Why the energy storage industry needs to get over ‘lithium-ion for everything’

Craig Evans of ESS Inc. Pic: ESS/Youtube.

Craig Evans of ESS Inc. Pic: ESS/Youtube.

By Craig E. Evans, President and CEO, ESS Inc

Energy storage had a big year in 2017. We saw it being proposed to power a city the size of Berlin and we saw it being added to critical microgrids in places such as Puerto Rico.

Perhaps most notably, we watched a bet unfold that ended in the creation of the world’s largest batterystorage project to date. Tesla’s ability to build a 100MW battery plant in Australia in 100 days showed the world just how far energy storage has come.

However, it also exposed a flaw.

For all its might, Tesla’s Hornsdale Power Reserve battery can only keep the lights on for a couple of hours. It may provide temporary relief in the event of a loss of grid power, but it will not be enough to eliminate the blackout risk that led to the plant’s creation in the first place. To achieve this, several hours’ more capacity will need to be added to Australia’s grid, and it remains unclear whether lithium-ion batteries could or should be used to do this job. 

Concerns over raw materials

While lithium-ion battery deployments have grown over the last year, so have concerns over the availability and future costs of the raw materials needed for its manufacture.

Cobalt, lithium and graphite have all been cited as possible candidates for a supply chain pinch. Analysts have played down the likelihood of shortages of any of these materials individually, but as one report observed: “Taken together, the slim chances of a supply mismatch in any of these materials markets may add up to a significant risk to lithium-ion battery production.”

We could avoid this shortage by recycling the batteries. But because lithium-ion battery recycling remains in its infancy, there is a risk that the materials would be hard to recover after use. This is an important point, because lithium-ion batteries are not just used in grid-scale energy storage projects. They are also vital to the consumer electronics that power our society and to the electric vehicles that will be critical in helping us achieve a decarbonised energy system.

There is a lithium-ion battery demand emanating from the automotive sector that should not be underestimated. The sector has barely started taking off, yet recent figures already show that it is growing 63% year on year, buoyed by government initiatives such as Germany’s plan to ban diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles beginning in 2030.  

Alternative forms of long-duration storage

It is in light of this that we believe a case can be made for alternative forms of long-duration storage. Why use lithium-ion batteries in long-duration storage applications when there are other technologies that can do the job, and do it at a lower cost and with smaller environmental impact?

The problem, then, becomes understanding which ones to pick for a given application stack. It is our hope that a newly-published ESS reportwill shed some light on the matter, by gathering industry views on issues such as preferred long-duration storage applications and technology selection criteria.

What is clear, in any case, is that the energy storage sector needs to get over its ‘lithium-ion for everything’ phase. The materials are just too precious to go around.

  • This article was adapted from the foreword to the free ESS report ‘Further beyond four hours’. Get your copyof the full report now.   

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