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The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid

August 4, 2018

By Paul Homewood


H/t Dave Ward


This article is reposted from MIT Energy Review:


The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid

James Temple

A pair of 500-foot smokestacks rise from a natural-gas power plant on the harbor of Moss Landing, California, casting an industrial pall over the pretty seaside town.

If state regulators sign off, however, it could be the site of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery project by late 2020, helping to balance fluctuating wind and solar energy on the California grid.

The 300-megawatt facility is one of four giant lithium-ion storage projects that Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest utility, asked the California Public Utilities Commission to approve in late June. Collectively, they would add enough storage capacity to the grid to supply about 2,700 homes for a month (or to store about .0009 percent of the electricity the state uses each year).

The California projects are among a growing number of efforts around the world, including Tesla’s 100-megawatt battery array in South Australia, to build ever larger lithium-ion storage systems as prices decline and renewable generation increases. They’re fueling growing optimism that these giant batteries will allow wind and solar power to displace a growing share of fossil-fuel plants.

But there’s a problem with this rosy scenario. These batteries are far too expensive and don’t last nearly long enough, limiting the role they can play on the grid, experts say. If we plan to rely on them for massive amounts of storage as more renewables come online—rather than turning to a broader mix of low-carbon sources like nuclear and natural gas with carbon capture technology—we could be headed down a dangerously unaffordable path.

Small doses

Today’s battery storage technology works best in a limited role, as a substitute for “peaking” power plants, according to a 2016 analysis by researchers at MIT and Argonne National Lab. These are smaller facilities, frequently fueled by natural gas today, that can afford to operate infrequently, firing up quickly when prices and demand are high.

Lithium-ion batteries could compete economically with these natural-gas peakers within the next five years, says Marco Ferrara, a cofounder of Form Energy, an MIT spinout developing grid storage batteries.

“The gas peaker business is pretty close to ending, and lithium-ion is a great replacement,” he says.

This peaker role is precisely the one that most of the new and forthcoming lithium-ion battery projects are designed to fill. Indeed, the California storage projects could eventually replace three natural-gas facilities in the region, two of which are peaker plants.

But much beyond this role, batteries run into real problems. The authors of the 2016 study found steeply diminishing returns when a lot of battery storage is added to the grid. They concluded that coupling battery storage with renewable plants is a “weak substitute” for large, flexible coal or natural-gas combined-cycle plants, the type that can be tapped at any time, run continuously, and vary output levels to meet shifting demand throughout the day.

Not only is lithium-ion technology too expensive for this role, but limited battery life means it’s not well suited to filling gaps during the days, weeks, and even months when wind and solar generation flags.

This problem is particularly acute in California, where both wind and solar fall off precipitously during the fall and winter months. Here’s what the seasonal pattern looks like:

If renewables provided 80 percent of California electricity – half wind, half solar – generation would fall precipitously beginning in the late summer.Clean Air Task Force analysis of CAISO data

This leads to a critical problem: when renewables reach high levels on the grid, you need far, far more wind and solar plants to crank out enough excess power during peak times to keep the grid operating through those long seasonal dips, says Jesse Jenkins, a coauthor of the study and an energy systems researcher. That, in turn, requires banks upon banks of batteries that can store it all away until it’s needed.

And that ends up being astronomically expensive.

Read the full post here:


I did my own analysis a few weeks ago, which also showed that for battery storage to supply any meaningful back up for intermittent renewables would be ridiculously expensive and, in practical terms, pie in the sky.

This latest study comes to similar conclusions.


Interestingly, if we take the quoted four 300MW storage plants proposed, and work back from “to supply 2700 homes for a month”, I reckon this equates to 1350MWh (assuming annual consumption of 6000KWh).

In other words the storage plants can supply the full 1200MW for only slightly longer than an hour-about the same from memory as the Tesla in SA.

It seems an awfully expensive way to provide such a pitifully tiny amount of energy. And, of course, the power needed to charge them up in the first place must be paid for as well.At least small scale gas peakers can run as long as you want them to.

  1. Curious George permalink
    August 4, 2018 6:36 pm

    Pitifully tiny amount of energy … yes, but it can be recycled several thousand times. On the other hand, it probably consumes close to 20% of energy stored. But what the hell, wind and solar are free while outrageously expensive.

  2. AZ1971 permalink
    August 4, 2018 7:53 pm

    Spend a fraction of that $2.5 trillion on finally developing fusion power and be done with everyone—greenie alarmists, fossil fuel companies, poverty stricken, etc.

