The amount of solar energy striking the surface of the earth in two hours is enough to supply all of humankind’s needs for an entire year. For this reason, it is widely thought that solar energy should be our primary source of electricity. If this is to happen, however, there must be cost-effective ways to obtain solar electricity regardless of the time of day, weather, or seasonal changes. Essentially, there must be ways to store the energy from the sun to use it when we need it.
The battery industry is currently dominated by lithium-ion batteries. We have them in our phones and computers. They power electric cars. And they are increasingly being used to store energy generated by solar panels and other renewable energy sources.
The transition to sustainable energy sources faces many challenges. One important one is to make those sources as reliable as conventional energy systems. For technologies like solar and wind power, which can’t operate around the clock, an enabling element is effective energy storage. Energy storage is critical for both the electricity grid and for transportation.
UPS recently announced a demonstration project that will put a prototype electric truck powered by a hydrogen fuel cell through the delivery company’s challenging paces. Fuel cells have been used in some commercial vehicles to power auxiliary systems, but this is the first time that they will be used to propel a vehicle.
Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are just starting to enter the market but they have a long way to go before they can even catch up with their battery-powered counterparts. Powering cars with hydrogen has the advantage that fueling the vehicle is much like what we are used to: pull up to the pump, fill your tank for a few minutes, and drive off.
Batteries have never been more important. Not only do we all depend on cell phones, tablets and laptop computers that run on batteries, but two enormous industries are in major transitions that rely upon battery technology: personal transportation and the utility industry. The electricity grid is increasingly turning to solar and wind power for generation and both will require effective energy storage if they are to truly become the predominant sources of electricity.
At the end of last year, Southern California Edison turned on the largest lithium-ion battery storage facility in the world in Ontario, California. It is a substation with 80 megawatt-hours of capacity, enough energy to power 2,500 households or charge 1,000 Tesla cars a day.
When looking at the best ways to meet humanity’s energy needs, there is little doubt that the sun is the ultimate answer. In one hour, the Earth receives enough energy from the sun to meet all of our needs for a year. Despite this fact, the world currently only gets about 1% of its energy directly from the sun.