Revolutions that start in the garage are nothing new. The one-car shed in which David Packard and William Hewlett began the partnership that would grow into Hewlett- Packard Co. is known as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.
So Jason Hughes may be on to something.
In a cluttered four-car garage in suburban Deptford, New Jersey, Hughes spent the better part of last year hacking a 1,400-pound battery recovered from a wrecked Tesla Model S and reworking it into a stacked array that can store energy from his solar-power system. His battery tinkering resolves the issue of intermittency since his green power will be available whenever he needs it, night or day, rain or shine.
A day trader by profession, the 31-year-old doesn’t want to save the world. He just wants to get off the grid. He did his homework and concluded that off-the-shelf batteries just don’t yet have the heft he required to achieve that.
The mattress-sized Tesla battery did -- it’s elephantine as lithium-ion batteries go -- even if it cost him $20,000 and hundreds of hours of tinkering to make it work. “This is going to be my electric company,” he says.
In his battery obsession and ambition, Hughes turns out to be emblematic of something much grander. Afoot is an unprecedented worldwide effort -- equivalent to a kind of a tech-age version of the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb -- to amp up, transform and reinvent the humble battery into an element that could profoundly change the global energy paradigm.
Consider the crash effort at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research in suburban Chicago. Within five years, researchers want to create one or more battery types that can “store at least five times more energy than today’s batteries at one-fifth the cost,” according to George Crabtree, an agreeable silver-haired scientist who runs the U.S. Energy Department-backed battery-research skunk works.
Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leading-edge technology companies like Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors Inc. and scads of startups are getting into the act. Some are seeking to double the capacity and dramatically cut the costs of the lithium-ion battery, the standard in iPhones and electric vehicles. Others are working on mega-scale battery systems using novel chemistries that could cheaply store enough energy to help power entire cities.
Battery entrepreneurs have begun to even talk like revolutionaries. “The ability for a battery company to change the dynamics of the world is what has got us excited,” says Bill Watkins, chief executive officer of Imergy Power Systems Inc., a Fremont, California, startup working on utility-scale batteries. “We can actually make a big difference here. I call it democratizing energy.”
As the former CEO of Seagate Technology Plc, the Silicon Valley digital storage maker, Watkins can speak from experience about tectonic technology shifts. In 1980, a Seagate five- megabyte hard drive that rendered floppy disks obsolete was a $1,500 PC add on. These days, drives holding two terabytes of data -- equivalent to two million megabytes -- can be had for a retail price of under $200.
What’s primarily driving the battery revolution is the phenomenal growth of rooftop and other forms of solar energy and an awakening by renewable energy advocates that storage is the lagging piece of the transformative puzzle. Solar now powers the equivalent of 3.5 million American homes and accounted for 34 percent of all newly installed electricity capacity last year. Wind supplies enough electricity for the equivalent of about 14.7 million U.S. homes, about the same as 52 coal-powered generating plants, according to the Wind Energy Foundation.
An exponential breakthrough in battery capacity and cost would bulldoze the limitations to adopting renewable energy on a massive scale, be a potent weapon to fight climate change by lowering carbon emissions and potentially bring billions of dollars in profits, never mind fame, to the winners. The knock on renewables is that while fossil fuels keep the power on all the time, solar fades when the sun doesn’t shine and wind power fizzles when the wind doesn’t blow – unless you have a way to store the excess for when you need it.
“What’s holding back solar and wind isn’t their availability but the fact that the technology to generate renewable energy has lept far ahead of the capacity to store and deploy it round the clock as needed,” says Crabtree of the Joint Center project, which is run out of the federal Argonne National Laboratory.
Prophesies of energy revolutions always come with caveats, of course, and some researchers note that an exponential breakthrough in battery storage and cost has been forecast for more than a decade and still hasn’t arrived. “Of all these other battery technologies people promote, how many of them are real?” says Jeff Dahn, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who continues to plug away at making stronger and cheaper lithium-ion batteries. “All that remains to be seen.”
