Editorials

EDITORIAL

A battery for the next century? It could happen here

FILE - In this April 15, 2018, file photo, the sun shines off the rear deck of a roadster on a Tesla dealer's lot in the south Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo. Martin Tripp, a former Tesla Inc. employee at the electric car maker's battery plant in Nevada, is seeking at least $1 million in defamation damages after it accused him of hacking into computers and stealing confidential information leaked to the media. His lawyers filed a counterclaim in federal court in Reno, Nev., Tuesday, Aug. 2. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press/File
A Tesla electric car.

Clean energy advocates are increasingly focusing their hopes on battery storage to supply power to the grid from the sun and the wind, particularly during times of peak demand when the weather might be, inconveniently, cloudy and still.

In fact, the clean energy bill passed this week on Beacon Hill called for increasing the energy storage target from 200 megawatts to 1,000 megawatts by the end of 2025, and ordered study of a mobile emergency relief battery system. “Batteries are key to extending the life of clean energy and we want to see that battery sector really grow,” state Senator Michael Barrett told the State House News Service on Monday night. “So this is a major job-creation piece.”

He’s got that right. Lithium-ion batteries have improved markedly in recent years and are being used in New England, California, and in Europe to store power from renewable energy sources. In Casco Bay, Maine, a battery room packed with more than 1,000 lithium-ion batteries helps stabilize the grid, according to NextEra, helping to keep electricity flowing at 60 hertz, or cycles per second, the longtime standard for US households. And ISO New England reports that there are a dozen projects in the pipeline that involve connecting a battery to either a new or existing solar or wind facility.

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Because renewable energy sources are crucial for reducing the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, demand is only going to increase as stricter regulations kick in and as new products are developed — car companies project that 10 million to 20 million electric vehicles will be produced each year by 2025.

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There’s a catch: Lithium-ion battery technology is approaching some very real limits imposed by the physical world, according to researchers. While battery performance has improved markedly and costs have fallen to around $150 per kilowatt hour, that’s still more than the $100 per kWh goal set by the US Department of Energy. Costs are also soaring for rare metals used in battery electrodes. High demand has led to shocking abuses in Africa, where some cobalt mines exploit child labor, and to environmental violations in China, where mining dust has polluted villages, according to recent reporting in the science journal Nature. In any case, Mother Earth isn’t making any more cobalt or nickel: Demand will outstrip production within 20 years, researchers predict. Although crucial, current battery technology is neither clean nor renewable.

But soaring demand could also drive a market for new technology. As Eric Wilkinson, general counsel and director of energy policy for the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said: “It’s good for policy makers to be thinking about this, because it helps to energize the private sector.” Aging technology, dwindling natural resources, and harsh working conditions all make the lithium-ion battery industry ripe for disruption. Bill Gates’s $1 billion bet on energy, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, has invested in Form Energy, which is developing aqueous sulfur-based flow batteries that could last longer and cost less.

Battery storage may not grab as many headlines as advances in cancer research or genetics, but clean tech projects deserve a prime place on the Commonwealth’s R&D agenda. The right innovation ecosystem is already in place: science and engineering talent, academic institutions, and financial prowess that could unlock business opportunities and expand the state’s tax base. Strong public-private partnerships built MassBio. Maybe it’s time for MassBattery.