Battery technology opening up energy opportunity

Dhaka,  Tue,  26 September 2017
Published : 25 Aug 2017, 21:39:11

Battery technology opening up energy opportunity

M Rokonuzzaman
To many of us who grew up in rural Bangladesh in 1960s or 1970s, torchlight had been the first experience of using electric light. The development of dry cell battery technology in 1890s, and the subsequent emergence of filament lamp opened the rapid adoption of torchlight for domestic usages across the world.  Due to high price for each unit of light, low power and limited lifespan of battery, this portable electric light innovation was a primitive solution in comparison to grid provided supply.

Although over the last one century, battery technology kept improving supporting numerous innovations including portable radio, walkman, computer, and mobile phone, it had never been considered a disruptive force either to mainstream electric supply, or to policy framework governing energy infrastructure. But with the growth of battery technology reaching the milestone of bringing down the capital cost to $100 a kilowatt hour-the emergence of disruptive force caused by battery technology appears to be real. Such disruptive force could be an opportunity for Bangladesh and many other developing countries to deal with rising energy cost. For example, it is anticipated that energy cost in Bangladesh is likely to increase threefold over the next decade. 

Despite the growth of renewable, such as clean energy technologies like solar or wind, still to date fossil or nuclear fuel powered power plants form the core of electrical energy supply building blocks. The "intermittence" has been the curse to the acceptability of solar or wind energy, despite rapid decline of per unit cost. But with the growth of battery technology, the possibility of connecting numerous clean energy power plants to large battery could be a solution of turning intermittent, micro power generating units into a large reservoir of electric energy supply. Surges of excess power will be stored in the reservoir for use later at times when the sun sets, and consumption peaks up in the early evening.

Such development also opens the opportunity of the exploitation of micro-scale hydropower. Particularly in the rainy season when sunlight becomes less available, small-scale hydro units installed in rainwater drainage systems, including rivers, could add supply to the battery reservoir. Moreover, the development of thermoelectric technology opens further opportunity of turning millions of bio-mass burning clay stoves and connecting them to the large battery storage. The development of battery technology as the reservoir of electric energy collection and supply opens the opportunity of exploiting numerous non-conventional possibilities-causing disruption to conventional power industry.  To exploit such possibility, policies governing the electrical power industry should also be redesigned. Such policy change should encourage investment of installation of large battery reservoir, upgrading the gird system opening the window of connecting numerous micro power generators, and creating market for micro-energy suppliers.   

It's being reported that the research into cheap and clean forms of electricity storage is moving so fast that by 2030 the economic viability of building 20th century power plants will come to an end, let alone a nuclear white elephant. It's being claimed that diverse technology options such as hydrogen bromide, or zinc-air batteries, or storage in molten glass, or next-generation flywheels will likely lead to "drastic improvements" that can slash storage costs by 80pc to 90pc and reach the magical figure of $100 per kilowatt hour in relatively short order. The technology progression is poised to overcome the curse of intermittency that has long bedevilled wind, solar or small hydro-plants depending on seasonal or occasional water flow, particularly caused by rain. Such development transforms the calculus of energy policy-eroding the attractiveness of the investment behind nuclear or large fossil fuel based power plants. It's widely anticipated that economics of such alternative form of energy supply will reach inflection point either in the early-2020s or in the late 2020s.

The potential is so immense that according to McKinney estimation, the energy storage market will grow hundredfold to $90bn a year by 2025. As a result, the scenario is rapidly evolving as the world's scientific superpower mobilises in earnest, and investors start to chase the immense prize. 

By capitalising the incremental scientific progress and scale advantage originating from electric vehicles, even conventional lithium battery has been experiencing rapid upgrading. For example, Lithium-ion cells which used to cost over $1,000 a kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2010 were in the $130-200 range after six years in 2016. During the same period, Lithium-ion energy density has gone up four times-from 100 to 400 watts-hour per litre. 

Such developments indicate that wind, solar, small-scale hydro and other forms of micro generators are going to be viable alternative to large-scale power plants whether powered by coal, diesel, natural gas or nuclear fuel. The obvious question is how should developing countries like Bangladesh leverage such development. It's obvious that Bangladesh cannot succeed in scientific competition of developing new battery technology. Nor can Bangladesh succeed in supplying low cost labour in producing large amount of battery storage capacity-as most of the production will be done through autonomous machinery. But Bangladesh can capitalise this development by creating the market of micro generations and supporting innovations in turning numerous small energy sources into electric power generators. To leverage such opportunity, some of the recommendations are as follows: 

Developing favourable infrastructure:  Starting from smart grid to storage, developing the infrastructure to encourage the integration of micro, intermittent power producers is critically important. This should be coupled with developing policy in creating market for giving dual roles to users: both consumers and producers of electrical energy.   

Supporting local innovations: Instead of just relying on policies supporting technology import, the alternate of local technology development and innovations should be supported to leverage micro power generations. Research and Development financing should be provided to develop micro generators to collect energy from possible local sources. For example, innovations in generating electrical power through micro-hydro plant during the process of collecting rainwater from roofs should be supported. Similarly, such innovations could be expanded to extract energy from river current during the monsoon. The innovation should also focus to exploit the opportunity of turning millions of bio-mass burning clay stoves into cleaner micro electric generators.  

Phasing out centralized generation model: Long-term policy should be undertaken to keep increasing the integration of micro generation units, leveraging local energy sources such solar, wind, Bio-mass and micro-hydro. The core objective of the policy is to phase out of conventional power plants, including nuclear ones, by the taking the advantage of integrating millions of micro intermittent power suppliers. 

It appears that the development of battery technology is posing real threat to conventional centralised power generation model. This development is opening the opportunity of turning millions of micro, intermittent generators to a large power reservoir. Bangladesh and other developing countries should look at it as an opportunity to leverage local renewable energy sources for developing sustainable energy solution. To take advantage from this opportunity, smart policies for developing energy infrastructure, supporting local innovations and creating market for micro producers are the underlying critical success factors. 

M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D, academic, researcher and activist: Technology, Innovation and Policy, is Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, North South University, Bangladesh.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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