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SEPT 28, 2022

Good morning from Seattle after a whirlwind trip to NYC and Pittsburgh that left me feeling like this.


Anca anchors our coverage today with the first of a two-part Explained series on long duration energy storage.


Plus, we have a double Data Dive on costs and time, two things regular Cipher readers know we cover a lot.


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HARDER LINE COLUMN

On Cipher’s one-year anniversary, survey results and story favorites

BY: AMY HARDER

We launched Cipher one year ago this week with our inaugural edition!


A big thank you to our readers, our small but mighty (and growing!) team at Cipher and the broader network we’re a part of supported by Breakthrough Energy.


In honor of our one-year anniversary, we’re sharing some results of our reader survey completed a few weeks ago and highlights of our most-read articles.


A plurality of readers—38%—say they want to read more Explained articles, which break down complex topics.


Among the most-read articles over the past year are Explained articles, including these two:


You asked, and we’re answering! Anca’s story today is the first of a two-part Explained series on long duration energy storage.


That topic is also the most-requested technology—along with zero-emitting electricity generally—that readers would like us to cover. Another plurality of respondents (39%) chose that category.


That mirrors its importance in this overall debate. As we’ve written many times before, clean electricity is essential to tackling climate change across economies, such as transportation and manufacturing, since they, too, will increasingly rely on electricity.


Several other technology areas, including manufacturing, agriculture and carbon management, were also popular.


The fewest number of readers said they’re interested in reading about breaking news as it happens. Breaking news is important, but we’re more about education and illumination at Cipher. The breaking-news landscape is already well covered.


Although we don’t chase breaking news so much, we will always seek out exclusive news and put big news stories into context. Two that fit this bill were among our most-read articles over the past year:


Missed the survey but still have opinions? You can always email me (amy@ciphernews.com) with your feedback—good and bad! I try to read (if not respond) to every email sharing feedback and requests for Cipher.


Onward to year 2!

EXPLAINED

Renewables are cheap but not always available: storage hurdles

BY: ANCA GURZU

The world is rapidly scaling up wind and solar electricity, but technology to store these variable forms of energy is lagging.

A race for commercial solutions is now underway to store renewable energy for long periods of time—think numerous hours and even days or months. This is known as long duration energy storage (LDES). This week, we look at current limitations in storing renewable power. Next week, we’ll examine possible solutions.

Governments have been pushing wind and solar power for many decades, but a parallel focus on energy storage has only emerged in the past several years.


The reason for this mismatch? We didn’t need to. Grid operators in Europe and in the United States could rely on natural-gas-fired power plants to fill the supply-demand gaps that renewables couldn’t, which have historically generated a small share of electricity.


“When they said it’s easier to buy cheap gas and generate electricity instead of storing the extra energy, it was correct in the past,” said Patrick Clerens, secretary general of the European Association for Storage of Energy, a Brussels-based advocacy group. 


That won’t be sustainable anymore given the war in Ukraine, which is driving up natural gas prices to exorbitant levels, and more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets discouraging gas dependence in the European Union. 


“Unfortunately, we have a bit of a crisis-driven process to come up with new storage technologies,” said Ramya Swaminathan, CEO of Malta, Inc., a U.S.-based thermal energy storage company. She also serves on the U.S. Energy Department’s Electricity Advisory Committee. (We’ll learn more about thermal and other types of storage in our next article). 


Renewables are the cheapest form of generating electricity today, making fossil-fuel-based generation less economical amid a growing push to cut greenhouse gas emissions.


But that cost doesn’t account for the variability of wind and solar power. That variability can be as brief as seconds, when a cloud covers the sun, or as long as weeks or months during certain seasons.


To keep our lights on without interruption, we need to generate as much electricity as we consume at any given point, a sometimes precarious effort to match supply with demand instantaneously. 


The sun’s peak shine often does not match the peak of electricity usage. That’s normally in the evenings, when the sun is going down and when people come home from work.


As the share of renewables grows, that supply-demand balance gets trickier to match, putting additional stress on our grids. 


In countries or regions with a lot of renewables, generators sometimes must reduce the production of wind or solar energy in case of excessive supply because it can’t be used immediately. This “curtailment” essentially means wasting green power.


For example, Germany, which met almost half of its electricity needs with renewables in the first half of the year, had to curtail power generation (mostly from wind) in recent years.  


Long duration energy storage could significantly reduce this phenomenon by storing the surplus for later use and help cut reliance on fossil fuels. 


Lithium-ion batteries—the same type found in electric cars—are probably the most well-known form of energy storage. Think of homeowners storing excess power from their rooftop solar panels in their backyard battery packs for a few hours.


These will continue to play a role in the future, including for utilities, but they are not cost-effective for longer durations, which is what our increasingly decarbonized power system needs, according to Swaminathan.


Long duration energy storage as a concept is not new, but it’s limited. Pumped hydro storage, a century-old technology, represents 95 percent of all LDES capacity installed globally today. 


