Houston, we have a problem! Energy storage

September 26 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Economics   Year: 2008   Rating: 2

Today, the lights are still out for nearly a half million people in Houston, Texas- the ‘energy capital of the world’.

Business Week is reporting that ”...13 days since Hurricane Ike ripped through Texas, and nearly one-quarter of the residents of the fourth-largest U.S. city still don’t have electricity.” (Reporting by Christopher Palmeria)

Is the problem electricity production?
No. The power plants are fine.

The problem is the wires. The grid itself
The network is too vast to repair quickly in the fall out of Hurricane Ike.

The problem is storage.
We have no viable way of storing vast amounts of electricity at the local level.

The solution? Making energy storage a priority and create systems that support a local ‘Electron Reserve’.

What are the big energy lessons from Hurricane Ike?
The modern architecture for electricity grids is antiquated and fragile. Central power plants connected to home wall sockets need to be re-invented around software and storage.

Lesson #1 – Don’t assume the lights will always be on!
Today we just assume that the electricity will always be there. But only five years ago we assumed that the cheap oil would always be there. But how vulnerable is the stream of electrons?

In the US and Europe national electricity grids are aging and in much worse shape than most people might recognize. The current grid structure is highly vulnerable to overloads, bottlenecks and events that can shut down major sections of the grid. And over the next twenty years energy grids will be forced to carry more electricity, not less.

#2 – We need to focus on energy storage, not just production
The US national electricity grid needs a major upgrade towards a more distributed system of energy storage and power generation.Being ‘Smart’ is not enough. You need energy stored locally to make an ‘energy web’ work.

#3 – Batteries are not our only option
There are a number of ways to store energy locally. Nanoscale science is sure to advance batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. All three are viable candidates with their own sets of advantages and short-comings. Only time will tell which system is most cost effective. So we’ll need to innovate around all three.

Who will be a leader for Energy Storage?
Energy storage is much bigger than Houston after Hurricane Ike. Power disruptions are estimated to cost $60 billion per year and that number could rise if we do nothing to address our inability to store energy at the local level.

To get us there the world will need leadership to make energy storage a priority. And they’ll have to convince giant utilities that storage is a good thing. (Hint: This might be the biggest problem.)

Image: Blackout by amerefan / Flickr/CC

Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. What about just putting the wires underground? Storage seems very impractical in the short/medium term. For example for the example of someone living in Houston needing to store enough energy for a week they’d need 350 pounds of batteries (1000kwh typical home use / 52 weeks / .125 kw per kg for lion batteries * 2.2 pounds in a kg) that’d cost around $75,000.

    Posted by: martiantim   September 27, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

  2. Re: martiantim

    Agreed that batteries are not the best way forward. So I think you are correct. Though costs of batteries (esp non lithium-ion are likely to drop considerably in the years ahead) So I wouldn’t take batteries completely off the table.

    But as you’ll find with many of the curated stories on The Energy Roadmap- hydrogen is likely to become the most viable for electron storage. Batteries could struggle to compete against cost, size, weight, et al. But advances are certainly coming…

    While hydrogen and fuel cells take a beating by many energy bloggers- recent (and future) advances in nanoscale design of catalysts, membranes and solid state storage materials will change the nature of hydrogen as an electron storage medium. Energy stored in form of H2 chemical bonds is (I believe) our best way to build up an electron reserve.

    Rather than deliver energy over wires, I’m open to the idea that our cars could carry electron reserves from retail stores to homes; and/or old-fashioned delivery could return. Like the days when a coal truck would come by and leave fuel for the winter months. Or the ‘milk man’ model transformed into H2 delivery (solid state bricks).

    I’m not sure wires underground are viable given the demands of maintenance required for electrical wires. Not to mention potential expenses associated with ‘digging up’ any infrastructure.

    But I’m happy to hear more- if you’d like to contribute a post to The Energy Roadmap.

    Thanks for the post..

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 28, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend