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Topic: Batteries

[Episode #170] – Thermal Storage and District Energy

Scholarship on the energy transition has given a good deal of attention to battery storage, because it can help make variable renewables more dispatchable over longer periods of time, and because it’s a core part of electric vehicles. Numerous models have projected that we’ll need a very large amount of battery storage starting several decades from now, when renewables approach 80% of grid power supply, meaning long-duration and seasonal storage will become more necessary.

But what if that isn’t true? Many of those models assume that heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) loads, which account for about half of total power demand, will need to be met by electricity stored in batteries. But what if we could provide heat directly, by saving or recovering waste heat, and then using it as heat, without going through the conversions (and energy losses) of converting heat to electricity and then back to heat? What if using waste heat and other low-temperature sources were actually a far more efficient way to meet those demands?

In this episode, we discuss thermal storage for the first time on this show, to understand the state of the art and its potential, as well as where much more research on thermal storage is needed. Our guest is Daniel Møller Sneum, a postdoctoral researcher from Technical University of Denmark, an expert on thermal and district energy who wrote his PhD about flexible district energy systems. We’ll only scratch the surface of the thermal storage topic in this episode, but we hope that it helps our listeners begin to learn about this important and badly under-studied sector.

Geek rating: 6

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[Episode #168] – Storage Futures

Everyone understands that storage will play an important role in the energy transition, as we move from conventional thermal power plants that can be dispatched at will to energy systems predominantly supplied by variable renewables.

But important questions remain: how much storage will be needed? What type of storage is best? When will storage be most important? There hasn’t been a lot of great scholarship on these practical implications for deploying storage across the grid so far, but a multi-year project called the Storage Futures Study that was just completed by researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) advances the literature considerably. The seven component reports of the Storage Futures Study explore when and where a range of storage technologies are cost-competitive, depending on how they're operated and what services they provide for the grid, as well as the role and impact of relevant and emerging energy storage technologies in the US power sector across a range of potential future cost and performance scenarios through the year 2050.

In this episode, we’re joined by Nate Blair, principal investigator of the study, to explain its findings and how their modeling was done. Nate is the Group Manager of the Distributed Systems and Storage Analysis group at NREL, and draws upon almost 30 years of experience in energy systems modeling and energy analysis, including nearly two decades of work at NREL where he held roles developing the System Advisor Model and PVWatts system modeling tools, as well as the ReEDS electric grid planning model. He has deep expertise in this type of modeling and walks us through all of the findings of this important new study.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #161] – Expanding Transmission

It has been nearly impossible to get new transmission built across the US in recent years, thanks to a combination of local opposition from host communities, jurisdictional issues, and the resistance of major utilities, alongside other factors. But with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (previously known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill) now committed to law, there are fresh hopes that new transmission lines can be built in the US to unlock the truly massive renewable resources that are currently unable to get to market… resources that are critical to helping the US decarbonize its economy. There are also new techniques for building transmission, and potentially new regulations that can overcome resistance to new lines.

In this episode, we revisit the topic of transmission and see what needs to happen to get new transmission projects moving in the US. We also ask whether a macro grid based on big transmission lines is still really the cheapest and best solution, or if more distributed solutions might be worth reevaluating in light of updated cost data and some contemporary grid modeling.

Our guest in this episode is Liza Reed, the research manager for low carbon technology policy at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., an expert in High Voltage Direct Current, electricity transmission, and technology innovation. She shares with us the latest thinking about transmission, and helps us tie together some of the threads we have discussed in previous episodes, to paint a picture of how more transmission can bring hundreds of gigawatts of renewable power to market in the US.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #159] – The Cost of Decarbonization

Why do the major groups publishing energy forecasts consistently undershoot the progress of energy transition? For decades, public sector agencies, oil industry groups, energy industry consultancies, and even environmental nonprofits have been consistently too pessimistic in their outlooks. So why is it that standard energy forecasting models keep getting transition wrong?

A group of researchers at Oxford University may have an answer to that question with a study they recently published on the future trajectory of the energy transition. The problem, they say, is that standard models don't realistically account for learning curves in manufacturing, and exponential growth in deployment as it relates to transition. Their new approach shows that future cost and deployment curves can be predicted quite accurately for energy transition solutions like solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and hydrogen electrolyzers.

What makes their demonstration particularly exciting isn’t just that they’ve found a better approach to modeling energy transition learning curves; it’s what their model shows: that a rapid energy transition is actually as much as $14 trillion cheaper than not transitioning over the coming decades. In short, these researchers suggest there is no net cost to a sustainable energy transition, and that on the economic merits at least, it’s basically inevitable.

Join us in this episode for a discussion with one of the researchers on the Oxford team, Dr. Matthew Ives. He is an economist and complex systems modeler at Oxford University who is currently researching sensitive intervention points for accelerating progress towards the post-carbon transition. We explore exactly how their modeling was done, exactly where traditional modeling has gone wrong, and what it all means for the energy transition.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #146] – Why Local Solar Costs Less

Conventional wisdom in the energy transition has long held that public investment should be directed toward utility-scale projects, because they’re cheaper than rooftop solar systems, kilowatt for kilowatt. Being cheaper, utility-scale systems would clearly deliver more bang for the buck.