And while hackers like Hughes capture the excitement around battery potential, their very existence demonstrates that cheap home batteries haven’t yet arrived at Home Depot.
That said, Tesla’s Musk in February announced the company will soon unveil a consumer battery that can be used for homes and businesses. Tesla sees the endeavor as a “multi-billion dollar per year one,” according to a job description for the company’s stationary storage unit posted on Tesla’s website.
Recall, too, that naysayers kept telling Texan George Mitchell, the father of the hydraulic fracturing revolution, that it was impossible to economically squeeze oil and natural gas out of tight shale formations. Fracking has upended the energy world. Remember also that people seeing the first briefcase-sized mobile phones scoffed that such a thing would ever be widely adopted. Now, most sixth graders in America have one.
Simply doing the math on the ambitions of the Joint Center project -- making batteries with five times the capacity at a fifth of the present cost – lays out the stakes and prospects. Electric vehicles would travel more than 400 miles (650 kilometers) on a charge instead of an average of 84 as a Nissan Leaf does now – better than many gasoline-powered vehicles.
Cheaper batteries also mean you could drive an EV off the lot for the same price as a bargain-basement gasoline model, making them truly mainstream. And with the option of charging them with solar power, owners will be able to motor past the local Exxon station without ever stopping -- or even having to pay their utilities a dime. Who needs the grid, or the oil companies, then?
At the Geneva International Motor Show, no less than Aston Martin -- the famed luxury British carmaker loved by James Bond -- said it asked its engineers to produce what they considered “the future of luxury GT motoring.” What they introduced was an electric powered DBX Concept car to be powered by lithium- sulfur cells, no gasoline necessary.
Similarly, as Hughes’s Tesla hack is already demonstrating, homes and businesses will be battery frontiers of their own. The rollout of inexpensive, powerful, compact battery arrays could fundamentally change consumers’ relationship with electric utilities. Homeowners and companies linking solar to batteries could self-generate round the clock and, if they choose to do what Hughes wants to do -- fire their power companies.
SolarCity Corp., the Musk-backed rooftop solar installer, has already started offering home rooftop solar systems paired with backup Tesla-made lithium-ion batteries. Solar-battery combinations are poised to become a big business, expected to grow into $1 billion a year in sales by 2018, according to GTM Research.
Forward-looking utilities could even get into the act, building vast battery arrays that would remove barriers to their harvesting of solar and wind energy, since that energy could be stored and deployed at any time. Economics aside, think of the political windfall of utilities going willingly green.
All this may be coming to a head sooner than most people realize. “Electricity markets will be turned upside down within the next 10-20 years, driven by solar and batteries,” says an August 2014 report from investment bank UBS AG. So might the auto industry and the oil companies.
In the case of Jason Hughes’s Tesla hack, it feels like one of those shape-shifting moments: the fossil-fuel grid has been a marvel but its time has come and technologically savvy people -– rapidly becoming the majority of us -- are seeking to connect to the new thing. “I’m not going to drill for oil and refine gasoline in my basement,” says Hughes, “but I can hook up solar panels and run my car.”
Hughes has a kindred spirit in Trond Arvid Rosvik, who lives almost 3,800 miles across the Atlantic in Oslo, Norway. They’ve never met, but Rosvik found Hughes through an Internet forum where Tesla owners swap experiences on everything from finding charging stations to do-it-yourself repairs.
That forum is where Hughes documented his tinkering in exhaustive detail, after Rosvik had finished a project of his own. Tesla employees declined to give Hughes advice on his project though they thought it was “pretty cool,” he says.
Electric car sales in Norway are brisk -- representing 18 percent of all models sold in January -- because the oil-rich country also has some of Europe’s highest fuel prices, the result of steep taxes. Among the biggest perks for electric vehicle owners is the right to zip along in empty bus lanes while fossil-fuel powered cars sit in gridlock. Electric cars also avoid sales and registration taxes.
Teslas are also popular in Norway but Rosvik ended up with a power plant taken from a Nissan Leaf. It took him a weekend to hack the Leaf battery pack and connect it to a group of panels - - allowing him to use solar power 24 hours a day in summer months.
He estimates the whole system, incorporating batteries scavenged from crashed and discarded Leafs, cost him less than 60,000 kronor ($7,732).
Rosvik, like Hughes, isn’t an engineer, even though he has technical training -- he’s certified to repair televisions and electronics. He’s nonchalant about the challenges. “I wouldn’t say it’s sophisticated, really,” he says. “I have never worked with lithium batteries but with a little Google it wasn’t that difficult.”
Tesla said it will have more information about its storage products in the next few months. Nissan didn’t want to discuss hackers tinkering with its Leaf batteries, but a spokesman said the company has looked into the potential of a second life for those batteries and, in fact, has a solar array tied to Leaf battery packs outside of its Nissan USA office in Franklin, Tennessee.
While it may not be hard, a lot of the hackers’ tinkering falls squarely into the “do not try this at home” category. As the 2013 battery overheating issues aboard Boeing 787 jetliners demonstrated, powerful lithium batteries can be unstable even in the hands of professionals. In worst-case scenarios, high temperatures can lead to a “thermal runaway,” a self- sustaining reaction that can cause violent explosions.
Back in the U.S., Hughes is undaunted. He and his fiancé, Ashley, recently moved to a 4,550 square-foot house in Hickory, North Carolina. He is in the process of installing 36 solar panels on the roof and another 66 in the backyard. With a second Tesla battery, he thinks he can move the house entirely off the grid, with enough juice on tap for a week of backup power even with very little sunlight.
In all, it’s a large-scale, grown-up version of home experiments Hughes conducted with his dad when in the fifth grade, connecting rudimentary solar panels to charge car batteries that would then power their coffee maker, microwave and Sega Genesis video game console.
While neighbors may find the setup odd, Hughes is convinced his thinking will spread as high-performance batteries get cheaper. “I don’t see how it can’t,” he says. “What I’m working on now for myself, 20 years from now is going to be pretty commonplace.”
Or as Crabtree from the Joint Center battery project describes the transformation under way, “Homeowners will begin to say, ‘Hey, nothing is stopping me from putting a solar panel on the roof and a battery in the basement.’ And it will kind of get perfected and refined by doing, and it’ll be the citizen innovator that will make it happen.”
Whether garage tinkerers, think-tank scientists or highly evolved tech companies, a lot of time, money and energy is going into battery research. Here are the major types of batteries being worked on:
Potential -- Sulfur is cheap and research indicates lithium-sulfur batteries have a higher energy density and reduced weight, making them a possible more powerful, less- costly replacement for lithium-ion in products like iPhones, cars and airplanes. The goal is to ratchet them up to store utility-scale amounts of renewable energy.
How they work -- Lithium-ion batteries employ positive and negative electrodes with an electrolyte in between. They charge or discharge by moving ions back and forth across the electrolyte. Introducing a sulfur-based electrode to the mix increases the potency of that basic concept and reduces the chances of nasty accidents from overheating.
Who’s working on them -- In Oxfordshire, west of London, in a suburban business park next to a medieval village of thatched- roof cottages, startup Oxis Energy Ltd. is manufacturing lithium-sulfur batteries that it says can be nearly five times more powerful than lithium-ion.
Oxis’s pitch isn’t just cost but that incorporating sulfur boosts power from lithium and allows batteries to be charged and discharged completely without damage, improving their practical capacity. It’s signed up a slate of blue-chip partners including French chemical giant Arkema SA and Germany’s Bayer AG to further develop the technology for cars, renewable power and electronics.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a research arm of the U.S. Energy Department, has also been working on an all-solid lithium-sulfur variation. Meanwhile, the Joint Center on Energy Storage Research has two different lithium-sulfur prototype candidates in the works -- one a “conventional concept with crystalline electrodes” and the other a “semi-flow battery with one fluid electrode.”
Lithium-sulfur batteries have had one high-profile success: The Zephyr solar-powered airplane, which has broken multiple flight records, relied on the technology.
