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Is Solar Energy's Battery Problem Finally on the Verge of Being Solved?
[October 26, 2015]

Is Solar Energy's Battery Problem Finally on the Verge of Being Solved?


Solar energy has always been great in theory. The sun is a natural, renewable, virtually inexhaustible resource, and the processes we use to harness that power are clean and relatively efficient. Compared to other forms of power generation like burning fossil fuels, it's indisputably cleaner, safer, easier on the environment, and more reliable for the distant future. But a handful of problems have kept it from being adopted as a primary means of power generation throughout the world.

The two main problems holding solar power back are cost and capacity; though most solar energy systems pay for themselves in the span of a few to several years, the prohibitive cost of installation makes it more expensive than conventional forms of electricity for many consumers. However, with prices as low as they've ever been (and projections that they'll keep falling dramatically) and energy generation constantly growing with new technological advancements, soon price won't be an issue at all. The last remaining problem, then, is capacity-the amount of energy that can be stored by a given system.

Why Capacity Is a Problem

Homes and businesses use power on a constant basis; there are peak hours, of course, but they're only somewhat predictable, and energy use tends to run on a 24-hour clock. Traditional means of energy generation have a 24-hour means of generating more energy-coal and gas are available all the time, and can be burned at a rate that matches consumer demand. The sun is only available for daytime hours, and even then may be obscured by clouds, making it an indefinite resource for a definite cycle of energy needs.

There are two possible ways to address this problem, though each has encountered various hurdles over the past several years. The first is to create better, more efficient electricity grids that can better handle demand. Generally referred to as "smart grids," these developments seek to balance available power with consumer needs in more innovative, intuitive, data-based ways, incorporating multiple forms of energy to maximize efficiency across the board. Smart grids have seen significant development in recent years, but are massive undertakings that are years away from a practical large-scale release.

The other way is to improve the capacity and delivery system of solar batteries, which can store excess energy during peak production hours (i.e., sunny daytime hours) and hold onto it indefinitely for extended periods of time (and of course, peak demand hours). While solar battery technology has steadily improved over time, it hasn't seen a breakthrough substantial enough to roll out the system on a large scale, nor has it seen any major reduction in cost.

The New Battery Revolution (News - Alert)

Now, the energy storage industry claims to be on the verge of a major turnaround. Companies like Southern California Edison (News - Alert) and San Diego Gas and Electric have claimed that battery provision of energy has begun to rival natural gas plant provision during peak usage hours. A combination of better technology and more experience with the technology is making it easier and more cost effective for major utility companies like these to incorporate battery storage and provision in a way that makes sense.

A handful of rules and regulations for the use of batteries in energy generation still need to be ironed out, but the efficiency, practicality, and harmonious relationships battery storages enjoy with renewable means of energy generation make it a necessary course for the future. In 2015, roughly 2 GW (enough energy to power 1.6 million homes) of battery storage is scheduled to be installed internationally. By 2020, that number of new installations is expected to grow to 11.3 GW. According to some estimates, cost will fall by 50 percent as the technology grows more efficient in the next 5 years, making it more affordable in addition to being more widely accepted.

Solar technology is finally at a point of cost efficiency and general availability that allows it to reach universal installation within a few more years. Now, one of the main problems holding it back from that large-scale adoption is starting to disappear. Pay close attention to energy storage developments in the next few years, as they will likely dictate the course of solar energy's future.

Edited by Kyle Piscioniere

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