When China’s President Xi Jinping said last week that his country would take a hacksaw to its CO2 emissions as a percentage of its gross domestic product, it barely rippled across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But it did make a big splash among technology producers, especially those in the energy storage business.
What this means in practical terms is that the amount of renewable energy that its people and businesses consume will jump to 25%. To that end, President Xi said that the total amount of wind and solar power that China generates will rise exponentially — from 500 million kilowatts to 1.2 billion kilowatts in a decade. To do that, local governments in China need as much as 20% storage capacity. Now that the starting gun has been fired, which technologies have the inside track?
“We will take solid steps to implement the targets just announced, and contribute even more to tackling the global climate challenge,” Xi told world leaders, as reported by xinhuanet.com. “China always honors its commitments.”
Specifically, China will reduce its CO2 per unit by 65% as measured by its GDP. Earlier, President Xi told the UN General Assembly that his country would hit peak CO2 releases by 2030 and that it would be carbon neutral by 2060. So storage companies will be jockeying for position to get market share. But China is looking for practical options — not a thousand solutions for a thousand problems delivered by a thousand vendors. Indeed, China has already wasted time and energy on so many products that have never panned out.
Most people already know about battery storage and it would be the early front-runner to fill in the gaps — the ones that China will need to meet its CO2-reduction goals. Utilities and onsite generators are using energy storage to harness the electricity during the day and release those electrons at night, limiting the price spikes. The twin goals are to increase renewable power usage and to provide electricity during peak demand. But the high price remains an impediment.
Moreover, batteries have a critical shortfall, which is that they cannot provide long-term storage. That is, they can charge and discharge, keeping the electrons flowing for four hours at a time, although “flow batteries” can release energy for 15 hours when compared to “lithium-ion” batteries. If a catastrophic event such as a wildfire occurs, then such things as diesel generators are used for long-term relief — but limited by the amount of available fuel.
“Batteries are a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” says Chris Allo, president of ElektrikGreen, which is a Colorado-based developer of hydrogen-based power storage solutions. “They work for temporary outages and they wear out. With hydrogen, I can fill a tank and empty a tank a million times.”
Hydrogen is stored in tanks while leaving a low-carbon footprint. Solar panels will generate excess electricity which, through an electrolyzer, is turned into pure hydrogen. That gas is stored in a tank before being piped out through a fuel cell. If solar is used, it is called “green hydrogen.” But the goal is to ratchet down the cost of this whole process.
Beyond hydrogen, there’s pumped hydropower — or the creation of large-scale reservoirs of energy with water. There’s also thermal energy, or the capture of heat and cold to create energy on demand or to offset energy needs. And then there’s mechanical storage, which harnesses kinetic energy to store electricity. In simple terms, the faster an object moves, the greater its kinetic or gravitational energy. Think river flows and the generation of hydropower.
“Gravity-based energy storage is an elegant solution befitting China’s social culture, the objective of carbon neutrality and its long familiarity with the dynamics of the natural world,” says Mitchell Stanley, chair of the National Center for Sustainable Development and an officer in Stera Energy that uses mechanical energy or gravitational storage.
“Simply put, the technology uses gravity to produce energy when demand is high and can replenish itself and store energy when demand is low,” he adds. “It is the same principle of stored hydropower that China has used for millennia. The technology harnesses the force of gravity, which by its nature produces no carbon, yet provides base-load power to local users without loss of power encountered by faraway generation and long-distance transmission.”
Battery storage has taken the early lead, especially in the Asia Pacific region. According to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, CATL, LG Chem, BYD and SK Innovation are the three top vendors. Tesla Inc.
The market, globally, for new storage technologies is huge. And China will become a magnet for such growth. In reality, its call to add renewable energies to the grid and to become carbon neutral by 2060 will be the catalyst — the force that necessitates adding up to 20% storage capacity. The race is on and the competition will most certainly benefit energy consumers and the environment.