Supercharged Substations

Supercharged Substations

There is much evidence to show that the world is finally embracing renewable energy. The UK had its first day since the industrial revolution without coal powered electricity in April and it is estimated that about 20% of the worlds electricity consumption is now supplied by renewable sources.  With our electricity consumption increasing due to the advent of electric vehicles and a greater number of demanding consumer devices, the move to renewable sources is crucial for our sustainability. If our networks are to cope with the shift, our infrastructure must be adapted. Renewable energy sources are notorious for being erratic and only producing energy at certain times of the day. It is for this reason that we must incorporate huge energy storage capabilities into the grid. The almost unanimous electrical energy storage technology we use today is a battery. Up until now, batteries have been very expensive and offered relatively poor storage capacity for the cost, in comparison to other methods such as pumped hydroelectric storage. Due to the vast negatives of alternative methods, such as the need for large impractical reservoirs, we have returned to batteries for a potential solution.

As always, Elon Musk and the unstoppable force that is Tesla, are at the forefront of the march to provide mass energy storage for power grids around the world. Having already installed a solar farm with accompanying power packs, that can store 52 Megawatt hours, on the island of Kauai in Hawaii and a substation in California which powers 15,000 homes. Tesla are currently building the world’s largest lithium-ion energy storage solution in South Australia. The 100-megawatt system will be charged by wind energy and used by utility companies to meet electricity demands during the farm’s off-peak hours; this will reduce the reliance on non-renewable energy sources to fill the gap.

What Tesla is achieving is undeniably outstanding and their ability to produce desirable products, much in the same way Apple does, is the key ingredient to their success. My concern is: how long will Tesla’s stardom last? All of Tesla’s current batteries, both in their power packs and car batteries, rely on lithium-Ion technology. How long can this technology keep Tesla at the forefront? Stanford researchers have already developed a sodium-ion battery which they claim will have the same capacity as a lithium-ion equivalent, for less than 80% of the cost. This could be a huge breakthrough for the future of batteries, since lithium is an extremely rare and costly material and, in comparison, sodium is abundant.

To add more uncertainty to Tesla’s future, Sir James Dyson has announced that his company will aim to produce an electric vehicle by 2020. Dyson’s promise is that this car will be ‘radically different’. To deliver on this promise, Sir James is developing two solid-state batteries, which will replace the polymer electrolyte (liquid) found in current lithium-ion batteries with a solid. Solid-state batteries have the potential to be smaller, cheaper, have a higher capacity than lithium-ion and, most importantly, be non-flammable. Negating another episode like the one experienced by Samsung and the notorious Note 7.

The biggest challenge facing the future of sodium-ion and solid-state batteries is scalability. Unless they can be produced in vast quantities at a small enough cost to become universal in their use, they will struggle to replace lithium-ion equivalents, which have become almost omnipresent in modern society.  Either way, whichever technology prevails, large scale batteries are the future of our power grid storage systems. We will rely on them to enhance renewable energy production and fill in the gaps when it falls short.

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