Credit Where Its Due
Fundamental misunderstandings about energy storage seem to be ubiquitous now.
In mid-2016 a report by Morgan Stanley was promoted in Australia, predicting an explosive uptake in battery storage. Installations were to happen four times faster than expected, most likely reaching a million by 2020, with a high-end scenario of two million. The recently reported total is actually 73,000.
Some might expect this disparity to moderate the sorts of expectations piled on to storage technology. Yet, the excited forecasts of recent history still echo in a continuing tendency to regard energy storage as a “magic wand”, as WattClarity has observed:
…a tendency for some to wave the “storage is the solution” magic wand — without considering the pros and cons.
It manifested subtly in a May 6th article about my home state targeting 100% renewable electricity, wherein the author claimed that “South Australia already relies on solar, wind and storage for half its electricity generation.” This is nothing less than an internalisation of the hyperbole around storage that is indisputably a con for our energy sector transition, and storage technology itself.
South Australia’s solar and wind share is, of course, exceptional, with at least a third of dwellings featuring rooftop solar PV, three utility-scale solar farms, and the largest and best performing wind fleet in Australia. While about a half of total annual demand is still met with gas-fired generation, the factor that predominantly enables the present mix is our interconnection with Victoria and the rest of the National Electricity Market (NEM). A snapshot of daily activity will help illustrate this:
All else being equal, until batteries (or other storage) are consistently serving comparable amounts of gigawatt hours as South Australia’s current and possible future interconnectors, it is a perilous exaggeration to emphasise such reliance on them, essentially giving readers false assurance.
The broader issue with this narrative concerns the non-electrical energy we happily consume here. Official Australian Energy Statistics put at least two thirds of total energy used in South Australia in the form of gas and liquid fuels for heating, road transport and machinery (data from Table F). Decarbonising this, the majority of state energy use, attracts proposals for hydrogen, solar thermal systems, and obviously expanded electrification. However, to even electrify the passenger vehicle portion of the eighth of annual energy consumption associated with transport would require the equivalent of at least four NuScale small modular reactor modules running at high output, assuming every current kilometre were travelled in a Volkswagen ID.3.
To once again quote Watt Clarity’s observations:
The purpose of these batteries is not currently, and not for the next decade, for bulk energy storage… because herein is the inherent challenge — for the NEM to operate with large percentages of energy supplied from intermittent solar, and with the assumption that storage will be available to bridge the gap between supply and demand, we need to understand the scale of the numbers we are talking about [rather than] just simplistically assuming it to be that magic wand.
(We’ll leave pumped hydro storage for another time.)
Even with all gas-fired generation finally replaced with more solar, wind, and interconnection, plus four or more SMRs-worth extra to decarbonise road transport, storage will need to be deployed and operated fundamentally differently to our current experience. Pretending it already is doesn’t help, and may well hinder.
Furthermore, it still doesn’t touch the emissions in most of our energy use. To have hope of achieving any net zero goals, the scale must be clearly understood, and magic wand simplicity — for example, let’s just use less, or swap in hydrogen! — has to be resisted. In South Australia’s current 30 year timeframe, advanced high-temperature nuclear energy can absolutely be part of the strategy. It certainly isn’t risking oversell of the technology to ask that it simply be included for fair consideration as demonstration proceeds in other countries.
Heck, let’s stretch-goal it for 2040. Let’s not hold ourselves back.
Oscar Archer holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for over 14 years, focusing on nuclear technology for five, with a background in manufacturing and QA. By day he works in energy efficiency research & development. He helps out at Adelaide-based Bright New World as Senior Advisor (we want your support!)and writes for The Fourth Generation. Find him @OskaArcher on Twitter.