January 16, 2020: A leading energy storage expert says California’s decision in December to exclude lithium-ion technology from applying for energy storage grant funding is an expression of no-confidence in the technology.
The expert — who spoke to BESB on condition of anonymity — said the number of lithium-ion units installed in the US was ‘negligible’, and utilities were realizing that the technology was far more problematic than they had imagined.
“The lithium-ion units installed were mostly for demonstration purposes,” he said. “If the technology really did what was expected, you would see far more being installed.”
In its Developing Non-Lithium Ion Energy Storage Technologies to Support California’s Clean Energy Goals, the California Energy Commission offers grants totalling $9 million for energy storage technologies — as long as they are not lithium. Another $2 million is offered for green electrolytic hydrogen storage systems in customer side-of-the-meter applications.
The paper sets out clear parameters within which applications for the funding must be made, and emphasizes that technologies containing lithium “will not be considered as eligible for this group, because there is substantial national research funding already being applied to further develop lithium-ion chemistry-based technologies”.
The paper explains that the emerging diverse range of applications requiring storage “cannot be met with currently fielded technologies alone, because they do not have the energy density, daily cycle capability, longevity, safety and price to be viable for the diverse set of applications that will be needed in the state”.
“The timing is right for supporting emerging technologies that can out-perform existing energy storage technologies because a substantial amount of the energy storage in California was installed in the last few years and will need to be upgraded or replaced in the next seven to 15 years,” the paper says.
“Given that Li technology is by far the most fielded technology in California, proposed technology providers can compete once commercialized with the expected price and performance of future Li technology systems.”
It also mentions the challenges of lithium ion, such as safety concerns, cycle life shortages, performance degradation over time and “environmental justice concerns on how some of the key materials used in Li batteries are obtained”.
The insider BESB spoke to expanded on the issues he believes lie behind the exclusion of the technology.
“Safety concerns, the lack of historical data, operational problems and what to do at the end-of-life are all problems that are still being addressed. That’s one of the reasons they’re now looking at other chemistries and technologies,” he said.
What happens in California is often replicated by other states — which could mean a huge shift in emphasis on the kind of technology to be rolled out in future energy storage projects.
The paper mentions advanced chemistry batteries, flow batteries, fly wheels, thermal storage systems and compressed air systems as examples of candidate technologies but it does not specifically mention lead acid, which has long been promoted as an option by the likes of the International Lead Association and Consortium for Battery Innovation.
“We agree with the California Energy Commission that the scale of demand for energy storage requires different battery technologies, with a range of capabilities,” said CBI director Alistair Davidson.
“Advanced lead batteries are used in many different energy storage applications across the United States — and worldwide — and we are actively involved in research projects to develop the next generation of high performing batteries.
“I hope the CEC will consider applications for projects promoting advanced lead batteries to help meet the demand for the diverse applications they seek to support.”
“California has some of the highest electric power rates in the country and the utilities in there have to maintain a reliable system,” the insider said. “To maintain a reliable system, they will have to continue to rely on natural gas, which is by far the biggest source of electric power generation in California. I expect it to stay that way in the foreseeable future.”
The CEC’s paper says solutions proposed ‘must take the technology from laboratory demonstration to prototype testing in a customer application’, and address ‘improved energy density, increased cycle performance and critical energy needs such as resiliency, reliability, improved safety, lower costs than currently fielded systems and better long-term or lifecycle performance’.
No fossil fuel technology will be accepted and the candidates must have reached a pre-commercial and technical readiness level (TRL) of 4 to 5, with TRL 1-2 basic research and TRL 9 reaching system testing, launch and operations level.