It uses excess electricity to pump water from a lower elevation reservoir to a high elevation reservoir where it’s stored. When the power is needed, the water is released, generating electricity through turbines on its way down.  


Pumped hydro storage was first developed in the 1890s in Italy and Switzerland. It became widely used over the last decades to tackle excess capacity from nuclear power plants, which cannot be easily turned up or down, said Swaminathan, who previously led a hydropower company.


While it’s a proven technology, building it to the scale needed to back up massive amounts of wind and solar power would be challenging, Swaminathan said. Geographical limitations, such as vicinity to water, environmental concerns and long construction periods are significant barriers. 


Editor’s note: Malta’s investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a venture capital fund within the Breakthrough Energy network, which also supports Cipher. Breakthrough Energy also has a partnership with the European Association for Storage of Energy.

Lunchtime Reads and Hot Takes

UK's first CO2 storage round attracts bids from 19 companiesReuters

Amy’s take: Hey, check this out, oil companies bidding for leases to store carbon under the sea, not drill for oil. That‘s a sea change! (Ha-ha, get it?)


India May Boost Coal Power Fleet 25% by 2030 Amid Rising DemandBloomberg (paywall)

Anca’s take: Timely article in light of our main theme this week. India’s main frustration is that energy storage solutions are still expensive, accusing the developed world of not having invested enough in this sector.


Can Europe decarbonize its heavy industry?The Economist (paywall)

Amy’s take: I would like to have seen more on how much Russian gas goes into heavy industry. Also, there’s an interesting point about how to lure employees to remote renewables-rich areas: build fancy resort-like complexes.


Transcript ‘Zero’ Episode 2: Why Venture Capital Is Crucial to the Climate FightBloomberg (paywall)

Amy’s take: Great interview that covers a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from cleantech 1.0 to effective activism.


U.S. outlines roadmap to boost sustainable aviation fuelReuters

Amy’s take: Skepticism persists about SAF (which we covered recently), but it is the only near- and medium-term climate solution for aviation.


UK paves way for large expansion of onshore windFinancial Times (paywall)

Anca’s take: That’s because the government will “scrap onerous planning restrictions that have in effect banned the renewable technology since 2015.” This reflects a wider permitting issue that we have written about several times.


This rural Utah town will be home to the largest hydrogen hub in the worldUtah Business (paywall)

Amy’s take: The first sentence couldn’t be more accurate, and it’s cool to see local business journals diving into this topic. 


Timeline: The struggle over ‘loss and damage’ in UN climate talksCarbon Brief
Anca’s take: Nice interactive overview of a key fault line at the upcoming climate negotiations in Egypt, which has remained unresolved for years.


More of what we're reading:

  • Nord Stream leaks: Sabotage to blame, says EU — BBC News

  • Senate advances funding bill to avert shutdown after Manchin measure scrapped — The Guardian

  • Shell acquires Nigerian renewables group in first African power deal — The Financial Times (paywall)

  • Small modular reactors: What is taking so long? — Energy Monitor
  • More than 20 countries agree to boost low-emission hydrogen output by 2030 — Reuters
DATA DIVE

Collaboration could help tackle climate change faster, more affordably

Source: The Breakthrough Agenda Report 2022International Energy Agency: Net Zero by 2050 • The Breakthrough Agenda Report is led by the International Energy Agency, International Renewable Energy Agency and United Nations Climate Change High-Level Champions.

BY: AMY HARDER

When it comes to tackling climate change, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


We used that same term in a recent article explaining the significance of three recently enacted U.S. climate laws, and we’re mentioning it again today in the wake of a new report out last week.


“Action by governments and businesses individually is necessary, but not sufficient,” states the report, led by the International Energy Agency, International Renewable Energy Agency and the United Nations Climate Change High-Level Champions, an initiative connecting governments with nongovernmental entities.


“Well-targeted international collaboration can make low carbon transitions faster, less difficult, and lower cost,” the report states.


The above chart shows how a transition with less collaboration could be slower. The chart below shows how much more affordable a faster transition, enabled by more collaboration, could be compared to a slower transition, for select technologies.

Source: The Breakthrough Agenda Report 2022"Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition" (Joule)

AND FINALLY...

Pittsburgh Power

Travelers arriving to Pittsburgh International Airport for the Global Clean Energy Action Forum conference last week were greeted with announcements from U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. Powering the facility is what the airport calls a first-of-its-kind microgrid with roughly 9,000 solar panels, five natural gas wells and generators (pictured above, courtesy of the airport). This operates separately from the traditional grid, which a spokesperson says “gives the airport greater protection from outages and cyberattacks.”


Each week, we feature a photo that is somehow related to energy, the thing we all need but don’t notice until it’s expensive or gone. Email your ideas and photos to news@ciphernews.com.

Editor’s note: In addition to supporting Cipher, Breakthrough Energy also supports and partners with a range of entities working to tackle climate change, including nonprofits, corporations, startups and research firms. For more information on Cipher’s editorial policy, click here.

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