The Catch-22 of Energy Storage

Pick up a research paper on battery technology, fuel cells, energy storage technologies or any of the advanced materials science used in these fields, and you will likely find somewhere in the introductory paragraphs a throwaway line about its application to the storage of renewable energy.  Energy storage makes sense for enabling a transition away from fossil fuels to more intermittent sources like wind and solar, and the storage problem presents a meaningful challenge for chemists and materials scientists… Or does it?

Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT, holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry, and is an experienced industrial R&D leader.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorganFirst published in Chemistry in Australia.

Several recent analyses of the inputs to our energy systems indicate that, against expectations, energy storage cannot solve the problem of intermittency of wind or solar power.  Not for reasons of technical performance, cost, or storage capacity, but for something more intractable: there is not enough surplus energy left over after construction of the generators and the storage system to power our present civilization.

The problem is analysed in an important paper by Weißbach et al.1 in terms of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI – the ratio of the energy produced over the life of a power plant to the energy that was required to build it.  It takes energy to make a power plant – to manufacture its components, mine the fuel, and so on.  The power plant needs to make at least this much energy to break even.  A break-even powerplant has an EROEI of 1.  But such a plant would pointless, as there is no energy surplus to do the useful things we use energy for.

There is a minimum EROEI, greater than 1, that is required for an energy source to be able to run society.  An energy system must produce a surplus large enough to sustain things like food production, hospitals, and universities to train the engineers to build the plant, transport, construction, and all the elements of the civilization in which it is embedded.

For countries like the US and Germany, Weißbach et al. estimate this minimum viable EROEI to be about 7.  An energy source with lower EROEI cannot sustain a society at those levels of complexity, structured along similar lines.  If we are to transform our energy system, in particular to one without climate impacts, we need to pay close attention to the EROEI of the end result.

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Nuclear energy: the debate Australia has to have

On July 28, I (Barry Brook) was an invited participant in a public discussion and Q&A session on the future of nuclear energy for electricity generation in Australia. It was organised and hosted by the Inspiring Australia initiative, and ran at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The moderator (who did an excellent job) was ABC radio 666 presenter Genevieve Jacobs. The two other panel members were Prof. Ken Baldwin (ANU) and Ian Hore-Lacy from the World Nuclear Association (who writes and maintains their excellent information archive).

Below is the video of the event — a high-quality professional recording.

The session starts with about 30 minutes of direct discussion among the panellists, led by the moderator. This is followed by an hour of Q&A with the audience — over a dozen questions covered overall I think, typically with in-depth answers by multiple participants.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you have feedback or further questions, please comment below! (I know that quite a few regular commenters from BNC were in the audience, because they either asked questions or came and spoke to me after the event).


Battery electric vehicles in Australia

Graham Palmer, author of the recent book “Energy in Australia: Peak oil, solar power and Asia’s economic growth” (reviewed on BNC here), has just done an excellent ABC radio presentation on Robyn William’s “Ockham’s Razor” show.  This is Robyn’s intro:

Robyn Williams: Now I wasn’t in the room at the time, but it is claimed that George W Bush once complained about the Arabs: “Why is our oil under their sand?” Well, whether he said it or not, the question has become even more stark as the Middle East gets even more fractious. Would you really want to depend much longer on secure oil supplies from the region? As for coal: As more and more coal mines close in Australia and disasters recur from China to Turkey, you’d have to ask whether that technology is also about to hit the ashcan of history. Perhaps, but not yet, says Graham Palmer in Melbourne. He’s an engineer and has done research in the field of energy futures. And by the way, bear in mind that PV stands for photovoltaic.

You can download the audio and read the transcript (with supporting references) here.

