Battery makers are suddenly finding themselves with an explosion of new markets to service—both big and small
You can be forgiven for thinking Tesla Motors is a car company. Yes, it started out making electric cars, but only because personal transportation is the lowest-hanging fruit in tackling the global energy and emissions problem. In fact, Tesla’s core mission is to make big batteries inexpensive and practical for any number of uses.
Last spring, founder Elon Musk unveiled a new product called Powerwall, a battery pack starting at US$3,000 that’s designed to power your whole home for 10 hours or more. If you have a solar panel on your roof, it will allow you to store the electricity produced during the day and use it in the evening to cook, do the laundry and max out your electronic devices.
Even if you don’t have solar panels, you may live in one of the growing number of jurisdictions where electricity costs rise and fall at different times of the day. You could save money on your utility bill by charging your Powerwall during the wee hours and drawing from it later.
Until recently, battery systems were ill-suited to powering anything larger than a golf cart. But big batteries are now being used in applications never before conceived of, powering cars, homes and industrial cranes. Corvus Energy, a B.C. company, makes batteries that help power hybrid ships. In Japan, utilities are building battery arrays as powerful as 300 megawatts for grid storage. The market for lithium ion batteries—the technology used in Tesla’s Powerwall—is expected to exceed US$30 billion by 2020, according to Research and Markets.
What has brought big batteries to the fore is not new technology so much as the demand created by the growth in renewable energy. “You can’t have renewable energy without energy storage, because renewable energy is fundamentally intermittent,” says Linda Nazar, senior Canada research chair in solid state energy materials at the University of Waterloo.
The fact that solar energy, for example, is now cost-competitive with gas-fuelled power in many places matters little if people can’t cook dinner after the sun goes down. “It’s the realization that solar is here to stay, that both wind and solar are viable,” Nazar says, that is fuelling the need for larger, more powerful batteries.
The last significant change in battery technology came 24 years ago, when Sony commercialized the rechargeable lithium ion battery. “When it came out, it was twice as good as the next best battery on the market,” says George Crabtree, director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research in Illinois.
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