7. Better Batteries
Solar and wind power have seemingly limitless potential, but since they're intermittent sources of energy, they need to be stored. That’s why there’s a race to build a better battery. The lithium-ion standard bearer, introduced by Sony two-plus decades ago for personal electronics, can be pricey—especially for large uses—and flammable. So every few weeks comes an announcement of a new idea.
Harvard researchers unveiled a flow battery made with cheap, non-toxic, high-performance materials that they say won’t catch fire. “It is a huge step forward. It opens this up for anyone to use,” says Michael Aziz, Harvard University engineering professor and co-author of a study in the journal Science. (Find out how this flow battery works.) Also this year, MIT and DOE announced promising advances that could make batteries better and cheaper.
The battery push has gone beyond the lab. In May, Tesla’s Musk unveiled battery products that he plans to mass-produce in his $5 billion Gigafactory in Nevada. The products include the sleek, mountable Powerwall unit that SolarCity, a company he chairs, is putting in homes. This month, in the first such offering from a U.S. utility, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power began selling or leasing the Powerwall to customers. (Here are five reasons this battery is a big deal.)
Other companies are challenging Musk. Pittsburgh-based Aquion Energy, a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University, began selling its saltwater battery stacks last year. German storage developer Sonnen said this month that it’s ramping up production of its lithium-ion battery at its facility in San Jose, California, for use in U.S. homes.
Symbiosis is popular in nature but it is becoming increasingly clear that it also has a role to play in sustaining the pace of technological innovation. Renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar are progressing rapidly but they will always suffer from intermittency without corresponding innovation in storage for both consumer and industrial uses. This has been painfully slow to follow because it takes time for capital invested in research to deliver results and yet the signs are promising that the next really big enabler with occur among chemical companies.
At this time of year it is often a worthy exercise to look ahead with optimism toward what is likely to be a bright future but it is also worth considering what has done worst. In the energy sector there is perhaps no more benighted fuel than coal with regulatory, environmental and demand obstacles that need to be overcome. The sector has diminished to a considerably smaller number of companies than existed only a couple of years ago and many are priced as if coal use is going to evaporate entirely this year.
Consol Energy is now the USA’s largest coal miner by market cap and has held up better than other companies not least because it also has natural gas. The share has at least lost downward momentum following an accelerated decline and a sustained move to new lows would be required to question potential for a reversionary rally.
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