WashU Expert: 2023 will be the year of the battery

Major advances in battery technologies will bring us a big step closer this year to large-scale renewable energy goals, international energy independence and a big reduction in greenhouse gases, according to an expert from Washington University in St. Louis.

“One of the major challenges to a fully renewable-energy future of wind and solar power is energy storage,” said Michael Wysession, a professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Just a few years ago, people were looking toward large earth-works projects such as pumped hydro or compressed air in underground caverns,” he said. “Those discussions have been largely shelved because of the incredibly rapid advances and dropping prices of battery technologies.”

From 2010 to 2022, the cost for enough electric vehicle (EV) lithium-ion batteries to store a kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy (which is the equivalent of 10 100-watt lightbulbs burning for an hour) dropped from $1,300 to just $150, in 2022 dollars, Wysession noted.

Three main factors will be at play this year, according to Wysession’s predictions:

The Inflation Reduction Act

“President Biden’s centerpiece legislation is a game-changer in many areas of renewable energy,” Wysession said. “The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) increases the investment tax credit to 30% for solar-plus-storage and — for the first time — standalone storage facilities.”

An extra 10% credit is added for using equipment manufactured in the U.S., and another 10% is added for projects located at decommissioned fossil fuel facilities in front-line communities, Wysession noted.

“This will counteract the 2021-2022 supply chain bottlenecks and help spur U.S. development,” he said. “Since the passing of the IRA, several major battery manufacturers such as Panasonic and LG have already announced plans to build factories in the U.S.”

Switching to cheaper lithium-ion batteries

Most of today’s battery energy storage is done with lithium-ion batteries, but these come in different flavors. Many EVs use NMC (nickel manganese cobalt) and NCA (nickel cobalt aluminum) lithium-ion batteries, but these went up in price for the first time in 2022 because of large increases in the costs of nickel and cobalt.

“The U.S. imports one-quarter of the lithium, one-half of the nickel and three-quarters of the cobalt it uses for industrial purposes,” Wysession said. “However, Russia is the third largest exporter of nickel, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which exports half of the world’s cobalt, is rife with human rights violations — this is politically problematic.

“Helping to bring lithium-ion battery prices down has been a switch to LFP (lithium iron phosphate),” he said. These batteries rely instead on iron and phosphorous, both of which are abundant in the U.S.

“The longstanding sense is that EVs will reach parity with gas-powered cars when the cost of energy storage drops below $100/kWh,” Wysession said. “Although this probably won’t actually happen until 2026, the tax incentives from the IRA (combined with low electricity costs and nearly non-existent EV maintenance and repairs) will make EVs financially advantageous almost immediately.”

Newer iron-based storage technologies

“Lithium-ion batteries are good for EVs because of their light weight and high energy density, but something else will be needed for large-scale residential and commercial electricity storage,” Wysession said. “Also, because the global demand for battery capacity has been roughly doubling yearly for some time, the demand on lithium is high. Lithium is about five times more expensive than it was last year.”

The race is on, however, for other technologies to fill the need of electrical grid storage.

“It is estimated that the U.S. electricity system could run on 80% renewables if it had 12 hours of electricity storage and could run on 100% renewables if it had weeks of electricity storage,” he said. “This will require something other than lithium-ion batteries. For example, typical EVs’ lithium-ion batteries store about two days’ worth of an average home’s worth of electricity (60 kWh), but weathering a long spell of cloudy weather would require much more.”

Some of the most exciting new contenders rely on the world’s least expensive and most widely used metal: iron.

“One form of iron-based batteries, iron flow batteries, could provide 12 hours of storage for about $125/kWh. They use a molten solution of inexpensive iron, salt and water, and unlike lithium-ion batteries can go through an unlimited number of recharge/discharge cycles with nearly no loss of efficiency,” Wysession said. Companies are already producing large-scale iron flow battery storage systems in the U.S. and Europe, as well as newer technologies involving electricity storage through the oxidation of iron pellets, which revert back to iron when the oxygen is removed.

“This would already be a game changer for renewable energy, but it’s a Wild, Wild West out there,” Wysession concluded. “New breakthroughs in battery technology are announced regularly, and the $60 billion in investment funds available through the IRA will keep the breakthroughs coming.”