    • HotScot permalink
      August 4, 2018 11:00 pm


      Sadly, we were all told the same of fission energy.

      • dave permalink
        August 5, 2018 7:38 am


        Unfortunately – and here I speak as someone with degrees in mathematics – it is very possible that the equations which are used to guide the design of ‘magnetic bottles’ are inadequate, because the equations do not hold properly except under conditions which are impossible to actually create.


        I knew the designer of the CANDU reactors in Canada. (He only recently died, at the age of 101.) He told me fifty years ago, “This particular design is just for Canada, because we have secure supplies of Uranium. Most other places will have to breed extra fuel – which is not a difficult problem.”

        Well, somehow we have made it difficult.

    • czechlist permalink
      August 5, 2018 6:32 pm

      In 1975 I was offered employment at LosAlamos and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories to work on laser fusion projects as well as UTexas’ Tokamak. Ii declined.
      43 years and billions of $$.
      I was also offered a Superconducting Supercollider position. Didn’t take that either.
      Now how much for global warming/ climate change?
      Eisenhower warned us

    • Gamecock permalink
      August 6, 2018 6:56 pm

      “Spend a fraction of that $2.5 trillion on finally developing fusion power and be done with everyone”

      That is silly. Money is not the limiting factor on the development of fusion energy.

  3. August 4, 2018 8:22 pm

    It is incredible that this sort of calculation which can be done roughly more or less on the back of an envelope should be cluttering up the airwaves. For so called intelligent people to spending vast sums on attempts to disprove the obvious shows the level of intellectual and political corruption prevailing in the corridors of power.

  4. August 4, 2018 8:37 pm

    Round trip losses are about 13%.

    The problem which everybody seems to miss is that if you connect a battery storage facility to a grid (say the UK grid) and charge it when demand is low (in the middle of the night) and discharge when demand is high (say about 6pm), then the charging is from purely the marginal dispatchable power station (because weather-dependent renewable facilities cannot increased supply to meet the increased demand from the batteries). So battery storage cannot be used in conjunction with renewables (unless they are both disconnected from the grid when charging, in which case they are not supporting the grid). In other words, battery storage cannot support renewables. On the contrary, battery storage increases the use of dispatchable power stations, i.e. gas and coal power stations, because of the extra energy needed to cover the round trip losses.

    Of course you will never get the DBEIS civil servants and the Government to understand this simple fact. They just keep on supporting battery storage regardless.

  5. Immune to propaganda permalink
    August 4, 2018 8:51 pm

    The eco – commie loons have really taken over the energy asylum!

  6. August 4, 2018 9:13 pm

    Let’s not forget that those “peaker” plants don’t need to have the vast majority of their components replaced every few years. You can buy a massive amount of natural gas for the cost of that many LiPo battery cells… not to mention the labor required and then all the pollution generated from trying to get the expensive cobalt out of those dead batteries. Like most “renewable” pipe dreams the most basic engineering calc’s shoot them down rather quickly.

  7. Gerry, England permalink
    August 4, 2018 10:50 pm

    As Sir Alec Guinness says ‘What have I done’ before blowing up the bridge over the river Kwai, James Donald looks on and says two words ‘Madness, madness.’

    • August 6, 2018 12:14 pm

      97 +++% of people believe Alec Guinness actually blew up the Bridge over the River Kwai.
      So it must be true. Indeed ‘Madness’.

  8. August 4, 2018 11:26 pm

    The contribution to grid can only be compared to that of the battery in an ICE powered car.
    A good number of people do not understand that unltimately all the electrical systems in a car are run by the primary fuel.

  9. August 4, 2018 11:41 pm

    Lithium ion batteries have power to weight advantages, none which are needed in storage systems, the good old lead acid battery is superior when it comes to power per cost.
    All power stations have emergency DC systems based on lead acid battery rooms.

    • Dave Ward permalink
      August 5, 2018 8:20 am

      I believe several back-up systems still use Nickel-Iron cells. They are virtually indestructible, and can last for 20 years or more.

  10. Geoff Sherrington permalink
    August 5, 2018 1:47 am

    Still I do not understand what happens to excess electricity. Say a solar plant is working to produce a level of power so that supply balances demand, then half of the the devices connected to it are turned off. What can be done with that excess power? It must heat something, but what? Why does the ‘what’ not become overheated, even dangerous?
    I am not talking about load management, merely the theoretical situation that there will be times when more is generated than used. If it is so large that normal overheating of normal components is exceeded, what are the options? Geoff.

