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Climate change and energy

Three takeaways about the current state of batteries

Batteries can unlock other energy technologies, and they’re starting to make their mark on the grid.

two workers in red hard hats checking a panel of a battery bin at a energy storage power station
Costfoto/NurPhoto via AP

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Batteries are on my mind this week. (Aren’t they always?) But I’ve got two extra reasons to be thinking about them today. 

First, there’s a new special report from the International Energy Agency all about how crucial batteries are for our future energy systems. The report calls batteries a “master key,” meaning they can unlock the potential of other technologies that will help cut emissions. Second, we’re seeing early signs in California of how the technology might be earning that “master key” status already by helping renewables play an even bigger role on the grid. So let’s dig into some battery data together. 

1) Battery storage in the power sector was the fastest-growing commercial energy technology on the planet in 2023

Deployment doubled over the previous year’s figures, hitting nearly 42 gigawatts. That includes utility-scale projects as well as projects installed “behind the meter,” meaning they’re somewhere like a home or business and don’t interact with the grid. 

Over half the additions in 2023 were in China, which has been the leading market in batteries for energy storage for the past two years. Growth is faster there than the global average, and installations tripled from 2022 to last year. 

One driving force of this quick growth in China is that some provincial policies require developers of new solar and wind power projects to pair them with a certain level of energy storage, according to the IEA report.

Intermittent renewables like wind and solar have grown rapidly in China and around the world, and the technologies are beginning to help clean up the grid. But these storage requirement policies reveal the next step: installing batteries to help unlock the potential of renewables even during times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. 

2) Batteries are starting to show exactly how they'll play a crucial role on the grid.

When there are small amounts of renewables, it’s not all that important to have storage available, since the sun’s rising and setting will cause little more than blips in the overall energy mix. But as the share increases, some of the challenges with intermittent renewables become very clear. 

We’ve started to see this play out in California. Renewables are able to supply nearly all the grid’s energy demand during the day on sunny days. The problem is just how different the picture is at noon and just eight hours later, once the sun has gone down. 

In the middle of the day, there’s so much solar power available that gigawatts are basically getting thrown away. Electricity prices can actually go negative. Then, later on, renewables quickly fall off, and other sources like natural gas need to ramp up to meet demand. 

But energy storage is starting to catch up and make a dent in smoothing out that daily variation. On April 16, for the first time, batteries were the single greatest power source on the grid in California during part of the early evening, just as solar fell off for the day. (Look for the bump in the darkest line on the graph above—it happens right after 6 p.m.)

Batteries have reached this number-one status several more times over the past few weeks, a sign that the energy storage now installed—10 gigawatts’ worth—is beginning to play a part in a balanced grid. 

3) We need to build a lot more energy storage. Good news: batteries are getting cheaper.

While early signs show just how important batteries can be in our energy system, we still need gobs more to actually clean up the grid. If we’re going to be on track to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by midcentury, we’ll need to increase battery deployment sevenfold. 

The good news is the technology is becoming increasingly economical. Battery costs have fallen drastically, dropping 90% since 2010, and they’re not done yet. According to the IEA report, battery costs could fall an additional 40% by the end of this decade. Those further cost declines would make solar projects with battery storage cheaper to build than new coal power plants in India and China, and cheaper than new gas plants in the US. 

Batteries won’t be the magic miracle technology that cleans up the entire grid. Other sources of low-carbon energy that are more consistently available, like geothermal, or able to ramp up and down to meet demand, like hydropower, will be crucial parts of the energy system. But I’m interested to keep watching just how batteries contribute to the mix. 


Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

Some companies are looking beyond lithium for stationary energy storage. Dig into the prospects for sodium-based batteries in this story from last year.

Lithium-sulfur technology could unlock cheaper, better batteries for electric vehicles that can go farther on a single charge. I covered one company trying to make them a reality earlier this year.

Two engineers in lab coats monitor the thermal battery powering a conveyor belt of bottles
SIMON LANDREIN

Another thing

Thermal batteries are so hot right now. In fact, readers chose the technology as our 11th Breakthrough Technology of 2024.

To celebrate, we’re hosting an online event in a couple of weeks for subscribers. We’ll dig into why thermal batteries are so interesting and why this is a breakthrough moment for the technology. It’s going to be a lot of fun, so subscribe if you haven’t already and then register here to join us on May 16 at noon Eastern time.

You’ll be able to submit a question when you register—please do that so I know what you want to hear about! See you there! 

Keeping up with climate  

New rules that force US power plants to slash emissions could effectively spell the end of coal power in the country. Here are five things to know about the regulations. (New York Times)

Wind farms use less land than you might expect. Turbines really take up only a small fraction of the land where they’re sited, and co-locating projects with farms or other developments can help reduce environmental impact. (Washington Post)

The fourth reactor at Plant Vogtle in Georgia officially entered commercial operation this week. The new reactor will provide electricity for up to 500,000 homes and businesses. (Axios

A new factory will be the first full-scale plant to produce sodium-ion batteries in the US. The chemistry could provide a cheaper alternative to the standard lithium-ion chemistry and avoid material constraints. (Bloomberg)

→ I wrote about the potential for sodium-based batteries last year. (MIT Technology Review)

Tesla has apparently laid off a huge portion of its charging team. The move comes as the company’s charging port has been adopted by most major automakers. (The Verge)

A vegan cheese was up for a major food award. Then, things got messy. (Washington Post)

→ For a look at how Climax Foods makes its plant-based cheese with AI, check out this story from our latest magazine issue. (MIT Technology Review)

Someday mining might be done with … seaweed? Early research is looking into using seaweed to capture and concentrate high-value metals. (Hakai)

The planet’s oceans contain enormous amounts of energy. Harnessing it is an early-stage industry, but some proponents argue there’s a role for wave and tidal power technologies. (Undark)

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