It seems as if all the Smart Grid buzz has died down lately—perhaps that’s in part because of the economic restructuring we’ve been experiencing over the last couple of years. But I don’t expect the topic to be completely abandoned—the mindset that centralized systems are superior to distributed systems is deep-rooted and tough to counteract. It could be that the “buzz” is gone, because the creation of a national smart grid now seems like a forgone conclusion: “It’s where we’re headed, so we might as well all jump on the bandwagon.”
Whether our future electrical grid will cross state lines or develop naturally within state borders (or maybe even as small clusters created to operate in line with community needs and demands), the bottom line is that in order to be successful, any smart, centralized grid will have to incorporate distributed generation as part of the master plan. This is a drum I’ve been beating a long time, but I don’t think the message had gotten old: distributed energy must play a significant role in the development of a national (or multi-state) smart grid because of its ability to streamline energy management and increase efficiency and reliability.
One particular asset of distributed systems is the energy storage component. Not only does energy storage increase efficiency, manage peak loads, and provide backup power and energy reliability, energy storage is also the key component for renewable energy integration into the smart grid.
So what’s standing in the way of an amicable relationship between the grid, energy storage, and renewable energy? One sure stumbling block is that currently our reach exceeds our grasp: we know what we want, but technology has not yet caught up to those aspirations. But that gap is diminishing every day, and within the next two decades we could all be plugging into a power system that seems fantastical by today’s standards.
The results of a recent study on electric energy storage and the grid by The Minerals, Metals, & Materials Society (TMS) sheds new light on how materials science is already making headway in the race to a better storage system. Significantly, in its announcement of the report, TMS made a point to discuss the relationship between advanced energy storage technologies and “making renewable energy, such as wind and solar, a more reliable, cost-effective, and widely utilized source of electricity in the United States.”
The study itself was created as support for both the DOE’s Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability and the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA0E). The study—which focused on the relationship between electric energy storage (EES) and the smart grid, along with additional findings of a multidisciplinary workshop put on last summer by TMS, the Sandia National Laboratories, and the Pacific Northwest Laboratory—focuses primarily on how we can bridge the gap between the development of more efficient and cost-effective EES and incorporation of renewable energy into the national grid.
The conclusion supported by both the TMS workshop and the report is that we can expect to see solutions to the smart grid/energy storage conundrum within the next two decades. The report highlights particular areas of focus including new advanced battery options, regenerative fuel cells, and advanced compressed-air energy storage. The report goes into great depth discussing the various materials and their impact on the future of energy storage; from electrochemical materials combinations, to electrolytes and electrodes, to flexible crystalline solids and nanomaterials. You can see the full report here.
So what do you think? We know that there are significant challenges related to renewable energy integration into the electrical grid because of the intermittent nature of wind and solar sources—so shouldn’t all any and all discussion of widespread renewable energy adoption include energy storage deployment? Do you think the future of distributed energy and onsite power is becoming ever more intertwined with the Smart Grid? And will widespread incorporation of renewable energy only become a reality when it can successfully be adapted to a distributed energy model that can adapt to peak demand requirements and employ an efficient energy storage system?