Will a new ‘electric system’ eventually replace the ‘old dumb grid’?

Some time ago, a reader from Tokyo sent a link to a Forbes article by Chicago-based Jeff McMahon, who covers news of green technology, energy and the environment.

He reports that, in a North Western University debate on the future of nuclear power sponsored by students agitating for a “Fossil Free NU,” Jordi Roglans-Ribas, the director of the Nuclear Engineering Division of Argonne National Laboratory, argued that any future free of fossil fuels would need nuclear power, which provides carbon-free energy 24 hours a day, supplying the reliability lacking in renewables like solar and wind.

arne gundersenArnie Gundersen – popular with readers of a sister site – called the claim a marketing ploy: “We all know that the wind doesn’t blow consistently and the sun doesn’t shine every day, but the nuclear industry would have you believe that humankind is smart enough to develop techniques to store nuclear waste for a quarter of a million years, but at the same time human kind is so dumb we can’t figure out a way to store solar electricity overnight. To me that doesn’t make sense.”

Then Gundersen told the audience about Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal , chairman of SpaceX and SolarCity and product architect for Tesla Motors.

tesla elon musk

A few hours later Musk announced the launch of Tesla Energy, ”a suite of batteries for homes, businesses, and utilities fostering a clean energy ecosystem and helping wean the world off fossil fuels.” Tesla will sell the home battery, the Tesla Powerwall, for $3,500, a fraction of the $13,000 price observers had expected, and perhaps more importantly, a fraction of the cost of the $10,000 battery announced earlier this week by European competitors Sungevity and Sonnenbatterie.

In a May Wall Street Journal article, he is said to predict that demand will range from countries where solar is popular, such as Germany, to developing economies that don’t have existing power lines.

A British answer to the Tesla home battery

powervaultOn June 23rd, in an article by Andrew Bounds, Enterprise Editor of the Financial Times, we read that Powervault, a crowdfunded London start-up, says its power storage unit which slides under the kitchen worktop to capture and use surplus electricity generated by domestic solar panels is cheaper, more practical and targeted at the British consumer, than Tesla’s wall-mounted home battery:

Not to be confused with the Dell Powervault, “This is a complete system in a box, is compatible with all solar systems and takes about an hour to install,” says Joe Warren, managing director. He expects Powervault units — which can store 2 or 4 kilowatt hours — will cost £2,000-£2,800, but believes the price will drop to £1,000 within three years because of advances in battery technology. Tesla’s system costs about $5,000 once extras and installation is added. The larger home model can store enough electricity to power a home for 10 hours.

As electricity prices rise and grids come under strain, many other companies are exploring the use of home or locally generated power from renewable sources.

McMahon comments that much of the “old dumb grid—in which electricity flowed in one direction from centralized power plants to largely passive consumers—is not nimble enough to accommodate change”.

In a June article for Forbes, he reports that Bryan Hannegan, who leads the National Renewable Energy Laboratory team working to increase reliability and performance, reduce cost, and minimize environmental impacts of energy systems, says that a new electric system, transformed by distributed generation and storage, “used to be 10 years away, now it’s five, maybe even less, In some places it’s actually even here today.”

Gundersen summarises:

“The operative word in this discussion tonight is now. What are we going to do now to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere?” He lists ‘things’ which can be implemented immediately:

  • We know how to insulate a building.
  • We know how to put double and triple-pane windows in them.
  • We know how to build windmills and put solar cells up.
  • We don’t have to invest $50 trillion and wait 15 years for that to come to fruition.

“Producing our way out of the problem with renewables is half the solution. Conserving our way out is the other half.”

Stop press:

Again a lead from Tokyo:

Yet-Ming Chiang a Taiwanese-American materials-science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that when his company starts commercial sales in about two years, it will slash the cost of an entry-level battery plant 10-fold, as well as cut around 30% off the price of the batteries themselves. A new manufacturing process using a powerful new cell adds energy while stripping away cost will allow lithium-ion batteries to begin to compete with fossil fuels.



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