As we start to experience the effects of global warming, such as climate change and melting ice sheets, the call to reduce carbon emissions has intensified. One way to do this is to turn to renewable energy sources, such as solar energy, but it’s not that simple.
Storing solar energy is difficult and expensive. The technology for storing solar energy, like lithium batteries, is not feasible or practical for large-scale applications. This is a significant drawback of renewable resources, but efforts are being made to address this issue.
As more and more nations embark on cutting carbon emissions and pushing for renewable resources, the issue of energy storage still prevents them from completely cutting ties with fossil fuel-generated energy. Keep reading to understand why this is so.
Things To Know Before Storing Solar Energy
Renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro have been gaining traction. Over the years, they’ve become more accessible and affordable. Moreover, they are a way to reduce carbon emissions amidst an environmental crisis.
With all that and more, it’s easy to see why many would want to and should shift to renewable energy sources. However, this transition is not that simple, mainly because of the issue of energy storage, particularly solar energy.
Here are a few things to know before attempting to store solar energy.
1. Solar Energy Is Not Consistent
Firstly, why do we have to bother with solar energy storage? Why not just generate the energy and distribute it as required?
We need solar energy storage mainly because the supply is inconsistent.
A primary disadvantage of solar energy is that the sun is not always available. When nighttime comes, there’s no sunlight and no solar energy for grids to receive and use. It’s not just during the night though. On cloudy days, there’s not much solar energy to generate either.
However, there are days when the solar energy produced exceeds the demand. It would be optimal to store this excess and distribute it during times when there is low energy, such as during the night or winter. Now that solar energy is on-demand, there is great motivation to develop such technology.
2. There Are Different Levels of Energy Storage
When developing technology to store energy, we need to understand first what storage level we should aim for.
Climate Science talks about three levels of energy storage:
|Level 1 (Load Balancing)||Seconds to minutes||Unexpected peaks in demand|
Shadowing from clouds
|Level 2 (Bulk Storage)||Hours to days||Electricity at night|
|Level 3||Weeks to months||Electricity for winter|
Aiming for level 2 or even level 3 storage for solar energy may be best. This would allow us to depend much less, if not at all, on fossil fuel electricity.
High levels of energy storage would also allow us to maximize the potential of solar energy. For instance, did you know that sunlight in the Sahara Desert might be able to provide electricity worldwide?
However, developing level 2 or 3 storage is challenging. Currently, it ends up being more expensive than is practical.
3. Storing Solar Energy Is Expensive
Although producing solar energy is becoming more affordable, the costs for storing it have not. This is because batteries with large storage capacity are needed to store large amounts of energy.
However, the larger the capacity, the more materials are needed to build such technology or batteries. More materials mean more expenses.
According to Gates Notes, getting a lithium battery to store solar energy would cost $0.30 per kilowatt-hour, much higher than the standard price of distributed electricity. That estimate is for a single household only.
If taken to a larger scale, the costs would skyrocket. According to Physics World, a 10 TWh giant lithium battery would cost £3 trillion to build. This would only be enough for ten consecutive dark winter days in the United Kingdom.
Moreover, the supply of lithium is running low. As supply decreases with increasing demand, this would mean higher prices. Thus, we may anticipate lithium batteries to become more expensive, especially giant ones.
4. Cobalt Mining Has Negative Environmental and Human Impact
Many people are lobbying for solar energy because it helps the environment. We want to keep it that way.
However, if we push for storing solar energy using lithium-ion batteries, the closest option we have for solar energy storage, it may negatively impact the environment.
Both lithium and cobalt are necessary for making batteries. Unfortunately, cobalt mining puts an extreme toll on the environment. The process involves cutting trees, building roads, and producing high carbon dioxide and nitrogen emissions. Add to that the many unregulated companies, so there is little care for the environment as they focus on profit.
Issues of Human Rights Violations, Poor Working Conditions, and Child Labor
Aside from the environmental impact, cobalt mining is also intertwined with child labor issues, human rights violations, and abusive working conditions.
These issues are particularly pertinent to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a major supplier of cobalt worldwide. Many young children are reported to work for exploitative mining companies here. However, there have been attempts to formalize and regulate the industry.
It is crucial for both environmental and humanitarian issues to be acknowledged and resolved. People clamor for solar energy because it is sustainable, but it won’t be so if it costs the environment and human rights.
5. Solar Technology and Energy Storage Is Still in Development
While the prospect of solar energy storage currently seems impractical, if not bleak, there is still great potential. This technology is relatively new and still being actively researched and developed. Now that more people are leaning into it, such effort may become accelerated.
This means that although we might not be able to develop a feasible, practical, and sustainable way to store solar energy at the moment, we are likely to do so in the future.
For instance, people are exploring the use of hydrogen, instead of lithium batteries, as a means to store energy. Still, while relatively cheaper than the giant lithium battery project, the use of hydrogen is still relatively new and must be studied.
The ability to store solar energy would allow us to entirely shift into renewable energy sources, cut off fossil fuels, and harness the great potential of sunlight.
However, this project still has a long way to go before it becomes feasible or practical for anyone. But the attention and support solar energy initiatives are getting will hopefully catalyze the entire process.
- Climate Science: 100% Renewables: Is Massive-Scale Energy Storage for Renewable Energy Possible?
- Science in the News | Harvard University: Green Energy Needs Green Storage
- Gates Notes: It is surprisingly hard to store energy
- Physics World: Energy storage and management
- Wilson Center: The DRC Mining Industry: Child Labor and Formalization of Small-Scale Mining
- Council on Foreign Relations: Why Cobalt Mining in the DRC Needs Urgent Attention
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