In this technological age, many individuals are able to infer what is meant by “big batteries,” these being the up-scaled version of the power packs found in most common technology, including cell-phones and laptops. Yet, to clarify, big batteries are large lithium-ion based power pack cells, intended to store energy for long periods of time. These batteries have the potential to serve a bridging function between a renewable energy source, like solar panels or wind turbines, and main power supplies. The unique ability of these batteries to store energy produced through renewable sources would allow energy harvested to be used when desired, rather than just when produced.
A seemingly simple idea, these big batteries are being proposed as the solution to the issue that most renewable energy sources currently face: reliable energy storage. Currently, in Southern California, the AES Corporation is nearing the completion of constructing three extensive big battery energy facilities. This project is both an investment valued at over two billion dollars and the first large-scale pilot of big battery technology. The motive behind the Public Policy Institute of California commissioning such a large scale project in the current times—especially a project contingent on a product that has never before been proven to function reliably on an industrial scale—is that the potential benefits of big batteries far outweigh the costs and risks.
Notably, the success of this project would alleviate the alarming amount of pressure currently imposed on Southern California’s power grid. This pressure is the result of a lack of appropriate repairs following a devastating natural gas leakin the fall of 2015. Due to the incessant demand for power in the region, the pipelines, which were the original source of the leak, are still being used; the health of residents is still being deleteriously affected almost two years after the original leak.
The South California Big Batteries project would enable energy from sunlight, which is to be stored as electric power for use throughout the evening and night. It is reported that the current proposed plan will result in a big battery system with the capacity to power about 20,000 homes for four hours.
However, the South California Big Battery project is not without risks. In fact, these models have not ever been successfully implemented in an industrial setting. Even more alarmingly, the most similar instance of Big Batteries being used as a component of renewable energy storage was in Oahu, Hawaii, and this project combusted in 2012.
Overall, the current project underway in Southern California has the potential to revolutionize the way that renewable energy is currently regarded. The success of this project would allow renewable energy to be a major contributor to global electrical power, vastly reducing the current amounts of pollution and destruction in this technological age. However, the risks involved in establishing such a project on this scale are worrisome and, many are suggesting, all but imminent.
These risks include: combustion of the Big Battery centers and subsequent destruction of the surrounding areas; significant damage to the Southern California power grid; and possibly even environmental damage akin to that which was incurred because of the 2015 natural gas leak in the same region. Hence, this Big Battery project is the center of much controversy.
Dr. Blane Baker, of the William Jewell College Physics Department, iterated that the Big Battery project has huge potential, though he worries that the lack of effective prototyping has rendered this model as unnecessarily risky. Furthermore, Baker is concerned about the decision to use a lithium-ion battery core, citing the tendency of these batteries to combust violently. He suggested that a more appropriate model may be one akin to the BoB Battery installed in Texas in 2010. Comparable to the Big Battery project in Calif., the BoB battery serves as a backup power supply for the town Presidio, Texas. This battery has the capacity to store four megaWatts of power for up to eight hours, energy sufficient to power approximately 700 homes. However, in contrast with the Big Battery Project, the BoB battery operates with a sodium sulfur core, which is reportedly cheaper, safer, and more durable than an otherwise identical lithium-ion model.
The allure of a lithium-ion battery lies in its impressive efficiency, and its ability to store greater amounts of power for longer periods of time. Hence, in this instance, the AES corporation in Southern California has opted for efficiency over safety and profit over durability.
Despite the risks of this project, one cannot help but wonder at the possibility of it succeeding. Imagine, the entire paradigm currently employed to disregard renewable energy would be shifted; fossil fuels would become obsolete in the not-so-distant future; worldwide, the use of chemicals that rapidly accelerate the effects of climate change could be reduced.
In Kansas City alone, we are utilizing renewable energy through a variety of applications. Various companies, including Kansas City Power and Light [KCP&L], have invested in solar energy, even partnering with the KC Royals to install solar panels on their stadium roof. Further, in Kansas City alone, over 6,000 jobs exist in the field of renewable energy, and this number has been increasing exponentially throughout the last decade. Additionally, this field is considered to be one of the most diverse employment fields in Missouri.
Despite these developments in the clean energy sector, over 80 percent of energy consumed in Kansas City is produced through the combustion of fossil fuels, namely coal burning. Officials within Kansas City recognize the environmental negligence implied through this reality and have hence registered the city as one of ten cities nation-wide to participate in the City Energy Project, a three year initiative by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The focus of this initiative being to promote and improve energy efficiency and clean energy within urban and industrial settings.
If the Southern California Big Batteries project succeeds and is endorsed by national climate protection agencies, it is likely that these devices will be installed nationwide. However, before this situation becomes a reality, the Big Batteries being installed in Southern California will have to demonstrate their functions as technological breakthroughs in the field of renewable energy. Though it may be against the odds, the success of these batteries could act as a catalyst in global renewable energy usage.
Photo by Brett Jackson.