Many countries are on the brink of becoming self-sufficient in their clean energy production, thanks to advances in battery technology that allow electricity from renewable sources to be stored and used on demand. Over the years, as renewable energy generation methods have charged forward, utility companies have struggled with how to integrate that clean energy in usable ways. Now, scientists at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, the Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge labs, and other agencies are working on energy storage projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, with their sights set on what the department calls the ‘holy grail’ of energy policy. The department says the industry could be transformed in as little as five to ten years.
Earlier this year, Advanced Research Projects-Energy (ARPA-E), the division of the U.S. Department of Energy founded in 2009 to oversee these projects, claimed to have achieved that goal. Without pointing to a specific invention or discovery, ARPA-E insists that the solution lies amid the 75 projects the agency is funding. The breakthrough technology—the next generation of renewable energy storage—is expected to be developed for large-scale usage in as little as five to ten years.
“I think we have reached some holy grails in batteries–just in the sense of demonstrating that we can create a totally new approach to battery technology, make it work, make it commercially viable, and get it out there to let it do its thing,” said Ellen Williams, ARPA-E’s director.
The battery systems under development range widely in their approach to long-term renewable energy storage. They range from hybrid fuel-cell to zinc-air batteries, as well as next generation flywheels, a system that stores energy as heat in molten glass, and a wild idea from Harvard that uses a rhubarb derivative. If just one of the 75 government-funded research projects leads to a viable battery storage device that costs significantly less than current grid electricity systems, the future of utility-scale renewable energy will be cracked wide open.
Of the projects backed by the agency, three already have grid-scale and back-up batteries on the market and six others are in the process of developing new batteries. Each promises the potential for efficient, cost-effective energy storage that could make it possible (and financially alluring) to break up with fossil fuels for good.