What’s Current? Issue #16 – Innovations in Photovoltaic and Battery Technology

Two weeks ago (ref. WC #14), we provided a blistering critique of wind energy (bias alert, not a fan), but questioning whether or not one “renewable” technology is actually renewable is not an indictment of all renewable technologies! Last week (WC #15) we surveyed electricity storage technologies, pump storage in particular. This week, we will have a look at the other storage option, batteries, as well as the other renewable option, photovoltaics. Utility scale storage, combined with millions of electric car batteries, may very well keep up with growth of intermittent sources of electricity.

Why solar? For starters, and counterintuitively, it requires very little space. At 10 watts per square foot, you will have 250 megawatts of full sun capacity per square mile. Even on California’s winter solstice, down at a 12.5 percent yield, photovoltaics can deliver 50 gigawatts of baseload power (assuming adequate batteries or pump storage) while consuming “only” 1,600 square miles. Summer? Overcapacity galore. California’s urban footprint is 8,000 square miles, which means a significant percentage of these photovoltaics could go onto rooftops, close to existing power lines and distributed storage. In-state, on average, California currently only generates 22 gigawatts of electricity. A little solar goes a long way.

With energy, you must pick a poison. To totally electrify California’s residential and transportation sectors, at the least, would require an average of 80 gigawatts of baseload capacity. But we don’t have to go that far. We can rely on ultra-clean natural gas, ultra-efficient gasoline, encourage advanced hybrid vehicles, and maybe someday drive super fast-charging all-electric vehicles with a 600 mile range that use resource-efficient and light-weight solid state batteries (no, they’re not here yet). And we can develop more nuclear power plants.

If we replace crippling ideologies with optimism and practical innovation, Californians can achieve sustainable energy abundance.

State Rooftop Solar Crackdowns Cloud the Industry’s Future

California’s bid to electrify everything has just begun. One of the reasons consumers like solar is the subsidies and, at least to date, no obligation to help pay for the required grid upgrades. Buy solar panels, collect tax credits, and with (for example) a $20K investment save $2K (or more) per year on electricity bills (which households have to pay with earnings after taxes). What’s not to like? How many investments pay 10 percent, tax free, and are hedged against inflation? It was too good to be true, and it’s ending. How California’s policies evolve to keep the incentive intact for distributed solar is one of the biggest questions the industry faces. Pushing all solar generation to utility scale farms in remote locations that require new transmission lines could ultimately cost more.

China Holds the Keys to Battery Industry

What really happened in China when Newsom met Xi? Here’s a reality check: “The Chinese hold 80% of the world’s cobalt processing, which is used for lithium NCM batteries, along with 76% of the world’s natural graphite processing, 56% of synthetic graphite and 60% of the world’s processing capacity for lithium compounds. China also produces 50% of the world’s sodium hydroxide, which is used for sodium ion batteries.” But it isn’t as if these minerals aren’t available in the United States. Before declaring war on oil, gas, nuclear, and big hydro, while promoting abominations like offshore wind, Newsom and his cohorts should recognize and correct California’s politically contrived inability to extract the minerals and manufacture the systems we’re going to need if we’re truly headed into an electric age.

Inlyte Energy Raises US$8 Million to Develop Iron-salt Batteries

On the topic of innovation, the inimitable Elon Musk recently tweeted a cautionary bit of undeniable wisdom: “The extreme difficulty of scaling production of new technology is not well understood,” he wrote. “It’s 1000% to 10,000% harder than making a few prototypes. The machine that makes the machine is vastly harder than the machine itself.” Be that as it may, when breakthrough technology is announced, we are allowed to hope. “Iron-salt” batteries, which California’s own Inlyte Energy is developing, has “has high efficiency, long lifetime, ‘competitive’ energy density, excellent safety and an ultra-low cost.” Is this the breakthrough in stationary storage we’ve been waiting for?

DC Containers to be Cost-Competitive with China in 2025 Thanks to IRA

For the uninitiated, IRA refers to the “Inflation Reduction Act,” which in this case is set to pay $35/kWh directly to US based manufacturers. Without this benefit, the average BESS (Battery Electric Storage System) container made in the U.S. today for 2024-25 delivery costs $256/kWh, more than Chinese made systems that average $218/kWh. What a difference $35 makes. Who knows where we’ll all be in 2025, but this incentive has “led to a boom in manufacturing investments across clean energy including lithium-ion batteries and energy storage.” A good source for the latest on storage is Energy Storage News, based in London, publishing a news website and email newsletter.

How to Expand Solar Power Without Using Precious Land

Here’s a report that introduces “Agrisolar,” that is, setting solar panels a yard or two above the ground, with enough gap between the rows of panels to allow sunlight to reach crops underneath. Instead of managing weeds, graze sheep. The report claims the Topaz Solar Farm in California is already doing this on 4,700 acres. As for commercial row crops, “the panels kept plants cooler during the day and warmer at night, and held more moisture in the air. Compared to a control group, these less-stressed plants produced twice the crop of tomatoes and needed substantially less watering. Evaporation from the plants even helped to cool the panels and increase electricity output.” Really? Time to ask our farming friends if there’s a gotcha.