaps as important, what hoped for advances are more likely to disappoint.  It was a fascinating discussion.

In the estimate of many attendees, the highlight of the meeting was the presentation of our keynote speaker, Captain Michael Ziv, Group Director of the NAVSEA Technology Office, following the Gala Dinner on Wednesday evening.  Captain Ziv talked about the rail gun and laser weapons systems that the U.S. navy is just starting to deploy and the role of energy storage technology in enabling those systems.  The technical capabilities of those systems are fascinating and captured the full attention of everyone in the audience.  Captain Ziv’s talked focused on some of the technical issues relating to those systems that the navy hopes private industry can help address.  A number of our members left the dinner in deep thought.

In my view, however, the highlight of the meeting was the members’ update presentations on the last day of the meeting. During that portion of the meeting, 27 different NAATBatt member firms made 8 minute presentations about new products, new services and new developments on which they are working.  I had assumed going into the meeting that those presentations would be shameless commercials with limited substance and no real interest.  My assumptions were dead wrong.  Some of the developments, technologies and products discussed were among the most interesting things I heard during the entire conference.  Many other attendees felt the same way.

Immediately following the meeting, I had the opportunity to poll a number of our members about what they liked and did not like about the annual meeting.  The one point on which there was a near unanimity of views was that rather than treating the members’ presentations as an add-on advertising segment at the end of the meeting, those presentations should become the centerpiece of the meeting itself.  And that is exactly what we are going to do next year.

For those of you that joined us in Phoenix for this year’s annual meeting, whether as delegates, sponsors, exhibitors or speakers—thank you.  For those who could not join us, you missed a really great program.  For all of you, I hope you can join us next year at NAATBatt 2016.  Watch out for details soon.

U.S. 2014 Installed Generation Stats Demonstrate the Growing Need for Storage

February 6th, 2015 by

Earlier this month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission published its latest Energy Infrastructure Update report, which details new electricity generation assets installed in the United States in 2014 by fuel type.  Given that 2014 saw some of the lowest natural gas prices of the decade and substantial uncertainty about the future of tax incentives for renewable projects, the numbers may be surprising.

Of the total new generation of 15,384 MW installed in 2014, natural gas accounted, not surprisingly, for the largest fuel segment with 7,485 MW installed.  But wind followed next with 4,080 MW of installed capacity and solar with 3,139 MW.  The upshot of these numbers is that at a time when it is hard to imagine that the headwinds against wind and solar could possibly be stronger, variable, renewable electricity generation assets accounted for a full 46.9% of all new electricity generation in the United States.

The implications for electricity storage on the grid should be obvious.  It has long been acknowledged that storage will be necessary to accommodate large scale penetration of variable electricity generation on the grid.  The question for the storage market has always been:  Will variable generation assets ever be installed in sufficient quantities to make the need for large scale electricity storage a real issue?

What the 2014 installed generation numbers show is that variable wind and solar electricity is no flash in the pan.  If 46.9% of all new generation installed in a bad year is variable, what are those numbers going to look like when natural gas prices start to climb and Congress brings some long-term predictability to energy policy?

The 2014 installed generation numbers show that the Golden Age of electricity storage on the grid is not nearly as far off as many have assumed.