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New Breakthroughs in Solar’s Biggest Problem: Energy Storage

Alternative Energy

The greatest challenge that solar power faces is energy storage. Solar arrays can only generate power while the sun is out, so they can only be used as a sole source of electricity if they can produce and store enough excess power to cover the times when the sun is hidden.

Traditional batteries have not been up to the task, but recent innovations in energy storage are rapidly resolving the issue. Research is still ongoing, but many of the newest developments have the potential to turn solar power into the dominant source of energy. You think it’s impossible? The IRENA already confirmed in their 2014 report that it is equally, or in many cases, more cost-effective to use alternative energy for power production rather than fossil fuels.

Fractal Circuitry

Nature itself has provided the inspiration for one of the most promising ways to store energy. A team at RMIT University has come up with a new storage method that manages to be about 3000 percent more efficient than traditional batteries. It also has the potential to help with energy capture and storage in a variety of smaller contexts, such as cell phones, watches, and even electric cars. That widespread potential will most likely be enough to ensure that this technology gets all of the support that it needs to mature into a powerful tool.

The new method relies on the combination of a supercapacitor and a powerful new electrode. The supercapacitor works as the gateway to the new system. It can absorb and discharge energy very quickly, but it can’t store very much energy at once. Previously, that meant that they were almost useless for storing solar power. The new electrode fixes that problem. It uses a large set of repeating circuits to hold energy and carry it through the system. The new electrode is a much more efficient form way to store energy than traditional batters, both in terms of cost and space. Combining the two systems creates a system that can hold a huge amount of energy and transmit that energy with high speed and efficiency.

New Batteries

While most research into storing solar power focuses on finding alternatives to batteries, there are some contexts where they remain useful. Most power plants are reluctant to use batteries because they are relatively expensive and take up a lot of space compared to the amount of energy that they store. That prevents them from being viable for large facilities in most cases. On the other hand, those problems aren’t important for private homes. They don’t need to store a huge amount of energy at once, and batteries that are big enough to meet their needs are reasonably affordable. In many cases, the simplicity of using an array of batteries is more valuable than the increased efficiency of other methods.

The new Tesla Powerwall 2 is proof that batteries are strong option for storing domestic solar power. It can store more energy in less space than previous models, so it’s fairly easy to fit it into an existing home. It also includes an inverter, which is necessary to run most appliances on solar power. It doesn’t have quite as much power as most of the alternatives, but it’s more convenient than they are, which encourages adoption on a small scale.

Non-Electric Storage

The easiest way to store solar power is to keep it in a form other than electricity. That’s almost impossible for the average homeowner, but large power plants have been using the method for years.

Pumped storage is the oldest and most popular method. Solar energy is collected and sent out to homes as normal, but the excess is used to pump water up a tower into a storage reservoir. When the plant needs to release more energy, some of the water is allowed to flow down again to spin a turbine. This creates a temporary hydroelectric plant. A similar method uses the excess energy to heat salt, which can be used to create steam to spin the turbine.

These methods are already reliable and reasonably efficient, but they also take expensive infrastructure. That rules them out for most homes, and even for many local governments, but large organizations can build them now to meet the power needs for entire regions.

Solving the Storage Problem

All of these methods can help to make green energy available to more people, but none of them are going to be a solution on their own. They all work best in different situations, and engineers can usually get the best results by matching the storage method to the situation. The best hope for green energy is to use a mixture of these techniques and many others to maximize their efficiency.

Energy Collective

17 Comments on "New Breakthroughs in Solar’s Biggest Problem: Energy Storage"

  1. dave thompson on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 1:40 pm 

    In conclusion, we still are a long way off to storing the intermittent power of solar and wind. In the mean time dream on.

  2. Cloggie on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 2:24 pm 

    Wrong conclusion. The alt-energy penetration is not yet at a level that storage is an issue. A private home with panels can “store” excess electricity in the grid. If there is a lot of alt-energy, simply burn less fossil. The fact that all EU countries are connected in a single grid does a lot to even out local fluctuations.