Our returning guest in this episode, energy modeler Christopher Clack, says according to his recent modeling, the opposite is actually true — that investing more into local solar will deliver more public benefits than investing in utility-scale projects. And even more surprisingly, he says that building rooftop solar and distributed storage systems will actually result in more utility-scale solar as well, plus bring greater societal benefits such as more jobs, increased economic development, increased resilience, and more equitable access to the benefits of renewables. By modeling a dizzying set of factors simultaneously, Clack is able to show that combining many factors leads to synergistic effects that have been heretofore undiscovered in the literature… factors that we will attempt to describe in this extremely deep dive into energy modeling.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #144] – Investing in Energy Transition

We have a very special guest for you in this episode: Jeremy Grantham, the legendary investor who co-founded GMO, a Boston-based institutional money management firm, more than 40 years ago. With more than $60 billion in assets under management, GMO has produced steady returns for its investors through market booms and busts, largely thanks to the steady hand of Grantham and his investing philosophy, which holds that sooner or later, most valuations return to the mean.

In this interview, we talked about Grantham’s investing philosophy; the history of investment bubbles; how he values investments; what’s happening in the markets as new retail traders using the Robinhood app and participating in Reddit-based trading groups drive stocks like Game Stop wild; what the Fed should do as the world recovers from the pandemic; his views on the massive expansion of the US national debt; how the world’s governments are responding to the challenge of climate change; the role of venture capital in energy transition; and his outlook for energy transition in general.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #134] – Storage Grows Up

Battery storage in the US has grown ten-fold in just five years, and its growth is only accelerating. Just a single utility procurement announced in May of this year was for four times as much utility battery capacity as existed in the entire US five years ago.

But battery storage isn’t just getting bigger. It’s also stretching well beyond utility-scale frequency control into new applications and market segments. In fact, fully one-third of the installed battery capacity in the US now is actually on the customer side of the meter, where it is being used to do things like mitigate demand charges and provide resilience—for example, allowing a microgrid to keep functioning when grid power is shut off in a wildfire event.

And then there are all the other kinds of non-battery storage, which are finding new momentum as well. It’s an exciting time of rapid evolution in the storage sector. To help us understand it all, Jason Burwen, the Vice President of Policy at the Energy Storage Association who last joined us back in Episode #8, returns to the show for this very wonky but highly informative look at the changing market, policy environment, and technologies of storage.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #124] – Energy Transition Progress Report

As the world slowly starts to emerge from lockdown and get back to business, energy analysts and climate activists alike are wondering if we will use this opportunity to accelerate the energy transition, or if we will just go back to what we were doing before the pandemic and fire up the nearest coal-fired power plant or diesel engine.

Our guest in this episode, Nat Bullard of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, thinks the trends toward energy transition and climate action are already so firmly entrenched that we should expect them to maintain their leads as we begin to restart and rebuild the world’s economies...and he and his colleagues have ample data to prove it!

Further, he argues, the world is actually quite different now than it was in the last major economic crash a decade ago in some very important ways, particularly where it concerns energy transition. Unlike 2009, we’re not worrying about peak oil now; if anything, we’re more worried about too much cheap energy. Not just cheap oil, but more renewable power than we can use in certain places and times…so much so that wholesale and even retail grid power prices can go negative. And we’re seeing an investment community that is now much more interested in the winners of energy transition than the losers.

In this episode, we take the pulse of energy transition at this ever-so-uncertain moment, and find more than a few signs of hope and progress all over the world.

Geek rating: 6

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[Episode #122] – Hybrid Power Plants

The days of worrying about the intermittency of solar and wind farms are quickly receding into the past as battery storage systems are added to existing plants, and new renewable plants are increasingly equipped with large battery storage systems from the outset as so-called “hybrid” power plants. In fact, 25% of all new solar PV plants waiting to connect to bulk power systems are now hybrid plants incorporating battery systems, and on the California wholesale power market, 96% of solar PV and 75% of wind projects launched in 2019 were paired with batteries. All at prices that beat the cost of conventional power plants.

But figuring out the best way to deploy utility-scale battery storage systems isn’t just a matter of dispatchability and system balancing. In fact, it turns out that tax credit incentives and market rules are far more significant determinants. That’s one finding of a new research paper led by several researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who modeled various ways of pairing battery storage systems with utility-scale wind and solar farms. In this episode, we explore the details of this modeling with one of the paper’s authors and speculate that it might actually be better to deploy large scale storage systems independently of wind and solar farms, if market rules were more supportive of the strategy.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #99] – Metals Supply in Energy Transition

Is the supply of certain key metals—like lithium, copper, nickel, and cobalt—and “rare earth” metals—like vanadium and indium—potentially a limiter on the progress of energy transition? Or is there enough of them to realize our ambitions? Are they being produced in a sustainable way? How will the geographic concentration of these metals affect geopolitics and trade as the energy transition progresses? How confident can we be about our assessments of their abundance? And how confident can we be about how much of them we’ll need in the future, given the rapid evolution of many of these technologies, and the many alternate ways of producing them?

Our guest in this episode brings all of these questions into a whole new focus, and shows why these questions can’t be answered with some back-of-the-envelope calculation. Instead of asking whether there is enough of these metals in the Earth’s crust, he says, or about how they are mined, we should be asking much more sophisticated questions about the chemical industry, the opaque, illiquid markets in which these metals are traded, and the geopolitical implications of their trade.

Geek rating: 1

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