Future Energy Storage: Biofuels & Batteries Collide

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For intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, are to be used as reliable power souces, we must have an efficient energy storage system in place. How can we apply emerging technologies to advance energy storage and renewable power sources, and make the world a more sustainable place?

Paolo Fracas is CEO and Founder of Genport, where they are focused on realising cost effective clean and safe power sources. The team at Genport works to combine hydrogen-powered fuel cells and lithium ion batteries with an energy optimization engine, to provide a constant reliable source of power, which has reduced emissions and is operational in extreme environmental conditions.

At the Reinventing Energy Summit on 25 November, Paolo will share his expertise on hybrid power sources, biofuels and energy storage. I spoke with him ahead of the summit to learn more.

Tell us a bit more about your work at Genport.
In the last eight years of the foundation, my role at Genport has been to identify, select, and bring into the global market, advancing energy storage and power generation solutions suitable for use in defence, emergency services, telecommunication, agriculture, electro-medical devices, and other industrial applications.

Our initial effort started with the design of novel electrochemical materials and components. We continued later with the design of portable and stationary power systems, building a strong experience in hybrid technologies, with the combination of hydrogen powered fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries. In addition to zero-impact environmentally, our main aim has been focusing on designing power solutions, with initial costs that are equivalent to traditional generators, and have a competitive total cost of ownership.

Hybrid power concepts bring a substantial positive impact to the overall size of the primary renewable source of energy - multiple approaches become possible according to defined targets. Today, product development and market introduction is supported by the lifetime-performance analysis of a wide variety of system configurations, using simulation tools. This helps our EPCs, OEMs to size, and to estimate financial and technical parameters of the entire energy system, as well as identifying the optimal solution.

In parallel to development and introduction into the market, work is also necessary to raise capital to support the development and demonstration of new solutions with public funding, as well as collaborations with research institutions.

How can hybrid power sources impact the future of renewable energy sources (RES)?
Wind turbines and solar panels are a cost effective way to generate energy, however a drawback of RES is the variability; wind turbines tend to run intermittently and solar power is only available during the daytime. Given the intermittent nature of wind and solar, the need to store renewable electricity has become essential.

There are different approaches to storing energy: hybrid power sources that combine the most appropriate type and size of electrochemical devices, such as fuel cells and batteries, are the most promising. Electrochemical systems are efficient technologies to convert and store energy, as their combination improves reliability, quality of power, increases renewable power factors, optimises the overall grid-resilience, and reduces weight and volume for the lower cost.

Electrochemical hybrid systems also allow us to eliminate environmental emissions and reduce the lifecycle footprint. Dusty and noisy diesel generators are not necessary anymore in off-grid contests and, in grid-tie contests, the balance of energy is optimised in fuel cells, batteries and electric loads.

What are the main transformative technologies that will increase renewable energy usage?
Diffusion of renewable energy will be influenced by different transformative technologies that contribute to improving safety and power resilience, as well as technologies that reduce the impact of the intermittent nature of energy generated by renewable sources.

Technologies that allow the combination of different sources of energy (cooling, heating, electricity, transport), and enable the integration of production, transmission and distribution of energy, will play a key role in the usage of renewable energy.

Energy storage will be the key transformative technology to balance supply and demand with renewable systems. Peaks and troughs in demand can often be anticipated and satisfied by increasing or decreasing generation at fairly short notice. In a low-carbon system, intermittent renewable energy makes it more difficult to vary output, and rises in demand do not necessarily correspond to rises in RES generation. Higher levels of energy storage are required for grid flexibility and stability, and to cope with the increasing use of intermittent wind and solar power.

Smart cities will require a combination of smart grids and smart storage; new communication systems that are resistant to cyber attacks; and distributed interoperable cognitive algorithms located in cloud servers to aggregate a flexible source of storage, are some further examples of transformative technologies for future web energy systems. Nanotechnologies, micro- and nano-electronics, photonics and biotechnology will contribute to increase the diffusion of RES. Photo-electrochemical technologies to convert solar energy directly into hydrogen energy is one example of transformative technologies that could improve connection between power generation and the automotive industry.

What are the key challenges in long-term energy storage?
Energy storage is an exciting challenge for several reasons. A new generation of battery technologies will be necessary for us to address the challenges of the increasingly complex energy systems that our society will require. Better batteries for our home and electric vehicles will be required, based on advanced lithium-ion batteries embedding a new generation of anodes based on silicon and novel electro-ceramic electrolytes. Improving energy density is a big challenge that post-lithium technologies can solve. Lithium sulphur, lithium air batteries, sodium-ion batteries, magnesium-ion batteries and aluminium-ion are disruptive technologies and materials that could radically reduce costs and increase energy density - however, overall performances are still poor and further research is still necessary.

Not only in electrochemical storage do we have some challenges to tackle. Other storage technologies still need to face problems: methane via hydrogen (power to gas), as well as hydrogen generated by an electrolyzer using the exceeding electric energy from solar sources, and wind turbines still need further research efforts. Half the energy content is lost during conversion, and the overall cost of these energy storage approaches need to become economically feasible.

Compressed air storage with heat recovery and liquid air storage still require a decade to be ready for the market. Fly wheels and super capacitors might become a competitor for Li-ion batteries, as they are capable of providing further services apart from pure power services - however, the timeline for market penetration is not short. 

The use of carbonic gaseous fuels also paves the way for the chemical storage of renewable energy sources but this approach must become economically feasible first.

What areas of renewable energy will see the biggest investment in the next 5 years?
According to the International Energy Agency, renewable electricity additions over the next five years will top 700 giga-watts (GW) – more than twice Japan’s current installed power capacity. Almost two-thirds of net additions to global power capacity – that is, the amount of new capacity that is added.

A growing sense that the world has to inevitably shift away from fossil fuels, to mitigate the impact of climate changes, makes investment in renewables R&D less risky and more favourable. The most important technologies that could benefit of big investment plans are those combinations that can transform energy from the sun into either electrons, or directly upgrade simple molecules into fuels (artificial photosynthesis) continuously and efficiently. Among other solutions, solar power will increasingly dominate as it becomes obvious that it is the best energy source of the future, almost everywhere. Rapid global growth in intermittent solar energy generation, and new regulatory policies governing their interconnection with the grid, will consequently stimulate a demand for grid improvements through mainly battery energy storage systems. A correlated area of investments will be in interoperable digital communication infrastructures and cognitive software to improve performance in energy dispatching.

Learn more about emerging technologies that are impacting the future of energy at the Reinventing Energy Summit, on 25 November in London. Other speakers include Mustafa Suleyman, Co-Founder, DeepMind; Molly Webb, Founder of Energy Unlocked; Neal Coady, Head of Innovation, British Gas; Howard Porter, CEO, BEAMA;  and Chris Goodall, Author of The Switch.

Tickets are limited for this event. For more information and to register, visit the website here.

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