But there’s more! Graham has just written a new analysis on electric vehicles for BNC. On this topic we can find opinions ranging from “EVs are great because they’ll mop up daytime solar!” through to “EVs are great because you can charge them cheaply on overnight off peak!”. Confusion reigns…

The take-up of electric vehicles in Australia – rethinking the battery charging model

Graham Palmer, July 2014

Between 2007 and 2013, the global motor car fleet grew by 3.6% annually, reaching 1.1 billion [1], but during the same period, the annual growth of crude oil including total liquids averaged only 0.9% [2]. Driven by demand in China, but also Russia, India, and Brazil, the growth is projected to continue indefinitely [3], but given a crude oil price of around USD$100 bbl, we have already entered a prolonged period of inelastic supply, and regardless, capital investment in the oil supply industry has tripled in the past 10 years [4].

It is obvious that there simply isn’t the ready supply of conventional liquids to accommodate the growth of motorcars. Further, any discussion of the sustainability of motorcars should encompass a broader discussion of urban planning [5], public transport, and a re-examination of the travel task [6]. Comprehensive assessments of the life-cycle analysis of EVs shows that they can be better than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, but still a long way from “sustainable” [7,8]. But whether we like it or not, the egg has been scrambled, and motorcars will continue to be the primary mode of transport in Australia for the foreseeable future.

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The clock is ticking on the drive for sustainable energy

The below is a (short) chapter I wrote for the recent book “The Curious Country“, published by the Australian Office of the Chief Scientist.

This excellent and well-illustrated book can be downloaded for free here. The blurb:

During 2013, The Office of the Chief Scientist asked Australians what they would like to know more about; what scientific issues concern them and what discoveries inspire them.

The results shaped this book – a collection of essays about the scientific issues affecting Australians today.

The Curious Country is available as a free download from ANU E Press. It is currently available as a pdf, so can be downloaded and read on your e-book reader, tablet, computer or mobile phone

POWERING THE FUTURE – The clock is ticking on the drive for sustainable energy

(Download the PDF for this article and the other energy-related chapters, here)

ACCESS to cheap and reliable energy has underpinned Australia’s development for decades. Fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — provided the concentrated energy sources required to build our infrastructural, industrial and service enterprises. Yet it’s now clear this dependence on carbon-intensive fuels was a Faustian bargain and the devil’s due, because the long-run environmental and health costs of fossil fuels seem likely to outweigh the short-term benefits.

In the coming decades, Australia must tackle the threats of dangerous climate change and future bottlenecks in conventional liquid-fuel supply, while also meeting people’s aspirations for ongoing increases in quality of life – all without compromising long-term environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. Fortunately, there are science and technology innovations that Australia could leverage to meet these goals.

Seeking competitive alternatives to coal

How can Australia shift away from coal dependence and transition to competitive, low-carbon alternatives, and what role will science and engineering play in making it happen? To answer these questions, a key focus must be on electricity generation technologies — electricity is a particularly convenient and flexible ‘energy carrier’— and to consider the key risks and advantages with the alternative energy sources that will compete with fossil-fuel power.

In 2012, the majority of Australia’s electricity was generated by burning black and brown coal (75 per cent), with smaller contributions from natural gas (13 per cent), hydroelectric dams (8 per cent) and other renewables (4 per cent). The nation’s installed capacity now totals over 50 gigawatts of power generation potential, with stationary energy production currently resulting in the annual release of 285 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 52 per cent of our total emissions.


Clearly, the non-electric energy-replacement problem for Australia would also need to consider transportation and agricultural fuel demands. In a world beyond oil for liquid fuels, we will need to eventually ‘electrify’ most operations: using batteries, using heat from power plants to manufacture hydrogen from water, and by deriving synthetic fuels such as ammonia or methanol.

Under ‘business as usual’ forecasts produced by Government energy analysts, electricity use in Australia is expected to grow by 60 to 100 per cent through to 2050 with hundreds of billions of dollars of investment needed in generation and transmission infrastructure just to keep pace with escalating demand and to replace old, worn out power plants and transmission infrastructure. At the same time carbon dioxide emissions must be cut by 80 per cent to mitigate climate-change impacts, via some combination of enhanced energy conservation and new supply from clean energy sources.

An uncertain mix of future options

Although there are a huge number of potential energy options now being developed that might one day replace coal in Australia not all alternatives are equally likely.

