Sexy/Unsexy, Practical/Impractical: There Are Mutts & Magnificent Beasts In Energy

What’s a day without a provocative quadrant chart that makes many people howl with outrage (or at least mutter at their screen)? Well, not this day. Over on LinkedIn, Peter Clarkson of Woodside Energy in Australia triggered me with the idea of a way to categorize various decarbonization solutions, a standard quadrant chart with sexy/unsexy and practical/impractical as the options. He okayed me stealing the idea, saying that as he hadn’t actually done anything with the idea at all, he couldn’t claim it as intellectual capital. Thank you, Peter.

For those interested in other areas I’ve spent time on, such as ground transportation, aviation, and marine shipping, you’ll be either pleased or displeased to know that I have charts on those subjects already in hand and two more in mind, and upcoming articles will address those domains.

What defines sexy? Lots of press. Frequent headlines. Gushing talking heads who should know better. Promises of massive deployment and profits. SPACs or ICOs. VCs. Glistening Photoshop renders. Curves. Lots of fanbois and fangrrrls who proselytize on its behalf.

Unsexy? Few media headlines. Business as usual. Stuck in narrow and industry specific journals. Lots and lots of numbers, and not a lot of hype. Lots of institutional investment.

Impractical? Ignore laws of thermodynamics. Ignore tiny market potential. Ignore history of failures of exactly the same thing. Ignore massive headwinds. Massive overstatements of potential. Regular deferral of delivery. A lot more Powerpoint than production.

Practical? Lots of deployment. Lots of deals. Lots of straightforward growth. Economically viable. Don’t assume the laws of physics are mutable. Don’t assume human nature will magically change.

Let’s start with the sexy yet practical stuff, which is pretty limited in electricity and energy storage. There is a reason why utilitarian is not an adjective one uses to describe things that get your blood flowing, after all. Imagine telling a person you’d like to date or are dating that they are utilitarian.

But if something fits into this odd category, lithium-ion grid scale batteries are it, as well as similar cell-format battery chemistry such as lithium phosphate. Two of the biggest storage developers in the UK and US, whose leaders I’ve spoken to at length, have GW-scale battery pipelines in development, and of course Tesla’s Megapack keeps eating duck curves in California and Australia. I like cell-based batteries a lot, and project that they will be the third largest form of grid storage in the end. They have advantages of being built in massive numbers and fast response, but they have significant limitations in terms of the close coupling of power and energy.

<img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-237171" data-attachment-id="237171" data-permalink="" data-orig-file="" data-orig-size="4400,2640" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="CT Projection of Grid Storage Capacity" data-image-description="

Projection of grid storage capacity through 2060 by major categories by Michael Barnard

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Projection of grid storage capacity through 2060 by major categories by author

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Projection of grid storage capacity through 2060 by major categories by author

Redox flow batteries are starting to get attention, especially with China’s 100 MW/400MWh redox flow battery grid connection recently. Redox flow technology is less mature than lithium-ion, has different key materials constraints, but most notably decouples power and energy.

And fission nuclear energy is having another moment in the sun, edging up from boring GW-scale steam kettles that just sit there and provide low-carbon energy — with occasional moments of global panic — to being put on life support in multiple countries, being reconsidered in Europe given the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s impact on natural gas supplies, and being built reasonably well in China. The technology still has the problems that make it slow to build and expensive in most jurisdictions in the world, and those problems aren’t going away while wind, solar, transmission, and storage are gathering speed, so I suspect this latest nuclear renaissance will end like the last one, at least outside of China.

In the sexy but impractical category, hydrogen takes pride of place. We need green hydrogen to decarbonize the roughly 90 million tons of annual consumption we’ll still have left in 2100, and need to start that now, but hydrogen for energy is an overhyped fallacy promoted by the fossil fuel industry and people who can’t imagine energy from things that don’t burn.

Also in that category is the always receding into the future technology of fusion energy. As I noted last year, the most promising technology, the ITER Tokamak with its million components and likely $45 billion price tag, is expecting to have sustained fusion with net heat energy for five minutes at a time with no electrical generation in 2040. And if the heat energy were turned into electricity, it would be energy neutral, requiring as much energy to run as it generated.

Small modular nuclear reactors are hot right now too, but forego scaling up, won’t be able to scale numerically to sufficient volumes to achieve cost reductions, will still require all of the security and decommissioning costs, and will still have that pesky waste management problem. They aren’t likely to be an actual thing unless a big, rich country picks a single design of the 18 or so extant and makes it a moonshot priority to build them.

