The following is a Viewpoint by David M. Hart, a senior fellow for clean energy innovation policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and professor of public policy at the Schar School at George Mason University; and Spencer Nelson, program director for energy innovation at ClearPath.
The global summit currently underway in Poland has amply illustrated that humanity is not yet on track to avoid the worst consequences of carbon pollution. There are stark divisions on whether and how to significantly reduce emissions in an effective manner.
American leadership is essential to bend the curve of carbon pollution downward toward zero. A U.S.-powered international initiative to accelerate progress on a technology essential to that push — long-duration energy storage — would demonstrate that leadership.
A recent report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on the innovation agenda for deep decarbonization identified six key areas that require significant further development. One of these is long-duration energy storage. It will certainly be needed if wind and solar power continue their extraordinary growth.
One of their great features is that nature provides the fuel. But nature is fickle. The wind doesn't always blow, and the sun doesn't always shine. Energy storage would be extremely useful to tide us over during these periods, which can last for days or even weeks.
Energy technologists have been extraordinarily creative in thinking up ways to perform this task. We could store energy as heat in molten salt. We could store it chemically, in new kinds of batteries. We could store it as hydrogen gas, which can be used as a fuel. We could even store it in giant tanks of air.
Unfortunately, none of these approaches is nearly cheap or reliable enough yet to do the job on the massive scale that will likely be required to manage an electricity system with very high penetration of variable renewables.
The technologists have a lot of research and development (R&D) to do to meet the "baseload challenge" set by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, which called for storage systems to cost $5 to $30 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and operate for eight to one hundred or more hours. An August statement — meant as a boast — by the president of the flow battery company CellCube provides a sense of the challenge: "On an eight-hour storage duration, we're at the price point of $200 per kWh."
Advancing Through Collaboration
One critical way to advance this R&D agenda would be through international collaboration. R&D typically creates knowledge that benefits everyone; as the saying goes, there is no point in reinventing the wheel. International collaboration not only avoids duplication, it feeds creativity by allowing scientists and engineers with diverse perspectives to bounce them off one another.
But international R&D collaboration is hard to organize. