As US shifts from fossil fuels to renewable energy and electrifies transportation, battery storage becomes critical to economic competitiveness
If Rick Perry survives the nomination process to become energy secretary in the Donald Trump Administration, he will become a key player in the evolution of the American economy over the next four or eight years.
A heady position for the former Texas governor and presidential candidate, who not that long ago thought the Department of Energy was basically a cheerleader for the American oil and gas industry.
Perry will head up a sprawling department with a $28 billion budget that funds or supports much of the United States research and development of new energy technologies. As the global economy begins a 50 to 100-year transition to clean energy technologies, that R&D is critical to the future competitiveness of the American economy, according to Mike Toney, a leading Stanford research in advanced battery technologies.
“I think this is really important economically heading into the future,” he said in an interview. “If we want to develop these industries, if we want to provide jobs for Americans, we need to put effort into making this country competitive in that regard [renewable energy, battery storage, electric vehicles, etc.].”
Speaking before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last week, Perry sought to allay fears he intended to target the department’s research capabilities.
“I am a major proponent of maintaining American leadership in the area of scientific inquiry. I support the academic and government mission of basic research, even when it will not yield benefits for a generation. Our scientists and labs are the envy of the world,” Perry told the committee.
This will be good news to researchers like Toney.
He says a critical component of building new technology industries is accumulating human capital – scientists and researchers working on the leading edge of the science, which eventually is commercialized into the private sector.
“My students, when they graduate with a post doc, will often go into battery companies. They become researchers who will then train their own students,” he said.
“The workforce development aspect of DoE funding is really important.”
Toney also notes that DoE funding supports American companies, which leads to clusters of research and commercialization in regions like Michigan, whose state government has stepped up with significant funding for advanced battery technologies.
“To the extent that the American companies are the ones that interact with faculty and students within these DoE-funded consortia, that does help to foster US industry,” he said.
The Trump Administration has committed to supporting American industry and manufacturing. Presumably, that applies to supporting industry and manufacturing of the future, like electric vehicles. The United States is already home to two leading EV manufacturers, Tesla Motors and General Motors.
Tesla and GM are both pushing Lithium ion battery technology to its limits. Tesla’s Gigafactory will advance Li-ion battery manufacturing processes and drive down costs. Prof. Yi Cui of Standford said in an email that he expects that over the next decade, Li-ion EV battery energy density (basically, distance EVs can travel on a charge) will rise by 50 per cent and costs will drop by 50 per cent.
At that point, Li-ion batteries will have reached their theoretical limits, according to Haleh Arbedeli of the University of Houston.
The next generation of battery chemistry, currently being developed in laboratories like those of Prof. Toney and being funded by the DoE, will probably be something like Li-sulphur, which has the potential of packing 4,000 kilowatt/hours 5o grams of material (compared to Li-ion at 200).
An Li-S battery might boost the range of a Tesla Model 3 or a Chevy Bolt to 20 times the current limit of 200 miles (325 kilometres), which would be a significant leap forward in EV competitiveness.
Chris Robinson, an analyst with Lux Research, thinks Li-S batteries – or a similar alternate chemistry – will take another decade to emerge from the lab. Then it will be another 10 years for the research to be commercialized, EVs to be designed around the new battery, and federal regulators to issue approvals.
Without DoE funding, that process could take much longer or not happen at all, says Toney. And the EV batteries aren’t the only application. Battery storage is slowly being adopted by utilities to store electricity generated by wind and solar, and by homeowners (think Tesla PowerWall) by homeowners as part of rooftop solar systems.
The United States is currently behind countries like Japan, Korea, and China in the development of an advanced battery technology industry.
If it ever hopes to catch up, and to lay the foundation for the future economy, the continuation – and perhaps even expansion – of DoE funding is critical.
When pressed during last Thursday’s committee hearing if there would be budget or staff cuts to key research programs at the DoE, Perry said: “I will be an advocate (for the programs) … but I’m not sure I’m going to be 1,000 per cent successful.”
Perhaps after he better understands the importance of those key research programs Perry will try harder.
The fate of the future American economy may depend upon his efforts.