Iron batteries could transform electrical grids
Another week, another battery breakthrough. University labs and startup companies seem to announce a new battery technology every week, if not every day, and yet the real advances in battery storage have been agonizingly slow. That’s because efforts to squeeze in all the electrons possible often run into a set of problems. Some batteries are almost infinitely reusable, but can’t hold a lot of power. Some batteries are enormously powerful, but can only be cycled a few times before they begin to break down. Some batteries have problems with heat, or cold, that make them impractical in many situations.
The batteries that are currently used in electric vehicles—using lithium, nickel, and generally some (though increasingly less) cobalt, are considerably better than the best that were available a decade ago, but they are also models of compromise, where power, size, usable life, weight, stability, and cost are all factors in finding something that can move a car or truck down the road.
Many would-be battery barons who hope to find a new path to storing energy end up running afoul of some part of that equation, but the startup featured this week in The Wall Street Journal is just pitching out two factors entirely: size and weight. That’s because Form Energy Inc. doesn’t care if their batteries find a home in EVs. They’re going for something bigger. They’re going for taking fossil fuels out of the electrical grid.
Right now, coal and natural gas are often counted on to provide the primary source of power for many areas, thanks to concerns over the reliability of solar and wind. Some of those concerns are legitimate. After all, solar panels aren’t doing a lot for the grid at night. Those concerns are also driven in part by an effective propaganda effort from fossil fuel companies, as discussed above.
But Form Energy is working on batteries that use an extraordinarily common element—iron—to create energy storage that is bulky, and heavy, but less than half the cost, in terms of killowatt-hour, of the lithium cells that are not only available in vehicles, but used in the biggest battery storage units. Tesla has been delivering lithium-based storage around the world, and will happily sell you one a “megapack” via its website—7.6 megawatts of storage for $10 million. Though you’ll have to wait a couple of years for delivery at this point, because demand is high.
If Form Energy can deliver on the price they’re talking about, that same 7.6 megawatt-hours of power would run just $152,000 using their new technology (though it’s worth noting that the Tesla package is more than just raw batteries, but also contains all the power management, charging systems, and necessary hookups). By dropping the level of storage cost to below $20 per kilowatt-hour, Form is reaching a point where the total cost of a renewable system—both the wind or solar installation and the batteries necessary to provide power over an extended period when sun or wind aren’t cooperating—is enough to undercut any remaining need for fossil fuels on the grid.
Form isn’t the only one looking at iron as a basis for batteries. ESS has been deploying such batteries for years, through not quite so cheap or efficient as what Form is promising. In addition, iron batteries aren’t the only solution for this problem. Other companies are coming online with systems that store energy through physical means, such as lifting materials or putting inert gas under pressure. Just like all those would-be battery techs in EVs, all of them are yet to really face the marketplace and determine if they can really meet the promised price or performance.
But so far, several of these companies look promising, and as the rapid replacement of coal with natural gas has demonstrated over the last decade, the energy grid can change much more rapidly than its size and cost might suggest.
The climate crisis is threatening traditional nuclear power
Nuclear power does not generate greenhouse gases. Nuclear plants also put less radioactive elements into the environment, and cause many fewer deaths, than do power plants using fossil fuels. As a result, nuclear power has gained a second look from many governments, and the support of advocates who also consider themselves environmentalists.
Thanks to a new generation of plants on drawing boards around the world, nuclear may end up filling a significant portion of the gap created as fossil fuel plants vanish from the globe. Whether it’s thorium-based plants, or other forms of “intrinsically safe” reactors, new nuclear power may be staging a comeback.
However, at the same time the climate crisis is creating an opportunity for those working on the next generation of nuclear plants, it’s also creating a different kind of challenge for existing nuclear facilities. As a new study at Nature shows, the climate crisis is making nuclear power less reliable, and that effect is growing worse over time. Some of the issues may also extend to new facilities, as well as to any other form of electricity that counts on easy access to water as part of the power cycle.
That’s because droughts and heatwaves can leave the plants without access to the water they use in cooling, as well as in electrical production. France is just one of the locations where low river levels have resulted in nuclear plants going offline in times of high demand.
In the western United States, both steam-based power plants of all sorts and hydroelectric generation is currently threatened by record low water levels. With Lake Meade at record lows, and Lake Powell following suit, lesser reservoirs are already being drained to keep water levels in the two massive facilities at a point where power can be generated. For now.
In addition, because the water used for cooling nuclear plants re-enters streams and lakes warmer than went it went in, it can generate hot spots that are deadly to plants, fish, and other wildlife. With surface water temperatures warming, the damage created by those hot spots is increasing.
As the climate crisis spreads drought, heat, and increased weather variability, siting any plant that requires access to water becomes more difficult. Some nuclear plants may soon be sidelined expressly because of their need for more water access. Nuclear may form a valuable part of the energy picture going forward, but it’s unlikely that those nuclear plants will resemble those used today.
The Middle East is facing huge power outages
When thinking about the Middle East, one thing that might be an easy assumption is: There’s no problem with power. After all, the region is sitting on top of the world’s largest accumulation of rotten dinosaur juice (and yes, I know it’s not really dinosaurs). How could they possibly be short of power?
To begin with, few countries around the world, including in the Middle East, actually generate a significant amount of power by burning oil. That’s because oil is pricey. It’s always been cheaper to sell the oil, and either import coal or build a nuclear plant. But that’s not the root of the problem. The problem is that it’s also cheaper to under-build the grid, so that it’s unprepared for crisis situations. In other words—just like Texas. That’s true of even several nations that haven’t, like Lebanon, been through a multi-decade civil war, or, like Iraq, been invaded and battered from both within and without.
In many areas of the Middle East, the official grid is also supplemented by a entrepreneurial layer of generators, and the official power distribution system has frayed into a disorganized—and very, very unsafe—tangle of wires running off in all directions. That system has provided power to millions of residents, and also helped to paper over the shortages of the large-scale grid. It’s a problem that afflicts cities in many areas of the world. But in the Middle East, it’s just … hotter.
And in the face of record heat, this under-built, overly-patched system is falling apart.
As The Washington Post reports, a combination of climate crisis and economic disaster means that most of Lebanon has gone from what was already a scant three hours a day of electricity to a scant nothing. The official grid is dead. Generators are the only game in town.
Iraq, which had been buying electricity on transmission lines from Iran—a not-so-great situation considering … everything—hasn’t been able to pay its national electric bill. So the nation’s power has been cut to zero, With the available power generation in the country vastly below what’s necessary, both homes and businesses are turning to generators.
Why don’t these countries use oil to generate electricity? Because it’s much more expensive than other methods. What are people in these countries being forced to do because the electrical grids are failing? Generate electricity from oil. The result isn’t just an unreliable, unsafe, highly polluting source of power, it’s a very expensive source of power. But people are willing to pay that price because there’s no alternative. The official grids, which were already insufficient, have absolutely wilted in the heat.
And just because power isn’t flowing from Iran to Iraq doesn’t mean that Iraq has megawatts to spare.
In a cellphone video that went viral this month, an ICU doctor in Tehran claimed that patients in a critical care unit had died when power was cut to ventilators as a result of the outages. “We have encountered such scenes many times,” the doctor, Mohamadreza Hashemian, wrote in a social media post that was quoted by Iranian news outlets.
In the video, doctors use flashlights to navigate a mostly dark hospital lit by a few emergency lights and a faint glow from some monitors.