Potential -- Large, inexpensive, easy-to-construct batteries that would allow unprecedented grid-scale storage. Their fluid nature means they avoid the failure mechanisms common to solid-state batteries. Laboratory results indicate they can last 15 years without losing performance.
How they work -- Constructed in large, modular containers, the batteries’ positive and negative electrodes are melted down, separated by an electrolyte of molten salt. The elements all float in separate layers due to different densities. They charge and discharge by the direction of the movement of the electrons.
Who’s working on them -- Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup Ambri Inc. is working on liquid-metal batteries based on the research of Donald Sadoway, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist who studies “extreme electrochemistry.”
Ambri’s attracted backers including Silicon Valley investor Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates and French oil producer Total SA, raising more than $50 million in equity.
Because power can’t yet be stored for long periods at a large scale, the current electric grid “is the largest delivery system on the planet with zero inventory,” says Sadoway. “Imagine if every time you took a shower it had to be raining. That’s where we’re at with electricity.”
Ambri has built a modular battery system with a capacity of two megawatt-hours -- enough to make a dent in utility-scale power requirements. The company is working to test a device with New York utility Consolidated Edison Inc.
Potential -- Like liquid metal batteries, they are being aimed at utilities and large-scale commercial and military power storage applications. Because they are constructed in large tanks, the size and storage capacity of the battery is only constrained by the size of the tank.
How they work -- Electrolytes flow between connected tanks through an electrochemical cell that converts chemical energy to electricity. The battery charges or discharges depending on the direction of the flow. Prototype flow batteries have been shown to hold as much as eight hours or more of stored energy depending on the size of the electrolyte tanks.
Who’s working on them -- At its battery skunk works in Fremont, California, Imergy Power Systems CEO Bill Watkins shows a visitor two SUV-sized boxes mounted on flatbed trailers. They are headed to a military installation in Southern California, where the U.S. Navy will use them for a pilot project to run their facilities independent of the grid.
One 30-kilowatt unit can hold enough electricity to power an apartment complex or a small village in India and can be endlessly charged and discharged, Watkins says. Imergy’s batteries employ a form of vanadium -- a metallic chemical element -- as a key ingredient that it recycles from industrial waste such as oil-field sludge and that it says is cheaper than other forms of vanadium used by competitors.
The company has deployed about 100 of its batteries, mostly in India. It announced a new product line in October and around the same time reached a deal with Foxsemicon Integrated Technology Inc. to build its batteries in China as orders pick up. Imergy is also joining with SunEdison Inc., an investor in the company, to sell solar and battery storage packages.
The Joint Research Center project is working on flow- battery research. Other flow battery companies include American Vanadium Corp., Enstorage Inc., EnerVault Corp., Primus Power Corp., UniEnergy Technologies, ViZn Energy Systems Inc. and ZBB Energy Corp.
Potential -- It’s still the standard-bearer and lithium-ion proponents believe economies of scale and technological advances will keep the workhorse battery at the head of the pack for the foreseeable future.
How they work -- They employ positive and negative electrodes with a liquid electrolyte in between. They charge or discharge by moving ions back and forth across the electrolyte.
Who’s working on them -- Musk and Tesla Motors clearly believe in the technology. The 43-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Tesla is betting that a $5 billion factory in the Nevada desert will help bring electric cars and energy storage to the masses.
Tesla’s so-called gigafactory, billed as the world’s largest, will eventually produce more lithium-ion batteries than were made worldwide in 2013. Instead of waiting for a technological breakthrough, Musk is looking to slash the cost of existing battery packs by at least 30 percent after the factory expects to start stamping out units in 2016.
Musk’s effort, in partnership with Panasonic, promises to reduce the cost of lithium-ion batteries to about $150 a kilowatt hour by 2020, “significantly” below the expense of competing storage options, according to analysts with Morgan Stanley. Canada’s Dalhousie University and Argonne National Laboratory among others also continue to conduct lithium-ion research.
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