Article

The Need for Continued Innovation in Solar, Wind, and Energy Storage

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  • Council on Foreign Relations
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Abstract

Varun Sivaram is the Philip D. Reed fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University, and a member of the energy and environment advisory boards at Stanford University. He is the author of the book, Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet (MIT University Press, 2018) and the editor of the book, Digital Decarbonization: Promoting Clean Energy Systems Through Digital Innovations (CFR Press, 2018). Forbes named him one of its 30 under 30 in law and policy, and Grist named him one of the top 50 leaders in sustainability. John Dabiri is Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, senior fellow in the Precourt Institute for Energy, and a MacArthur Fellow. His research focuses on science and technology at the intersection of fluid mechanics, energy and environment, and biology. For his research in bio-inspired wind energy, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine listed him among its Technology Innovators, and MIT Technology Review magazine named him one of its 35 innovators under 35. David M. Hart is professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, co-chair of the Innovation Policy Forum at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, and senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. He co-authored the April 2018 MIT Energy Innovation working paper Energy Storage for the Grid: Policy Options for Sustaining Innovation with William B. Bonvillian and Nathaniel Austin. Solar energy, wind energy, and battery energy storage are enjoying rapid commercial uptake. However, in each case, a single dominant technological design has emerged: silicon solar photovoltaic panels, horizontal-axis wind turbines, and lithium-ion batteries. Private industry is presently scaling up these dominant designs, while emerging technologies struggle to achieve commercial traction. Such technological lock-in could impede a clean energy transition. Farsighted public policy will be crucial to mitigating lock-in, for example by boosting funding for research, development, and demonstration of next-generation technologies.

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1 This paper was initially prepared for an expert workshop on energy storage hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) on December 7-8, 2017. The electric power sector must be transformed in the twenty-first century. The threat of climate change, and the difficulty of reducing carbon emissions from other sources, means that power sector emissions must fall to near zero. Grid-scale energy storage has the potential to make this challenging transformation easier, quicker, and cheaper than it would be otherwise. A wide array of possibilities that could realize this potential have been put forward by the science and technology community. Grid-scale storage has become a major focus for public research and development (R&D) investment around the world. The public sector has also played a crucial role in moving some of these ideas from the laboratory into practice. In the United States, federal investments pushed storage technologies forward in the early 2010s, and state and regional initiatives provided a pull as the federal push slackened in the last few years. The shift from federal push policies to regional and state pull policies coincided with the consolidation of the grid-scale energy storage market around lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. This technology now accounts for more than 90% of the global and domestic markets. It is relatively mature, compared to the battery alternatives, and benefits from large-scale use in electronics and, more recently, electric vehicles (EVs). These qualities have enabled rapid price-cutting for grid-scale applications. Most projections suggest that Li-ion batteries will dominate the grid-scale market as that market grows rapidly in the coming years. This emerging situation runs the risk of technology "lock-in," a characteristic pattern in the history of technology in which one "dominant design" drives out alternatives that would perform the same function. Lock-in may be beneficial because it accelerates process innovation and drives down costs for the dominant technology, which in turn expands adoption. In the case of energy storage, Li-ion batteries have begun to break through an older "legacy sector" paradigm that has hindered innovation in the electric power sector. What is needed now, in this interpretation, is to focus innovative effort on the dominant design and use it to transform the entire sector. An alternative interpretation is that the risks of technology lock-in in grid-scale energy storage outweigh the benefits. One risk is excessive market concentration, which commonly follows the establishment of a dominant design. East Asian producers, notably recent Chinese entrants 1 This paper was initially prepared for an expert workshop on energy storage hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) on December 7-8, 2017. The authors thank the participants for their comments during the workshop and on the initial draft of the paper. Thanks also to Martha Broad and Frank O'Sullivan of MITEI for sharing their insights and providing support for the workshop. The workshop did not seek a consensus, and the authors are solely responsible for the content of this paper. 2 backed by government policies, are the most likely to consolidate control, especially if supply runs ahead of demand for an extended period. An even more worrisome risk is that innovations that could improve on the dominant design become "stranded" and never fully mature. Li-ion batteries are well-suited to transportation applications, but not necessarily ideal for the grid. Lock-in on Li-ion batteries is already making it difficult for producers of alternative storage technologies to survive, much less continue to innovate and scale up. Public policy-makers should take action to build on the opportunities and mitigate the risks identified by these two interpretations of the near future of grid-scale energy storage. The objectives of such action should include growing the grid-scale energy storage market overall, creating niches within the market in which a range of technologies have opportunities to establish their cost and value characteristics, and ensuring that R&D continues in order to expand the portfolio of technology options. The evolving roles of the states, regions, and federal government create new opportunities to realize these objectives, but also complicate policy development and implementation. We argue that the federal government should expand funding for R&D, create tax incentives that focus on emerging technologies, support national and international processes that will lead to open standards, and counter unfair international trade practices. Policies that make sense for the states as well as the federal government include expanding support for demonstration projects and early deployment and providing financial assistance to help grid-scale energy storage hardware innovators overcome barriers to scaling up. Important state policy options to accelerate grid-scale energy storage innovation include setting smart and ambitious overall targets for deployment while also setting subtargets that are reserved for alternatives to Li-ion batteries. States along with regional organizations, including regional transmission organizations (RTOs) as well as groupings of states, should revise their rules so that storage assets can participate fully in electricity markets, implement regulations that allow storage asset owners to receive compensation through multiple value streams, explore the development of market signals that reward the unique performance characteristics of alternatives to Li-ion batteries, oversee integrated resource plans and approve rate designs that encourage storage innovation and deployment, establish regional storage innovation and purchasing consortia, and form expert advisory systems to stay informed about storage technology options.
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Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2017, excerpt from Energy Technology Perspectives
Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2017, excerpt from Energy Technology Perspectives 2017, International Energy Agency, June 2017. http://www.iea.org/ publications/freepublications/publication/ TrackingCleanEnergyProgress2017.pdf.
Global weighted average levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of onshore wind declined from 0.092 USD/kWh in 2007 to 0.051 USD/ kWh in 2017, or by 45%
Global weighted average levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of onshore wind declined from 0.092 USD/kWh in 2007 to 0.051 USD/ kWh in 2017, or by 45%, International Renewable Energy Agency (2018)
A new approach to wind energy: opportunities and challenges
  • J O Dabiri
  • J R Greer
  • J R Koseff
  • P Moin
  • J Peng
Dabiri, J.O., Greer, J.R., Koseff, J.R., Moin, P., and Peng, J. (2015). A new approach to wind energy: opportunities and challenges. Am. Inst. Phys. Conf. Proc. 1652, 51.
Foundations for the future
Editorial. (2016). Foundations for the future. Nat. Energy 1, 16147. http://www.nature. com/articles/nenergy2016147.