How battery technology can save the planet

James O'Malley 28 December 2021

James O’Malley on how battery technology has revolutionised the fight against climate change

As the politicians made clear at last month’s COP26 [United Nations Climate Change Conference], in Glasgow, now is the time to act on climate change. We need to cut carbon emissions, and knowing this, it is easy to be pessimistic: Will people really be prepared to make changes in their lives? Can we really remake society to be much greener than it is now?

Strangely, I’m feeling optimistic. Especially compared to if you’d asked me a few years ago. And that’s mostly because of one factor: Batteries. It isn’t obvious but over the last decade or so, just as we’ve watched our computers get faster and screens get thinner, batteries have dramatically improved too.

According to the European Patent Office, the number of battery patents filed grew by an average of 14 per cent every year between 2005 and 2018. In other words, battery innovation is exploding. Energy storage is getting better and better, as more companies are discovering new chemistry and processes to make them work more efficiently.

And the results of all of this work are astonishing. According to Bloomberg, energy density—the amount of power that can be stored in the same sized battery—has tripled in the last decade. And the cost of batteries has dramatically fallen too. 

"Energy storage is getting better and better"

Today, battery power per kilowatt hour costs around only ten per cent of what it did a decade ago. And the expectation is that the costs will continue to fall, both as battery chemistry improves and because manufacturing lots of batteries on a massive scale makes the production of individual batteries cheaper.

You can be forgiven for thinking that this might only be of interest to accountants, but the implications of this are enormous, and will benefit all of us. First and most obviously, it had made the batteries in electric cars cheaper and longer-lasting. For example, back in 2011 a new Nissan Leaf had a range of only around 70-80 miles.

Today, the 2021 Leaf is capable of upwards of 230 miles without needing to recharge. This is a big deal, as it doesn’t just make electric cars more useful (you can go further!), but it also reduces the “range anxiety” worry that you will run out of charge before you can find a charger on a long trip.

And brilliantly, because electric batteries are improving so dramatically, we can already see the results. Last September, 15 per cent of all new vehicle registrations were pure electric vehicles. So the change is starting to happen.

Better batteries does not just mean better cars, however. They can also help us decarbonise the entire national grid. Storing energy has always been a problem for the grid. Today, only a tiny amount of generated electricity is stored for later use, which leads to lots of power going to waste. But better batteries make it technologically and economically viable to store large amounts of energy from the grid.

It’s conceivable that in the not-too-distant future, alongside other essentials in our homes like a boiler and a fusebox, we might also have an enormous battery in the garage. This would take power from the grid (or maybe even solar panels on the roof), and power appliances and lights in our homes at the times when demand for electricity is high.

Electric cars today can go further distances and use less battery power 

And this is good for two reasons. First, it would save us money, as our home batteries could charge up overnight when electricity is cheaper and save the electricity for the day time. But more importantly, 
it would help “load balance” the grid.

Battery storage can be used to smooth-out demand on the grid, making it more consistent across the day. This means that instead of energy going to waste, we can generate less electricity in the first place and just use it more efficiently—meaning fewer power stations are needed.

Home batteries are not yet as established as electric cars, but they are also growing in popularity. For example, Tesla, the electric car company, already sells a product called “Power Wall”, designed for the home, and makes use of old car batteries in a sleek new shell to power our homes.

So, given how much technology has improved batteries over the last decade, I can’t help but be strangely optimistic about the future. Batteries may not be as flashy as phones, rockets or other new technologies.

But when it comes to technology to fight climate change, they’re definitely leading the charge.

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