US banks on Flow Batteries for Rapid Decarbonization

By Tina Casey for Clean Technica

Oh the irony, it burns. Former President Trump touted himself as the saviour of US coal miners, but all throughout his tenure, the US Department of Energy was setting the stage for global decarbonization. In the latest illustration of the deep state at work, DOE has deployed the 2020 Energy Storage Grand Challenge to pump $20 million into scaling up the nation’s flow battery manufacturing and supply chain.

Flow Batteries & The Energy Storage Grand Challenge

The Energy Storage Grand Challenge launched with $153 million in funding back in January 2020, just a few weeks after Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette was tapped to helm the agency. Apparently, Brouillette did not get the memo about saving coal jobs, because he enthusiastically announced the new $153 million battery initiative at one of the most high-profile media events in technology circles, CES 2020 in Las Vegas.

DOE billed the Energy Storage Challenge as “a comprehensive program to accelerate the development, commercialization, and utilization of next-generation energy storage technologies and sustain American global leadership in energy storage.”

Left unsaid was the part where energy storage kills coal, gas, and oil by suctioning more wind and solar power into the nation’s power generation landscape.

Brouillette’s turn at the wheel ended when President Biden took office, but the Energy Storage Grand Challenge has continued to ripple seamlessly through the agency under the stewardship of newly minted Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm.

Evidently, flow batteries made the cut. Drawing from a roadmap developed through the Energy Storage Challenge, DOE is determined to scale up flow battery manufacturing. It announced the new $20 million flow battery initiative last week through its Advanced Manufacturing Office.

“To help the U.S. lead the way in developing and supplying energy storage, the DOE launched the Energy Storage Grand Challenge (ESGC) and released the ESGC Roadmap, informed by feedback and comments from the energy storage community,” DOE explained, adding that “the Department is deploying its extensive resources and expertise to address the technology development, commercialization, manufacturing, valuation, and workforce challenges to position the U.S. for global leadership in energy storage technologies of the future.”

“By investing in American-made, clean-energy technologies, the Department of Energy is harnessing our country’s innovative spirit to build an equitable and sustainable energy system,” Granholm emphasized.

US DOE Hearts Flow Batteries For Grid-Scale Energy Storage

The technology behind flow batteries is simple. When two specially formulated liquids flow adjacent to each other, they generate electricity. The rest is merely a matter of tanks, pumps, and a membrane to keep the two liquids separated (or not, as the case may be).

Electric vehicle stakeholders were eyeballing flow batteries at one point, but the main target is stationary energy storage.

As for why lithium-ion batteries don’t do the trick, they do. They just don’t do enough to facilitate rapid decarbonization. Lithium-ion energy storage is sufficient for many use cases, but DOE is aiming for scale and duration.

For all the hoopla over the latest lithium-ion technology, good old-fashioned pumped hydropower still provides 97% of storage capacity in the US today. New battery technology is needed in order to meet the growing demand.

To put some perspective on the challenge of finding another bulk storage technology outside of pumped hydro, as of 2018 the US barely scraped 870 megawatt-hours in battery-type capacity. DOE projects that the demand for battery energy storage (meaning outside of pumped hydro) will top 300 gigawatt-hours by 2030.

DOE has been pouring R&D dollars into all kinds of bulk systems, and it is especially excited about flow batteries.

“The unique architecture of flow batteries, consisting of electrochemical cell stacks, storage tanks, and flow systems, make it possible to decouple power and energy, offering great system flexibility (i.e., simplifying the adjustment of the system size to meet the ever-changing demands),” they enthuse. Among the benefits they list:

  • Flow batteries last a really long time. They can cycle more than 10,000 times in 20 years.
  • They can fit a lot of different use cases because they are modular and easily scaled.
  • Safety risks are lower than for other types of energy storage.
  • To gild the green lily, the liquid in flow batteries could be based on iron sulphate or other byproducts of steelmaking, which supports the supply chain sustainability goal and the circular economy.

So, What’s The Problem?

The Energy Department is satisfied with the readiness state of flow battery technology, but there being no such thing as a free lunch, problems persist in the area of manufacturing readiness.

“The ability to manufacture flow battery systems of sufficient size is required in order to meet the expected demand for stationary grid storage,” it explains. “The current sizes of flow battery cells, in which the most advanced materials and components have been demonstrated, are orders of magnitude below system sizes relevant for commercial use.”

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