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Innovative Battery Technology: the Key to Affordable Renewable Energy

By Alex FieldsPublished April 14, 2014

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Renewable energy, particularly wind and solar power, shows great promise for encouraging environmentally-friendly electricity generation. However, expensive batteries have prevented renewable energy production from displacing conventional energy sources. To lower the cost of renewable energy, researchers have developed new and effective battery technology using organic compounds.
By Alex Fields, 4/14/14

Renewable energy, particularly wind and solar power, shows great promise for encouraging environmentally-friendly electricity generation. Renewable production has been steadily increasing and investors have supported these efforts. There are, however, issues with renewable energy's intermittency. When the sun isn't out and the wind stops blowing, renewable energy producers depend on metal-flow batteries to provide backup power. While these batteries can store much energy, they are very expensive, and their high cost has prevented renewable energy production from displacing conventional energy sources.

A team of Harvard researchers has created an organic battery that is far less expensive and just as effective as conventional metal batteries. Rather than being powered by costly metals such as platinum, the new battery is powered by quinone molecules. These abundant organic compounds can easily be produced from a variety of plants. Quinone-flow batteries store energy in solutions in external tanks, allowing the electrochemical conversion hardware and chemical tanks to be independently sized. This setup allows more energy to be stored at a lower cost than conventional batteries. According to the MIT Technology Review, Harvard's battery could bring down storage costs from $700 per kilowatt-hour to $27 per kilowatt-hour.

Beyond the Harvard project, many energy startup companies have also pursued more efficient battery technologies for renewable energy storage. Aquion is producing a low-cost sodium-ion battery while EnerVault is developing flow batteries powered by iron-chromium electrolytes. Having multiple companies develop new renewable batteries is essential to develop a competitive market for this technology. Competition among producers will provide the impetus to develop batteries with greater storage capacities and more efficient transmission. Most importantly, it will lower production costs, allowing renewable energy to become more cost-competitive with other energy sources.

Tesla has been the most public champion of battery technology to support renewable energy generation for its fleet of electric cars. The company recently announced plans to create a "Gigafactory" to produce large quantities of batteries and drive their costs down. Tesla has also been particularly ambitious in developing vehicles that run solely on electric batteries. Since transportation infrastructure, particularly vehicles, is responsible for significant levels of energy consumption, mass production of electric cars has revolutionary implications for energy use patterns. Harnessing this technology on a large scale is crucial to promote clean electricity production and to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

The race for more efficient and affordable battery technology has begun. We must embrace it to ensure a better energy future.