People take batteries for granted, typically worrying about them only when they fail in the electronic devices they carry or in the cars they drive.
But batteries are a crucial component of many modern conveniences, from medical devices to industrial machines. They help power other, less commonly seen, facets of modern life, in particular, the electric distribution system.
Today, two-thirds of electricity production comes from fossil fuel burning, with another fifth coming from nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Yet the environmental hazards produced by these means, along with the finite supply of fuel for these technologies, means the production of power for the electric grid must be increasingly produced by sustainable energy sources.
Yet nature’s changeability means there will always be fluctuations in the energy produced by these methods at any time, with production rates that bear little relation to societal electricity demands. Developing better ways of efficiently harnessing water, solar and wind power will always be a priority, but the reliability of renewable energy sources must be supported by the increased use of batteries and storage strategies.
Batteries Can Sustain Sustainable Energy
Batteries optimize the management of electricity generated from sustainable energy sources. Because the demand for energy and its production vary significantly and independently over time, the efficient operation of the electric grid depends on adequately supplying electricity from non-primary sources to meet ever-changing demand instantly.
Power storage in batteries serves a two-fold purpose for solar energy systems. By storing energy, batteries can supplement photovoltaic cells during a peak demand period and can bolster electric output at night or at other times sunlight is blocked.
The same is true for wind power. Batteries capture and retain excess power when the wind is strong but power demand is weak, then make it available for mid-day peak periods.
Batteries should increasingly play a life-saving role when disaster strikes and the electric supply is disrupted or cut entirely. Hospital administrators have long known this and back up their facilities with adequate battery power to provide power to life-sustaining medical equipment in case of power failure.
But the necessities of life aren’t only provided for those in institutions. This was illustrated clearly to me in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I grew up in Philadelphia, and when the storm knocked out power to the East Coast, I drove there to check on my terminally ill father. When I arrived, I was struck by the thought that I had never seen the city completely dark before. Fortunately, I was able to use my expertise to turn a car battery into an electricity generator for one of his rooms, keeping it lit and warm for a few days. How many other’s lives could have been similarly comforted in the storm’s aftermath if more batteries were there to put the lights back on?
Energy Storage Technology Must Advance
Currently, lithium-ion battery technology is the most diversified and commonly used in many ways, most familiarly in the electronic devices we all have. Lithium-ion batteries are safe, failing on the order of one in 10 million. Along with the improvement of lithium-ion technology, batteries types of many different chemistries, configurations and adaptations are being developed simultaneously.
Spurring these advancements, we hope, is the decision by some national laboratories to provide open-source data on technology developments, so businesses can learn more quickly what researchers have discovered.
And the capacity and efficiency of battery storage must continue to develop because our knowledge still has not caught up to our goals. For instance, you can’t yet go into a hardware store, walk out with solar panels and a generator, install them in your modern house and cut yourself off from the power grid – the technology just isn’t there yet. But the concept is there and that is the first step in pushing the various industries to achieve that goal.
The first primitive batteries date back to early Egypt, but they remained a science curiosity until the laws of electricity were understood. Battery technology then advanced rapidly and was incorporated into the industrial products that we increasingly depend on for our everyday needs.
We know that the development of any technology can lead to unintended consequences and new safety risks, particularly when these advances are fully integrated into everyday life, and battery technology is no different. Third-party research and testing is a crucial way manufacturers can develop and build batteries safely for use in emerging applications.
Established technologies such as lithium-ion batteries are considered safe today, with a very small rate of failure, because those consequences of use were sought, identified and overcome. However, any technological advance will pose some risks in use. When they can’t be eliminated, they must be managed to help ensure society can continue to benefit from this technology.
As battery storage technologies continue to progress to capabilities only imagined today, particularly to buttress the development of sustainable energy, insuring their safe and reliable use must always be a central component of that advance.
Lead image: Green portfolio via Shutterstock