  3. Boat on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 3:22 pm 

    A solar plant just came online in west Texas that will supply 10 percent of Houstons energy. Houston, the nations 4th largest city now runs on 50 percent renewables. Houston is known as the energy capital of the world. They seem to have no problem being a leader in renewables as well. Why? Texas has an energy system where the lowest cost producer wins market share. Wind and recently solar have become the cheapest energy going. Capitalism is working in a positive way in this neck of the woods.
    Solar alone is projected to add 13 MW by 2023. Coal is projected to lose 9 MW during the same time period. Let’s cheer cleaner air.

  4. Hawkcreek on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 3:50 pm 

    On a household basis, it is already practical to store solar energy to meet most household needs. I’ve been doing it for about 15 years. I’m using battery power right now to write this, since it has been a cloudy day.
    Yeah, I don’t have a dishwasher or electric clothes dryer, but who really needs them anyway?

  5. dave thompson on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 5:14 pm 

    The article talks about a “breakthrough in solar storage”. Cloggie nothing in the article says anything about building these so called “breakthrough(s)” at scale in the current time frame we are living in, at scale. Just more hype and hopium for the unsuspecting masses.

  6. Apneaman on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 5:19 pm 

    Boat for Texass it’s the same as the oil – because they can. Geography. They have the right amount of wind. If you put that much solar and wind near where most of the people are, the Eastern seaboard, it will be a loser. You need a proper amount of wind and not too much yearly cloud cover.

    Boat, since you’re here can you tell me again about how awesome the economy is? Especially the US economy eh? Everything is awesome for a journeyman cherry picker.

    More than 1.1 million borrowers defaulted on their federal student loans last year

    Student loan defaults jumped by nearly 20% last year

    “That’s up 17 percent from 3.6 million at the end of 2015.”

    “The Federal Reserve System puts the measure slightly higher at $1.4 trillion, as it includes private loans as well.”

  7. Kenz300 on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 5:45 pm 

    Energy Collective speaking for theFOSSIL FUEL industry.
    The fossil fuels industry will do all they can to slow the transition away from fossil fuels.

    The Kochs Are Plotting A Multimillion-Dollar Assault On Electric Vehicles

    Inside the Koch Brothers’ Toxic Empire | Rolling Stone

    How Exxon & The Koch Brothers Have Funded Climate Denial – YouTube

  8. peakyeast on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 5:51 pm 

    This article is mostly blah blah…

    The mentioned fractal circuitry is similar to hordes of other pipedreams. The description reeks of non-technical descriptions and has absolutely no serious content.

    The powerwall is a known tech which wears out relatively fast, is expensive and based on materials that do not scale to cover more than a tiny fraction of the necessary amount.

    The only thing they get right is that pumped storage could be interesting – but that is already old news.

  9. GregT on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 6:26 pm 

    Boat spouted more nonsense;:

    “Why? Texas has an energy system where the lowest cost producer wins market share. Wind and recently solar have become the cheapest energy going.”

    Coal regains top spot in generating electricity in Texas

    Houston Chronicle, February 20, 2017

    “Coal was Texas’ main source of electricity in January, after a mild month lowered power demand and rising natural gas prices led generators to favor coal.”

    “In January, coal accounted for nearly 36 percent of Texas’ electricity generation, followed by natural gas at nearly 30 percent and wind at nearly 20 percent, according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees most of Texas’ power grid. Nuclear power generated about 14 percent of the state’s electricity, solar less than 1 percent.”

  10. tahoe1780 on Tue, 25th Apr 2017 8:35 pm 

    A problem with grid “storage” is that if the grid goes down, you lose power, even with those shiny panels on the roof. I understand that there’s a “sensor/killswitch” built in so that you don’t fry the lineman making the repairs.

  11. Cloggie on Wed, 26th Apr 2017 2:50 am 

    @dave – why don’t you follow alt energy news sites like:

    …and hundreds more, to verify on a daily basis that alt-energy development is basically following the same pattern as IT did since ca. 1980: a breath-taking avalanche of technological innovations.

  12. Dave thompson on Wed, 26th Apr 2017 3:07 am 

    Cloggie, every one of those sites posted are adverts for fossil fuel extenders. None of which will supplant fossil fuels. Sorry to give you the reality news most avoid when faced whith reality.

  13. Cloggie on Wed, 26th Apr 2017 3:46 am 

    Dave (all of a sudden with a capital D), you have problem understanding that 1 kwh = 1 kwh, regardless of the source.

