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Why energy storage needs to be sustainable

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Carlton Cummins, CTO and Co-Founder of clean tech firm Aceleron, discusses the importance of making energy storage more sustainable. 

Energy storage will undoubtedly be powering our lives in the near future so, as we build a renewable energy infrastructure to meet today’s needs, it is vital that we create a sustainable, resilient system that will stand the test of time.

The transition to renewable energy is already underway, with increasing urgency and focus being placed upon this transition thanks to the serious and obvious signs of climate change, coupled with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

A large part of this new renewable energy infrastructure will rely on energy storage. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that the technologies we use will be sustainable and built to last – first and foremost to reduce the impact on the environment but also, because replacing large-scale energy storage entirely will be an extremely costly and wasteful process.

Battery waste across the board is going to become an increasingly serious concern –if it isn’t already. The majority are made using raw materials that the Earth has a finite amount of, so making sure that we get maximum use before recycling or safely disposing of them is crucial from a sustainability point of view.

‘Layering up’ the power

Large-scale installations – for grid deployment or data centres, for example – require a resilient, constant and vast power supply, which means that investing in several ‘layers’ of power source is unavoidable. Not only is the equipment and energy itself far from cheap, but using diesel-powered generators as a backup – although reliable – will not help us on the road to net zero and will eventually become obsolete.

The direct integration of solar panels combined with energy storage not only allows for backup power via renewable energy, but excess energy – on a sunny day for instance – can be sold onto the grid, transforming this operational expense into a revenue generator, and helping to decarbonise the grid at the same time.

Many of these larger facilities already use batteries as a form of backup power, but often buy the cheapest lead-acid batteries available. There are several drawbacks to these types of batteries. They do not last long, don’t store as much energy as other batteries, can be temperamental due to their chemistry and are highly toxic when being broken down at the end-of-life stage. For a facility that needs reliability and resilience, these batteries are far from ideal.

Now is the time to research more long-lasting, high-density and safe long-term energy storage solutions.

Finding a reliable, long-life energy storage solution

Currently, the most widely referenced battery materials sit within the Lithium-ion family. Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) has no cobalt (which is costly and comes with geopolitical concerns), is amongst the least volatile, with the highest safety ratings, and benefits from one of the longest lifespans in the family, which makes it very popular for renewable energy storage – particularly for stationary applications. It has also become a serious contender for automotive batteries due to the lack of cobalt and long duration.

There has been a lot of interest in recent years in pushing the boundaries of LFP and this has resulted in a gradual improvement in energy density.

This gradual improvement in energy density is worth bearing in mind when searching for the right energy storage solution for a larger application. There are serviceable, repairable and upgradeable battery technologies available, where individual parts can be removed independently for repair or to be replaced with a newer, more energy-dense material as technology evolves over time. Replaced parts that still have use can be repurposed into second-life products, creating a circular economy – the gold standard of sustainability.

Meanwhile, the service and upgradability of such a system works to extend its lifespan which reduces its total cost of ownership and retains usefulness as energy storage technology improves. This combination of clean energy compatibility and future-proof longevity work together to make it a worthwhile investment.

This is what will provide the renewable energy infrastructures we build today with the ability to keep going for as long as possible, making the most use of the materials used to build the product in the first place.

Questions to ask when making the purchase decision

Although cost will be a significant factor, there are longer-term risks in going for the least expensive. Taking the following into consideration will make all the difference to the legacy that our generation leaves behind:

  • How will the product be serviced and supported? Loss of power may well happen from time to time; making sure there is locally based support available will be key to safeguarding continuity. This includes access to replacement parts. Having to wait while they’re shipped in from overseas for instance is a headache we can all do without.
  • What are the safety standards? There are a number of internationally recognised safety standards that must be met. As a minimum, the product needs to meet the UL 1973 (standard testing for stationary applications) and IEC 62619 and/or IEC 62620 (which means that any secondary cells have been tested for industrial application.)
  • What is the overall environmental impact? It’s important to look at the entire life cycle of the product, starting with: how much carbon was produced during the build process, what materials were used and where it will be shipped from. This is also where the expected lifespan comes into consideration – the longer it lasts, the better for the environment and budget.

We’re all under pressure to transition to 100% renewable energy, so it’s an exciting time for innovation. We now have a unique opportunity to create a clean and robust energy infrastructure for future generations to build on – so we have to get this right the first time. This means avoiding the temptation to source cheaper, short-term options based on current requirements – longevity will be the key to our success.

Carlton Cummins
Carlton Cummins
CTO and Co-Founder of Aceleron

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