What is the role of batteries in renewable energy?

In this blog post, we delve into the integral role of batteries in renewable energy, the hurdles and future of battery-based large-scale energy storage, the growing emphasis on sustainable mining practices and the innovative breakthroughs in material recycling that are collectively transforming renewable energy adoption towards a cleaner future.

Written by 
Victoria Chen-Englert
Edited by 
Andrew Hagan
Updated on 
February 26, 2024
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1. The Crucial Role of Batteries in the Transition to Renewable Energy

As renewable energy sources like solar and wind are intermittent — meaning they do not produce power consistently owing to their dependence on factors such as weather and time of day — batteries can store the energy generated during peak production times for use during periods when output is low or demand is high. This enhances the reliability and stability of renewable power systems by smoothing out the supply of electricity.

Here are some key roles of batteries in renewable energy:

a. Energy storage and load leveling

Batteries are extremely useful for storing excess energy generated during peak production periods that may not align with peak demand times. For instance, solar panels need sunlight and wind turbines require windy conditions, whereas energy consumption tends to peak in the morning and evening when people and businesses need electricity the most. By storing the surplus energy generated during sunny or windy conditions or when demand is low, batteries enable a more balanced distribution of electricity throughout the entire day. This technology can even operate on shorter timescales (seconds or minutes), smoothing out surges or troughs in demand and allowing generators to run more efficiently.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

b. Grid stabilization, reliability, and efficiency

Batteries help stabilize the electrical grid by providing energy during demand spikes, thus reducing the need for peaker plants. These are a less efficient and more expensive means of power generation, generally using fossil fuels, that are activated only to meet short-term demand. Thus, batteries can help decrease the overall cost of power generation and minimize electricity bills for consumers. They can also assist in maintaining voltage and frequency stability, which is especially important with the growing integration of renewable energy sources that are often intermittent in nature.

c. Distributed power generation

Nowadays, more and more people are installing solar panels and other renewable energy sources at home. Batteries allow them to store this generated electricity for later use, increasing their self-reliance and decreasing their dependence on the grid. This shift toward solar energy not only contributes to environmental sustainability but also offers substantial economic benefits by reducing energy bills. For home users, the combination of a solar system and an appropriate battery setup may reduce energy costs by between 30% and 80%. Batteries also enable the creation of microgrids, which are small, self-contained power systems that can operate independently of the main grid. This can be beneficial for remote communities or areas prone to power outages.

d. Transportation electrification

Batteries are crucial to the operation of electric vehicles, which are an important part of the move toward cleaner modes of transportation. Moreover, electric vehicles can be used for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) applications, where parked vehicles feed the energy stored in their batteries back into the grid when needed.

2. Challenges and Prospects of Implementing Batteries for Large-Scale Energy Storage

While batteries are an essential component of renewable energy systems, there remain some considerable challenges, such as cost, limited capacity, and environmental concerns related to mining and recycling. For example, deploying large-scale energy storage systems can be complicated by the need for significant upfront investment and complex integration with existing power grids. Furthermore, ensuring the safety of these systems is crucial, as improper installation or maintenance can pose fire hazards.

However, technological advances in terms of battery chemistries, manufacturing processes, and economies of scale are allowing these challenges to be addressed, making batteries more accessible than ever. For instance, according to Our World in Data, the price of lithium-ion batteries has fallen tremendously over the last three decades.

An increased focus on sustainable mining practices is also gradually reducing the environmental and social impacts of mining operations by minimizing water usage, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and ensuring ethical labor practices.

Research is being conducted to explore alternative battery materials that reduce our dependence on traditional mined resources such as cobalt and lithium. This includes investigating the potential of sodium-ion and other battery chemistries that utilize more readily available materials. For instance, the Swedish companies Altris and Northvolt recently announced their joint fabrication of a sodium-ion battery cell with a best-in-class energy density of over 160 Wh/kg. Furthermore, Enerpoly, another Swedish startup, has been developing zinc-ion batteries with a focus on grid applications and intends to scale up production to 100 MWh per year by 2026. Other companies, while not entirely turning away from lithium, are attempting to incorporate other elements alongside it, such as Elinor Batteries, which aims to build a gigawatt-scale factory in central Norway for the mass production of more sustainable lithium iron phosphate batteries.

In addition, breakthroughs in material recycling are reducing the need for further mining, preserving natural resources and minimizing damage to ecosystems. Recycling also has the potential to further reduce production and energy costs during battery manufacture, thus preventing harmful chemicals and metals from polluting our environment while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2021, Northvolt reported its development of the world's first fully recycled battery cell, which was created using 100% recycled nickel, manganese, and cobalt.

3. Conclusion

Alongside the other technologies listed on the Qurator Decarbonization Marketplace, batteries stand at the forefront of enabling a more sustainable and resilient energy future, bridging the gap between the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources and our constant demand for electricity. They not only provide a crucial solution for energy storage, load leveling, and grid stabilization but also pave the way for the electrification of transportation and the greater self-reliance of consumers and businesses through decentralized power generation. Despite ongoing technical and environmental challenges, rapid advances in battery technologies and a shift toward more sustainable practices are setting the stage for batteries to play an increasingly vital role in the global transition toward renewable energy, promising a cleaner, more efficient, and self-sufficient energy landscape.

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