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Storage doomsayers unite

Mon, 09/28/2015 - 10:01 -- Gerry Woolf

This writer tries to avoid TV news these days; From the refugee torrent out of Africa into Europe, the tit-for-tat terrorist bombings in the Middle east, it’s just too awful to contemplate. Batteries, (when not arming bombs and missiles) are relatively innocuous things and when involved in the firming of renewables, they do good. But last week, at the Electricity Storage Association’s technical meeting, the industry was told it is not doing anywhere near enough.

The millions of dollars Imre Gyuk and colleagues raised to get ‘batteries on the ground’ and cycling isn’t even a pin prick on the problem. Who says so? One William F Pickard, senior professor in electrical engineering at the University of Washington at St Louis. I hadn’t heard of him either. I don’t think he’s crazy though. Neither should you.

To quote from his website: “Energy Sustainability is the ‘Grand Challenge of science in the 21stCentury”.  If we cannot, without destroying our environment, generate enough energy to support our global industrial civilization, then our civilization will crash.” 

Now he’s got the numbers. It’ll happen around 2050 or thereabouts— I’m not too worried, because I probably won’t reach my mid 90s, dues to a combination of my underlying health issues and UK government austerity policies. But a lot of our readers and our children are going to feel the heat (or the icy blast) if he’s right.

The numbers are mind boggling. In America, the average person makes a demand of 1.3kW of electricity on the system per day. Now let’s suppose you’re in a blackout like the one Pickard and I both shared in 2006 in St Louis. It was miserable and sticky. And that wasn’t just the weather. I got out after three days (but it cost me plenty). Pickard said it went on for four.

He calculates that for the Metropolitan District of St Louis to have ridden through that blackout, the electricity storage capability necessary to have done that was close to a Gigwatt/day. The cost? Perhaps US$10billion— greater than the capitalization of the whole of the area’s power generation and distribution network. Just one city. You can see why the electricity industry is just a little wary of electricity storage. It’s like a decent retirement fund— you just can’t afford it and pay off your student debt and the mortgage and your daughter’s wedding and the care scheme for when your folks go ga ga.

Pickard’s doomsday scenario is much linked with peak fossil fuel limits and a more equal distribution of the electrical energy resources the world has at its disposal. And the fact that there’s abundant sunshine— 300 EJ a year reigning down on the Earth. If you can capture it, you’re still in the game of civilization. If you can’t it’s Mad Max time. Storing just 0.1% of it would cost a bundle. Pickard reckons a cool $US42billion and that’s if you get the storage cost per kW down to under US$90/KWh… that’s an awful lot of lead-acid batteries, but sadly they’re not in the frame.

Pickard’s numbers go exponential from then on. He suggests America alone needs to invest US$100billion a year now, on all the energy storage it’s going to need, if current lifestyles are to be maintained. How you administer all this spending and research is not even touched on. The cloning of Imre Gyuk?— never mind the stem cell therapy that will be necessary to keep him around for the next 30 years or more?

Pickard doesn't think it will happen and in his words, the world is ‘scuppered’. And no one in Washington is listening. Even if they were, would they understand?

Gerry Woolf