Companies bet big on batteries to store energy

EnerG2 has skin in the battery game, of course. Most carbon-based batteries require some kind of precursor; cheap, but more complicated applications require precision in material quality. EnerG2 engineers specialty carbon for batteries and ultracapacitors with high purity and surface area, removing the need for bio-organic precursor materials made from polymers to coconut husks to tires, substantially improves the battery's performance. And it's not the only one seeking to improve battery materials, either.

To those who say energy storage isn't needed on the grid, Feaver counters that its current absence is precisely one of the supporting factors for having it. How can one rely on existing grid reliability as the answer to energy storage, given California's constant brownouts, the "ridiculous" blackout in the U.S. Northeast in 2003 (which kicked offline an estimated 45 million people across eight states, plus another 10 million in Canada, for up to two days), and numerous smaller events, including extremely high temperatures across the south (e.g., Texas) that burden the grid? "No doubt we have a fundamental stability issue with the grid," Feaver sums up. And adding solar and wind capacity will strain that even more.

One way to compensate for that instability is natural gas peaker plants, which utilities can ramp up fairly quickly, but their utilization is very low (only used when needed) and there are some inherent inefficiencies associated with turn-on and shutoff. Energy storage is a better option, Feaver notes, especially for more remote areas where power is less reliable. (He pointed to cellphone towers in India, which rely on lead-acid batteries as well as diesel fuel-guzzling generators.)

But to truly get to grid-scale energy storage in batteries, "we probably need to move to a slightly different paradigm," Feaver explains. A few dozen pouch cells can be dropped into a Chevy Volt, but tens of thousands of them linked up isn't necessarily a cost-effective practice. To fundamentally drive down costs at grid scale, there needs to be a different formfactor developed. "We need either much higher energy density materials, or change the way the battery is constructed, to make it cheaper. Or both." Going the materials route with things like advanced chemicals will be more expensive initially; end users will pay more for 20 percent improvement, and companies will charge that premium as long as they can.

Next page: After planned advancements, what next?