    • August 5, 2018 5:41 am

      As I understand it, because the output of the solar farms is not controllable by the grid, when the supply becomes greater than the demand, then frequency will rise. Overloaded parts of the network will automatically protect themselves against high frequency by isolating themselves (i.e. breakers will open etc – local blackouts). It will be interesting to find out at some time in the future.

      • Ben Vorlich permalink
        August 5, 2018 8:30 am

        Didn’t I read a little while ago that there were proposals in California (I think) to lift restrictions on frequency for that reason?

      • Gerry, England permalink
        August 5, 2018 9:51 am

        They usually dump the excess on to somebody else’s grid but then that can upset those grids. Germany has caused problems in other countries by dumping excess wind power. Denmark sends its excess to Norway at rock bottom prices and then when the wind dies down Norway sells hydro power to Denmark at sky high prices. California pays – yes, not just gives away but pays – a neighbour state to take its excess.

  11. markl permalink
    August 5, 2018 3:45 am

    “Most” people don’t understand the disconnect between “wind/solar” energy and “reliable” energy and those same people believe batteries can bridge the gap. Proponents of grid battery storage will keep pushing the meme until proven wrong by reality which with today’s technology will never happen on a significant grid/scale.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      August 5, 2018 9:58 am

      No, the day of reckoning is coming ever closer as each year more coal power stations are closed either by legislation or by becoming uneconomic for the operator and no replacement generation is being built because the investment case for new gas plant does not add up. Then all we need is a blocking high situation such as has brought the fine weather to occur in the middle of winter at the peak of demand and then there will not be enough power to go around, batteries or not.

    • Gamecock permalink
      August 6, 2018 7:00 pm

      True, markl. Batteries do not produce energy; they can only act as a buffer, but never a cure, for the intermittency of renewables.

  12. Akseli permalink
    August 5, 2018 4:07 am

    6000kWh per yer per house equals 500kWh per month per house.
    500kWh x 2700 = 1350GWh, not 1350kWh.
    Otherwise calculation is right.

  13. Asmilwho permalink
    August 5, 2018 7:01 am

    As soon as there is a large fire in one of these giant battery plants which poisons the surrounding countryside requiring vast clean-up efforts, the wheels will come off this particular subsidy gravy train.

  14. August 5, 2018 7:59 am

    When wind and solar are doing very little e.g. in Californian winters (see bar chart above), where do they plan to get the power from to charge the batteries?

    • dave permalink
      August 5, 2018 9:47 am

      “…they plan to get the power…”

      …from a hundred trillion hamsters, in wheels.

    • Sheri permalink
      August 5, 2018 2:49 pm

      From the thousand turbines destroying the landscape in Wyoming where the “wind always blows” except when it doesn’t like today. Nothing destroy the land more than 1000 stupid useless turbines. (IF they ever get the power line installed, of course.)

  15. Steve Borodin permalink
    August 5, 2018 9:46 am

    California, when you are in a deep hole, stop digging.

    • dave permalink
      August 5, 2018 10:30 am

      Further to the topic of the Rulers of Europe now being in their ‘rapture phase’

      This 32% is not some sort of ‘capacity fudge,’ but it seems it is intended to be the proportion of all actual consumption. And not just of electricity; all energy use.

      Given the intermittency of renewables, this would entail – I estimate – the construction in the next ten years of a million megawatts of capacity in things like windmills and solar panels, together with batteries to store a third of their annual output…

      • saparonia permalink
        August 5, 2018 11:30 am

        “an EU consumer is entitled to become a renewable self-consumer, who may..generate renewable energy for their own consumption”
        ..they didn’t specify which renewables so could include methane? I know it’s being done already

      • dave permalink
        August 5, 2018 1:02 pm

        After Brexit, such European plan should not be binding on the UK. However, what is the betting the UK’s establishment goes ahead, anyway, while copper-bottoming and gold-plating it?

        As always with such schemes, it is hard to decide whether the proponents are stupid (with good intentions) or cunning (with a shameful purpose.) I suppose they can be a mixture.

  16. Joe Public permalink
    August 5, 2018 2:41 pm

    “The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid”

    What’s a mere 2.5 Apple Corps between friends?

  17. Harry Passfield permalink
    August 5, 2018 6:43 pm

    If I’ve got this right, battery technology doesn’t get any cheaper; it’s the ‘peaking’ gas plants that get more expensive. In relative terms the batteries only seem cheaper.

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