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Entering Space – Ultimate Energy Resources?

I recently read a book called ‘Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization‘, by Robert Zubrin. I’ve been covering a lot of this literature as I think it may have a lot to tell us about how to best tackle a slew of 21st century problems in planetary resource management.

Zubrin’s work examines, using an evidence-based approach, the prospects and challenges humanity will face in setting up colonies on other planets, moons and minor bodies of the solar system, and eventually, in expanding to interstellar realms. I’ll explore many of these ideas in future posts, but for now, I wanted to kick up some discussion on two tables Zubrin presents in Chapter 8, on sources of energy.

First, he does a simple projection of future human energy use through to the year 2200. The presumption is that as our reliance on energy-intensive technology continues to grow, our demand will skyrocket — especially if we pursue extraterrestrial settlement and geoengineering.

He then shows where the largest potential energy resources lie…

As background, here is a quote from the accompanying text  (sourced here, along with many other good quotes — scroll down to the end to see his rebuttal of Michio Kaku!):

To glimpse the probable nature of the human condition a century hence, it is first necessary for us to look at the trends of the past. The history of humanity’s technological advance can be written as a history of ever-increasing energy utilization. If we consider the energy consumed not only in daily life but in transportation and the production of industrial and agricultural goods, then Americans in the electrified 1990s use approximately three times as much energy per capita as their predecessors of the steam and gaslight 1890s, who in turn had nearly triple the per-capita energy consumption of those of pre-industrial 1790s.

Some have decried this trend as a direct threat to the world’s resources, but the fact of the matter is that such rising levels of energy consumption have historically correlated rather directly with rising living standards and, if we compare living standards and per-capita energy consumption of the advanced sector nations with those of the impoverished Third World, continue to do so today. This relationship between energy consumption and the wealth of nations will place extreme demands on our current set of available resources. In the first place, simply to raise the entire present world population to current American living standards (and in a world of global communications it is doubtful that any other arrangement will be acceptable in the long run) would require increasing global energy consumption at least ten times. However, world population is increasing, and while global industrialization is slowing this trend, it is likely that terrestrial population levels will at least triple before they stabilize. Finally, current American living standards and technology utilization are hardly likely to be the ultimate (after all, even in the late twentieth-century America, there is still plenty of poverty) and will be no more acceptable to our descendants a century hence than those of a century ago are to us. All in all, it is clear that the exponential rise in humanity’s energy utilization will continue.

In 1998, humanity mustered about 14 watts of power (1 terawatt, TW, equals 1 million megawatts, MW, of power). At the current 2.6 percent rate of growth we will be using nearly 200 TW by the year 2100. The total anticipated power utilization and the cumulative energy used (starting in 1998) is given in Table 8.1. By way of comparison, the total known or estimated energy resources are given in Table 8.2.


I ought to point out that I, and others, have used different assumptions about the availability of uranium in sea water and its recharge rate due to riverbed erosion, to come up with a more optimistic for nuclear fission with full fuel recycling (i.e., the possibility of supplying about 30 TW years, per year, for a billion years or more). But the main point about the massive resources and almost unlimited expansion potential available to Deuterium-He3 fusion, if we can close out this research and access the fuel, is hard to ignore.

The broader question is, how constrained is our thinking in regards to ultimate energy resources? Should humanity be planning to significantly and permanently extend our reach into space  now — BEFORE we manage to solve all of our myriad Earthly sustainability problems, in the hope that this will supply us with the very tools needed to deliver adequate solutions? Food for thought.

I personally think that in terms of civilization building, we can ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’, and really ought to be hedging our bets (to mix metaphors)…


NOTE:  In line with the new 2014 approach to BNC, this is the first in a series of short “Aside” blog posts (1-2 a week) that are focused on single, relatively simple points, with the goal of stirring informed discussion and debate. The plan is for these Asides to be regular features of the site, with the longer and more elaborate information/education posts (written mostly by the stable of regular BNC guest posters) cropping up every once in a while (roughly 1-2 per month).