Liquid Tin Could Be The Key To Cheap, Plentiful Grid Storage

Once expensive and difficult to implement, renewable energy solutions like wind and solar are now often the cheapest options available for generating electricity for the grid. However, there are still some issues around the non-continuous supply from these sources, with grid storage becoming a key technology to keep the lights on around the clock.

In the quest for cost-effective grid storage, a new player has entered the arena with a bold claim: a thermal battery technology that’s not only more than 10 times cheaper than lithium-ion batteries, but also a standout in efficiency compared to traditional thermal battery designs. Fourth Power is making waves with its “sun in a box” energy storage technology, and aims to prove its capabilities with an ambitious 1-MWh prototype.

Hot Stuff

Simple heating elements turn electricity into heat, putting it into liquid tin that then heats large graphite blocks. Credit: Fourth Power, Vimeo screenshot

The principle behind Fourth Power’s technology is deceptively simple: when there’s excess renewable energy available, use it to heat something up. The electrical energy is thus converted and stored as heat, with the idea being to convert it back to electricity when needed, such as at night time or when the wind isn’t blowing. This concept isn’t entirely new; other companies have explored doing this with everything from bricks to molten salt. Fourth Power’s approach involves heating large blocks of graphite to extremely high temperatures — as high as 2,500 °C (4,530 °F). Naturally, the hotter you go, the more energy you can store. Where the company’s concept gets interesting is how it plans to recover the heat energy and turn it back into electricity.

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Liquid Metal Battery Goes Into Production

The news is rife with claims of the next great thing in clean energy generation, but most of these technologies never make it to production. Whether that’s due to cost issues, production, or scalability, we’re often teased with industry breakthroughs that never come to fruition. Multi-layered solar panels, wave and tidal energy, and hydrogen fuel cells are all things that are real but can’t seem to break through and overtake other lower cost, simpler, and proven technologies. One that seems to be bucking this trend is the liquid metal battery, which startup Ambri is putting into service on the electrical grid next year.

With lithium ion battery installations running around $405 per kilowatt-hour, Ambri’s battery technology is already poised to be somewhat disruptive at a cost of about half that. The construction method is simpler than lithium as well, using molten metal electrodes and a molten salt electrolyte. Not only is this more durable, it’s also not flammable and is largely immune to degradation over time. The company’s testing results indicate that after 20 years the battery is expected to still retain 95% of its capacity. The only hitch in scaling this technology could be issues with sourcing antimony, one of the metals needed for this type of construction.

Even though Ambri can produce these batteries for $180 to $250 per kilowatt-hour, they need to get the costs down to about $20 for the technology to be cost-competitive with “base load” power plants (an outdated term in itself). They do project their costs to come down significantly and hit this mark by 2030, which would put electrical grids on course to be powered entirely by renewables. Liquid metal batteries aren’t the only nontraditional battery out there trying to solve this problem, though. Another promising interesting energy storage technology on the horizon is phase-change materials.

New Renewable Energy Projects Are Overwhelming US Grids

It’s been clear for a long time that the world has to move away from fossil energy sources. Decades ago, this seemed impractical, when renewable energy was hugely expensive, and we were yet to see much impact on the ground from climate change. Meanwhile, prices for solar and wind installations have come down immensely, which helps a lot.

However, there’s a new problem. Power grids across the US simply can’t keep up with the rapid pace of new renewable installations. It’s a frustrating issue, but not an insurmountable one.

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Weird Energy Storage Solutions Could Help The Grid Go Renewable

We’re all familiar with batteries. Whether we’re talking about disposable AAs in the TV remote, or giant facilities full of rechargeable cells to store power for the grid, they’re a part of our daily lives and well understood.

However, new technologies for storing energy are on the horizon for grid storage purposes, and they’re very different from the regular batteries we’re used to. These technologies are key to making the most out of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power that aren’t available all the time. Let’s take a look at some of these ideas, and how they radically change what we think of as a “battery.”

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Noor III Solar Tower of the Ouarzazate Power Station, at dusk. (Credit: Marc Lacoste)

The Future Of Energy Storage On Both Sides Of The Meter

That energy storage is a hot topic is hardly a surprise to anyone these days. Even so, energy storage can take a lot of different forms, some of which are more relevant to the utility provider (like grid-level storage), while others are relevant to business and home owners (e.g. whole-house storage), and yet other technologies live in this tense zone between utility and personal interest, such as (electric) vehicle-to-grid.

For utilities a lot of noise is being made about shiny new technologies, such as hydrogen-based storage, while home- and business owners are pondering on the benefits of relying solely on the utility’s generosity with feed-in tariffs, versus charging a big battery from the solar panels on the roof and using the produced power themselves. Ultimately the questions here are which technologies will indeed live up to their promises, and which a home owner may want to invest in.

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Bath County Pumped Storage Station (Credit: CHA)

Grid-Level Energy Storage And The Challenge Of Storing Energy Efficiently

Although every electrical grid begins with the production of electricity, there are times when storing this power in some form instead of using it immediately is highly convenient. Today’s battery-powered gadgets are an obvious example of such time-shifting, but energy storage plays a major role on the grid itself, too, whether in electrochemical, mechanical or in some other form.

Utility-level energy storage is essential for not only stabilizing the grid, but also to time-shift excess energy and provide a way to deal with sudden spikes in demand (peak-shaving) plus demand drops by absorbing the excess energy. The health of the grid can essentially be regarded as a function of its alternating current (AC) frequency, with strong deviations potentially leading to a collapse of the grid.

Naturally, such energy storage is not free, and the benefits of adding it to the grid have to be considered against the expense, as well as potential alternatives. With the rapid increase of highly volatile electrical generators on the grid in the form of non-dispatchable variable renewable energy, e.g. wind turbines and PV solar, there has been a push to store more excess power rather than curtailing it, in addition to using energy storage for general grid health.

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Tesla’s Megapack Battery Burned For Days In Grid Storage Fire

Lithium rechargeable batteries have been heralded for their high-density energy storage, enabling all manner of technologies to come to fruition. From drones to practical electric cars to large-scale grid storage, the applications are endless.

The fire as seen from a drone overhead. Source: Twitter/@FireRescueVic

However, the lithium rechargeable battery has always had one major flaw–flammability. Pushed outside their operating range or otherwise tipped into thermal runaway, and they can burn ferociously as a result.

This came to pass in late July, at the Victorian Big Battery in Geelong, Australia, and it took significant effort to extinguish the blaze. Let’s take a look at the project and see how this came to occur.

Grid-Scale Storage

The Victorian Big Battery is a grid storage project similar in construction to the Hornsdale Power Reserve in neighboring South Australia. However, where the Hornsdale facility fields 194 MWh of capacity and 150MW peak power delivery, the new project aims to go much further. The Victorian project aims to install 450 MWh of capacity and deliver a peak power output of 300 MW.

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