Vehicle-to-grid technologies ignore so many realities of how people actually live outside of US suburban detached homes — over 99% of the world’s population, in other words — and so much about human nature that it’s remarkable how much attention the tech continues to get. Concentrating solar power looks cool and keeps being used to decorate articles on solar, but it lost so completely and utterly to photovoltaic solar that it’s remarkable that the US DOE and Chile keep funding efforts on it. And then there’s Heliogen’s AI-spangled CSP of course, one of Bill Gross’ SPAC failures. Wind funnels like the now defunct Sheerwind Invelox and their sister technologies of vibrating stalks, energy towers, VAWTs, and Savonius retreads are a never ending source of nonsense hype.

You will also note that fission energy has a leg in the sexy but impractical quadrant. That’s because it’s being hyped for places that are incapable of ever building it cheaply and on time again for a variety of reasons, like the UK, Ontario, and the US.

And then there are technologies so bad that they don’t even merit being called impractical. Energy Vault’s concrete block energy storage is top of mind, but cold fusion is in there as well. Complete and utter specious nonsense.

Continuing clockwise around the quadrants we get to neither sexy nor practical. Yeah, these are pretty ugly beasts.

You’ll note that fission has a leg in here too. Yeah, large-scale nuclear is boring, well-understood technology that in the vast majority of jurisdictions is not even remotely an alternative. It’s pretty much limited to the 30 countries that already have it, and little things like Fukushima’s trillion dollar price tag, the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the 30 of 56 French reactors that are offline for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance and issues, and the Russian militarization of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine are not increasing its attractiveness to rational energy strategists.

Many people will react negatively to gas and coal generation being in the ugly and impractical quadrant, not because of the aesthetic virtues of open pit coal mines or the enhanced sunsets from air pollution, but because they are the backbone of a lot of energy globally. However, that’s temporary given the massive negative externalities of global warming that require we eliminate them as rapidly as possible. And for those who still consider natural gas generation to be a bridge fuel, when you add in the average upstream methane leakage of 1.5% globally, the CO2e emissions per MWh are equal to high-quality coal generation, so not a climate win.

I feel almost bad putting compressed air energy storage into this category. It’s earnest, means well, and as a technology you can imagine it doing charity work and helping old ladies across the street. But it has massive thermal management issues that lead to it have <40% round trip efficiency in current deployments which use natural gas to heat up the air as it is released, bolting on thermal energy storage has a maximum hypothetical efficiency of <70% in models which make a bunch of dodgy assumptions, it has limited sites where pre-existing caverns suitable for it exist, and the thermal energy storage creates new scaling problems. It’s a niche technology, and undoubtedly looks inoffensive in a sweater vest.

Finally we get to the unsexy but practical category, the utilitarian one. Some of the technologies in this space will elicit howls from people I know simply because they want them in the sexy quadrant, or consider them to be in the sexy quadrant.

But let’s start with nuclear fission generation, which has its last leg here. It’s a good technology. Using heat from decaying radioactive material to heat fluids to make steam to turn turbines works just fine on about 30 grids around the world. It doesn’t pollute the air or water, and doesn’t emit CO2e. Keeping it going where it exists makes complete sense to me until it’s too expensive to refurbish, typically around 40 years of age, and strategically building wind and solar at great scale to deal with that clear eventuality is the obvious solution. And I continue to be happy for every new nuclear plant China commissions, while continuing also to note that they are building vastly more wind, solar, transmission, and storage than nuclear.

<img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-278120" data-attachment-id="278120" data-permalink="" data-orig-file="" data-orig-size="1051,651" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="Generation in TWh added each year by wind, solar and nuclear in China 2010-2021 by author" data-image-description="

Generation in TWh added each year by wind, solar and nuclear in China 2010-2021 by author

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Generation in TWh added each year by wind, solar and nuclear in China 2010-2021 by author

” data-medium-file=”×248.png” data-large-file=”×496.png” loading=”lazy” class=”size-full wp-image-278120″ src=”” alt=”Generation in TWh added each year by wind, solar and nuclear in China 2010-2021 by author” width=”1051″ height=”651″ srcset=” 1051w,×248.png 400w,×496.png 800w,×476.png 768w” sizes=”(max-width: 1051px) 100vw, 1051px”>

Generation in TWh added each year by wind, solar, and nuclear in China 2010-2021 by author

Then there are distributed energy resources (DER), which are mostly in the practical camp. This category isn’t utility-scale wind and solar, by the way, but microgrids and rooftop solar. The reason that they edge over to impractical is because many people have this fantasy that they will be sufficient to power the world. Even Mark Z. Jacobson, a major advocate of rooftop solar, only considers it suitable to deliver 15% of total energy demand in 2050, and he and I have discussed why I think that’s more likely 5% to 8%. Bill Nussey is also more bullish on DER than I am, but as with Jacobson, it’s a matter of degree, not whether it’s a valuable and practical contributor to decarbonization.