    I hate to say this, but I have to conclude that you are a “kwh-racist”, a “fossil-kwh-supremacist”.lol

    This fossil fuel extension story is bogus and only supported by absolute laymen like you. No university level trained energy engineer (and I am one of them) will support this Heinbergian-rubbish.

  14. Davy on Wed, 26th Apr 2017 5:03 am 

    1=1, I agree on the theoretical but on the applied and practical this simplicity becomes less so. When there are humans in the picture it changes the dynamics. We have a built out system it is huge and will be very hard to adapt in the scope of time and scale to an energy transition. It is not only a physical change it is a behavioral change. This makes it more than 1=1. The transformation of the electrical component of civilization is happening and it is vital but it is likely it will not be a transition as we seen in the past where energy sources seamlessly evolved and progress and innovation followed. Culture adapted and prospered with new more powerful energy. Yet, look at what we have now. Who would have thought then we would have the problems we have now. We could very well handicap ourselves by a mad rush to alternative and automation and with more spending. There are limits to complexity and economic wherewithal. Sometimes it is better just to do less and downsize.

    Our issues with modernism and globalism are deeper than just electricity. The impediments are increasingly related to economics. We have the potential for an economic drop in activity that will greatly slow penetration of renewables. We could be stuck with a house half built. We have existing infrastructure that is fossil fuel based that we have no choice but to maintain that will also suck resources away from a renewable energy transition. The existing infrastructure is under stress and we should be mindful of cost benefits of leaving it. I blind dash to techno progress for its own sake is not good policy.

    One can hold very strong emotional views on climate change that quick change out is needed but this may lack a sound multidimensional basis. Increasingly society is multidimensional with unintended consequences. Increasingly our existence is precariously supported by a global economy. Increasingly science is saying climate change problems are related to more activity and more people and new tech can’t change that. That kind of problem can only be changed with less of everything. Do we do more of the same of try less? Should we try to remain resilient with multiple systems to face what increasingly appears to be a period of destructive change?

    Unlike in previous transition periods we are now in a highly complex period that makes large scale changes trickier. We now have systematic issues to worry about. If we destabilize the grid by pushing it to extreme demands we risk catastrophic failures. We are now dangerously exposed to cascading systematic failures. This is all new terrain so we should be cautious about pushing too hard with renewable penetration. We are getting near a time where we may not have the resources to take care of what we have let alone a new and unproven transformation of our foundational energy systems. What is unproven is the transition not the transformation. We are transforming with benefits but beyond a point we enter a new world. Are we sure where we are going. As in the past we open doors then worry about what is behind them. Is this just another case of doors opened that should have been left closed? We need to be asking ourselves now how much and how quick.

  15. makati1 on Wed, 26th Apr 2017 5:04 am 

    Alts are dead when FF are dead. No question. Just fact.

  16. Hello on Wed, 26th Apr 2017 6:29 am 

    Clog>> This fossil fuel extension story is bogus and only supported by absolute laymen like you

    It is not bogus, but wrongly understood and mostly unknown.

    Fossil fuels can be obtained in small quantities and with basic efforts and are able to bootstrap a society from caveman level to beyond industrialization. Renewables might not have the ‘bootstrap’ capability. They might need a large and advanced industry already present to be able to be produced and deployed.

    There might be a certain ‘minimum’ industrial acitivy needed to be able to produce solar/wind in sufficient quality and quantity.

    It might be that a transition to solar/wind is very doable and fossil fuels can be kicked. However it is also possible that once something happens to this elaborate house of renewable cards, it cannot be rebuilt. Simply because it does not have bootstrap capabilites.

  17. GregT on Wed, 26th Apr 2017 11:10 am 

    “There might be a certain ‘minimum’ industrial acitivy needed to be able to produce solar/wind in sufficient quality and quantity.”

    Without economies of scale, and modern industrial processes to manufacture the trillions of gadgets that we use that electricity for, solar panels and wind turbines by themselves are somewhat pointless. Certainly they would be useful in powering all of the stuff that we already have, but the vast majority of electronics have a useful lifespan of a few decades at best, including both solar PV systems, and wind turbines.

    Fossil fuel extenders is all that they are. It would be far more prudent to focus on more important things, like food production, or water security, or population overshoot, rather than spend so much time and energy focussing on how to prolong what has caused all of our greatest predicaments to begin with. Human technologies and industrialism.

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