Matt Badiali: A huge problem with “green” energy could soon disappear
By Matt Badiali in Badiali’s Daily Resource Update:
The champions of renewable energy are about to tear down one of the great barriers that has stymied their favorite technologies.
“Intermittency” is the term for that fundamental flaw in renewable energy sources, like solar and wind: They don’t always work. Solar power only generates electricity when the sun is out. Wind only generates when… well you get it.
This is the single largest problem with all forms of renewable energy. Electrical power demand peaks at specific times of the day. But you can’t rely on renewable energy to provide electric power at those key times.
But this is a barrier that will fall soon. Some smart engineers out there are working on some wild ideas for storing renewable energy. Recently, Harvard researchers published a paper in the journal Nature on a new battery based on organic molecules called “quinones.” Quinones are found in plants like rhubarb, but can be made from oil.
The scientists used these molecules to make something called a “flow battery.” These batteries are more like fuel cells than actual batteries and have the potential to store renewable energy on the scale that we need. This breakthrough research, however, is still in its early stage.
Dr. Jay Whitacre of Carnegie Mellon University has been doing research on bulk energy storage and founded manufacturing company Aquion Energy to build another new kind of battery made of manganese oxide, carbon, and salt water. These batteries cost about the same as traditional lead-acid batteries, but last twice as long.
Aquion Energy plans to market these batteries for off-the-grid applications. Initially, the plan is to use these batteries to store solar power for communities without an existing power grid. Places like India will be the target market.
Finally, another startup company, Halotechnics, plans to use molten salt to store energy on a municipal scale. The initial energy heats the salt to melting point. The molten salt is stored in an insulated container until needed.
To convert the molten salt back to energy, the super-hot salt runs through a traditional heat exchanger. Halotechnics will build a pilot plant to store renewable energy. It will have to work on efficiency though, because molten salt is only 70% efficient, whereas many normal batteries are as much as 90% efficient.
None of these companies have solved the intermittency problem… yet. However, these examples show that some brilliant minds are working on this problem. It is the next giant hurdle in energy that will fall soon. Investors would be wise to watch these rising star energy companies closely.
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