Electric gridBatteries: Reshaping the Future of the Electric Grid

Published 30 March 2021

Research begun at the Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research and continued at spinoff company Form Energy may launch a new era of renewable energy.

A new era of energy provided by renewables may be close at hand, thanks to research begun at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Innovation Hub led by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, and continued at spinoff company Form Energy.

The challenge JCESR addressed is long duration storage — stabilizing a renewable grid against several consecutive days of calm or overcast days when wind and solar generation is absent or severely limited. Today’s lithium-ion batteries can discharge at full power for 4-6 hours, enough to stabilize against most intra-day variations due to passing clouds or fluctuating winds, or to extend solar electricity a few hours past sunset to serve the evening demand peak. A full day or consecutive days of windless or overcast weather is stabilized by natural gas peaker plants that can run indefinitely as long as they are supplied with fuel. The downside of this solution is the carbon dioxide that gas peaker plants emit, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that accelerate harmful climate change. In the net-zero carbon emissions world that suppresses climate change, these emissions must be eliminated or captured and sequestered away from the atmosphere.

At JCESR, scientists from 18 universities, companies and laboratories seek to find battery chemistries that can solve energy storage problems beyond the reach of today’s batteries. The challenge of creating a battery that can cost-effectively provide days of storage instead of hours was right up their alley.

“The objective was to create a battery to back up wind and solar generation on consecutive overcast or calm days and to do so with a commercially viable solution,” said Yet-Ming Chiang, a JCESR member, co-founder of Form Energy, and professor of materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). ​“The long-duration battery has to compete with gas peaker plants on cost.”

JCESR solved the problem by addressing both the cost of the energy storing materials and the design of the battery, since both contribute to the cost of the final battery. Analysis by the JCESR team showed that for multi-day storage, the entire battery must have a cost less than that of the energy-storing electrodes alone in batteries such as today’s lithium ion. Therefore, the long-duration storage challenge requires new materials solutions.