Battery Tech Remains the Solar Bottleneck

One of the biggest problems in solar energy remains the state of battery technology.

That’s why battery technology is such a big focus with ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s energy research program. Envia Systems and 24M were both winners in the latest round of grants, which aim to spur additional private sector investment. IBM is hot enough on the market that they’re going ahead despite losing-out on the government money.

Meanwhile consumers are stuck with the kinds of batteries found in their cars or the UPS systems under their desktops. A lead acid Absorbed Glass Battery suitable for a home solar installation costs $340 (plus shipping) at Amazon,, discharges quickly and doesn’t tolerate overcharging. It’s not a real storage solution.

Still, the market is strong enough that Lithium Ion technology, designed for cars like the Chevy Volt, could make their way into these markets. Dana Holding Corp. (no relation) is supplying these kinds of batteries for the Volt. Traders are already speculating on lithium, anticipating a run-up in demand.

The market for batteries on small solar installations is strong enough that old-line battery wholesalers like Trojan Battery are re-working their Web sites and calling themselves green.

This is important from the point of view of channel growth. The bigger and more efficient the channel for battery breakthroughs, the faster those breakthroughs can get to market.

The main point I want to make is that these markets buttress one another. Even if electric cars are silly from an environmental perspective (and right now they are, given the status of the grid, battery weight, and costs) they’re a great draw for battery technology enthusiasts.

Batteries in the same class are going to back up home solar installations, channels are being developed, research is moving ahead, and when the breakthroughs come they will get to consumers quickly.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog,, in 2007.

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