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Category — Energy Storage

Rare Earth and Lithium Supplies Cloud Renewables

Rare earths refer to some 17 elements found in Earth’s crust by themselves or combined with other chemicals. Some are scarce and others abundant, but in most every case Rare earths create risk in the renewable energy supply chain under an “energy security” standard.

The metals and their compounds used in battery technologies, windmills, catalysts, and communications technologies are not mined in the U.S. The majority of commercially useful Rare earths come from mines in China, a country that is fickle toward the U.S. in many ways. This energy-security issue contradicts a rationale for taxpayer support for government-dependent energy technologies such as windpower and electric cars.

China’s Rare Earth Monopoly

The Rare earths occupy 57th to 71st place on the periodic chart of the elements. Discovered largely in the 19th century, the minerals have proven useful for modern technologies because of their electrochemical properties. They are crucial to advanced, high-temperature superconducting technologies, in addition to being used in windmills, electric vehicles, and new lighting technologies.

China owns the market for the most important rare earth metals, producing almost 100% of dysprosium and terbium, both crucial to the advanced performance of electric motors and lighting (see figure). Today, demand for the rare metals is booming. But China has been exploiting its dominant monopoly of rare earths to manipulate the market, according to U.S. commodities analysts.


Geographic changes in rare earth production. Courtesy: USGS

These are not internationally traded commodities on transparent markets, so sussing out market price trends is difficult. Analysts surveying the market assert that China is using its market power to control prices and benefit its domestic producers and users. [Read more →]

March 26, 2010   5 Comments

Can Utility-Scale Batteries Rescue Intermittent Renewables? (Improvement, market shakeout, but no ‘silver bullet’)

All interconnected transmission and distribution (T&D) grids have one thing in common. Their operators must continually dispatch generators to keep the network’s supply and demand in balance at all times and to maintain its voltage and frequency within very tight tolerances.

The “simultaneity problem” is not shared by oil or natural gas or coal. It is a tough reality for electricity that Thomas Edison and countless inventors since him have tried to solve via affordable battery storage. 

So where are we today in terms of cost per kWh to use batteries to store power and, in the case of intermittent technologies, firm power? For utility scale battery systems, expect to pay between $1,000/kW and $4,000/kW, according to the Electricity Storage Association. The DOE’s optimistic assessment estimates those costs will drop to around $500/kW by 2012.

Such adds at least a half cent per kWh to the cost of electricity.

Latest Technologies

There are about a dozen technologies vying for a piece of the utility-scale energy storage market, especially advanced battery technologies such as lithium ion and sodium sulfur batteries, pumped hydro, and compressed air energy storage. In this post, we’ll review the state-of-the-art of battery technology, a few interesting projects, and get a glimpse of the next generation of utility-scale batteries.

You should also note the few U.S. projects over the past few years and the large number number of battery technology companies chasing those projects. Several companies have since left the battery market or redefined their products. Little data on installed costs is available but included when available. Expect a major market shake-out over the next year or two.

The ongoing dissolution of the traditional electricity sector structure also seems to call for increased reliance on big batteries wherever feasible. One consequence of deregulation is that, in many states, generation and T&D are no longer planned in an integrated fashion by one entity—the local utility. Energy storage in general, and batteries in particular, can help stabilize the intermittent nature of nondispatchable renewable energy sources, for load leveling and peak shaving, substation standby power, or as fast acting reserves for system regulation control (ancillary services). Storage also has a critical role to play in securing the nation’s energy infrastructure, much as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve does for oil, and bulk gas storage does for balancing seasonal natural gas demand and supply. [Read more →]

March 10, 2010   9 Comments