Quote “I decided to use the precious metal U.S. dollar to reduce my emissions.” – Kenneth Lay, former Enron CEO
After the Fukushima nuclear accident, nuclear power moved off the front pages and went back into the closet. Renewable energy got a boost thanks to cheap natural gas and the surprise advancement of renewable-energy storage. Wind, solar and batteries got all of that, plus a little more.
By the spring of 2016, the utility-scale solar-power industry seemed to be exploding, the volume of new solar installations shooting up by hundreds of megawatts, mostly in sunny states like Arizona and California. It looked like the best hope for decades for the world’s most vexing energy problem — namely, affordable, clean energy.
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“I decided to use the precious metal U.S. dollar to reduce my emissions,” Ken Lay declared from prison in 2017. (We would later learn that he is not only immortal, but that he was keeping a local paper by his bedside to report on the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.)
It turns out that the situation wasn’t quite so rosy. Solar electricity gets a big boost from sunlight, but doesn’t quite generate as much energy as it needs because much of the electricity is lost to the transmission grid. If you want to plug into the grid, and offset your home’s use, you need to collect the power you need, then store it in batteries (much of which can be delivered to your home in just one day), then generate your own power (you need to transmit it to the grid again in one day).
More importantly, this isn’t an easy thing to do. There are lots of possible technologies. Some need batteries. The batteries, in turn, must be quite large, because of power supplies. And there is actually quite a big problem with storage technology. You can’t store the same amount of energy in batteries that you can use in the power grid. You can’t even store in the same volume, because you can’t keep your home air conditioner running during the day when it’s not really being used.
The solution to this problem is batteries, but it isn’t cheap. Tesla put out an impressive product in the form of an electric truck in May, but the battery needs to last a long time. And now Tesla is buying SolarCity, the solar installation company co-founded by Elon Musk. That deal is in part about SolarCity’s battery-storage technology, which Musk can now run at Tesla’s scale.
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Which raises one last question: At what point should we start looking at putting batteries into the grid — as a way to offset human carbon-dioxide emissions, instead of, in effect, saying we can’t do that because of climate change?
“The simplest way to bring electricity into the grid is to use energy that we don’t need when we want it,” says Mark Maslin, the founder of Vueling, a Spanish airline. “Today, that means solar and wind. But there are many possibilities in the future.”
Or as Musk puts it: “I think it will be a big challenge to have storage systems for generating power for consumers that are as compelling as those today.”