Big infrastructure plans in Canada, the United States and the European Union place a lot of emphasis on renewable energy displacing coal, gas and petroleum.
Yet little attention is given to the one vital element that makes all these ‘green’ energy transition plans for power plants and vehicles viable: practical and affordable energy storage.
Solar and wind power aren’t available all the time, so the energy must be stored to allow buffers at night or when there’s little wind.
The environmentalists who advocate for green energy won’t endorse natural gas or nuclear energy being inserted into the grid to provide variable power when needed.
So there needs to be a reckoning as to how much energy storage will be needed to make solar and wind energy – and perhaps tidal, wave and ocean current energy – realistic substitutes for the fossil fuels that power homes, businesses, institutional buildings and most vehicles.
Fortunately, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Laboratories have some recommendations.
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Their report “defines and evaluates cost and performance parameters of six battery energy storage technologies (BESS)” – lithium-ion, lead-acid, redox flow, sodium-sulfur, sodium metal halide and zinc-hybrid cathode, and four non-battery storage methods (pumped storage hydropower, flywheels, compressed air energy storage and ultracapacitors).
The authors concluded that, even in 2025, it’s likely that lithium-ion will be the most cost-effective given projected improvements in technology, performance and costs for the alternatives, with zinc-hybrid cathode a close second (it uses a metal that’s cheaper and not heading into scarcity, as lithium is). An average of the two was used in the calculations below.
The study estimated a 2025 cost of US$362, constructed, installed and connected, per kilowatt hour (kWh), for lithium and US$433 for zinc, for an average of US$398 or about C$497 at today’s exchange rate. Providing storage to make renewables viable for Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada’s sole major coal-or-gas-power regions, would cost C$2.78 billion per kWh for all 5.6 million people (at one kW per person), or $27.8 billion for 10 hours of storage, which may be an inadequate safety margin.
That’s just for today’s electric power use.
Replacing transportation would increase electrical generation demand greatly, as would replacing natural gas heating across the country. According to the Electric Vehicle Database, electric cars have a wide range of efficiencies. Eliminating outliers and using the average of the best and worst car models, the efficiency is 208 kWh per kilometre driven. At a modest use of 10,000 km per vehicle per year, replacing 10 million vehicles in Canada would mean an additional average capacity requirement of 2.7 megawatts. The peak could be more.
Storage for 10 hours would cost a moderate $13.4 million. This seems much too low and would likely be much higher in practice, given erratic motor vehicle traffic volumes and recharging time.
According to the Canadian Gas Association, Canada consumed 3.44 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2019, or about 3.44 million gigajoules. If this was cut in half and all generated by renewables, the storage cost required would be 109 megawatts times 10 hours times $497/kWh, which equals $542 million.
It would likely be substantially higher in reality. Lighting and heating have highly variable demand in Canada; less in the warmer months and quite heavy otherwise.
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The total cost – leaving aside the expense of all the renewable energy capacity needed to vastly increase electric power production – the cost of just 10 hours of energy storage to make all the renewables viable is likely to be over $28 billion in 2025. And that doesn’t take into account all the carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane emissions required to produce and install all these devices. If 15 hours is deemed to be a safer buffer, then the price exceeds $42 billion; if 20 hours, then $56 billion.
This seems to be a high price to pay for dubious benefits, and it’s not at all clear that the climate crusaders have incorporated or considered these costs directly. Climate change purity is expensive, and Canadians need to know how much and why. They may be forking over many billions in search of an ever-elusive goal.
And the green agenda includes more than just storage.
On the bright side, new energy storage would make all the erratic and unreliable renewable energy sources practical and commercial, without further subsidies or credits. So why isn’t energy storage emphasized more, and why is there so much focus on other elements of the green agenda?
Just funding or encouraging more storage would suffice; there should be no need for further vast expenditures.
Either the proponents of the grandiose energy revolution don’t know what they’re talking about, or the whole program is an excuse to spend huge amounts to benefit interest groups and amass more government control and power.
Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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