Virtual power plants (VPPs) are getting some attention right now, and there are value propositions in there. This is centralized coordination of a dispersed set of smaller generation, demand, and storage assets to deliver grid resilience, stability, and controllable energy. I just don’t consider them to be all that new a thing, or to be all that likely to be a major wedge. We’ve had SCADA-controlled demand management of major consumers for a long time, with green-screen energy management systems (EMS) in utilities able to turn off things like pulp and paper plants to conserve energy. This is a bit of an extension of it, but like V2G, there’s just too much expectation of bridging barriers of ownership and cognitive biases, and too many small contracts of too low a value to consider.

What I do think makes a ton of sense is smart EV charging. As multi-unit residences and other commercial buildings electrify their parking, they’ll be keeping an eye on peak demand and be ensuring that they don’t get hit with massive cost overruns. My condo building’s electricity bill is 25% peak surcharges already, and so spreading EV charging over the night will just be an automatic and economically attractive strategy. Smart charging enables that. And big smart charging networks can sell demand reduction in 5 MW blocks once they have perhaps 10,000 cars plugged in, so they’ll be hooking up the utilities’ SCADA interfaces as a secondary revenue stream, and managing the individual EV owners and building managers separately.

The person who suggested this quadrant chart to me, Peter Clarkson, was triggered to comment about it when I posted recently on LinkedIn about HVDC. That post was sharing the excellent podcast from Redefining Energy — a strongly recommended podcast series — with energy finance pros Laurent Segalen and Gerard Reid hosting. The guest was Simon Ludlam, a major player in European subsea HVDC interconnects, working on his third currently. HVDC is just electricity transmission, but as I’ve written before, it has massive advantages. It can go underwater, underground, and very long distances with 3% to 3.5% energy losses per 1,000 km. It’s vastly more efficient as an energy transmission vector than pipelines or ships, and as I pointed out in my LinkedIn post, it’s much harder to blow up as it’s buried 1-2 meters under the seabed as opposed to laid upon it like the Nord Stream pipelines are. Much harder to find, much harder to damage, and if cut, doesn’t spew massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But no one except me and a handful of other energy nerds get excited by it, so unsexy.

Utility-scale wind and solar generation continue to accelerate, with global annual growth that’s astounding. It was barely slowed by COVID-19, with China actually out delivering its already high targets. The US is finally getting over its offshore stalling by oligarchs on both sides of the fence, with states committing to more than the 30 GW federal target. China built as much offshore wind in 2021 as the rest of the world combined built in the previous five years, just one more point about how fast China is delivering clean technologies into production. But no one gets excited about another wind farm or solar farm. They barely make the news. But that’s where the real generation money is.

And then there’s storage. You’ll note that redox flow batteries are mostly in this quadrant. They don’t get as much press as Tesla Megapacks or new cell-battery breakthroughs, and they don’t get as much money, but I consider that they will be the second largest form of grid storage when the dust settles. And new chemistries, like Agora Energy Technologies’ globally award-winning CO2-based redox flow battery, are emerging, which bypass most of the remaining materials concerns for the technology. (Full disclosure: I’m a Board Observer and Strategist for Agora.)

Which brings us, finally, to the technology I refer to as the greatest unknown storage tech in the world, pumped hydro storage. Pumping water uphill and letting it run back down later is something we’ve been doing as energy storage since 1907. The vast majority of grid storage today is pumped hydro, mostly built to give nuclear and coal plants something to do at night, to balance their inflexibility, and to provide peak power during the day. The vast majority of grid storage under construction today, over 60 GW of power capacity, and likely more than 600 GWh of storage capacity, is pumped hydro. Pumping water uphill and then letting it run back down is about as sexy as watching paint dry, but it is absurdly practical. And with closed-loop, off-river, high-head sites that are close to transmission and off protected lands having 100x the resource potential as total global energy demand requirements, they are really practical. Oh, and good pumped hydro sites overlap a lot with coal mining sites and need the skills coal miners and engineers have.

And so, there is it. The sexy/unsexy, practical/impractical quadrant chart for electricity and energy storage. Let the howls of outrage begin.


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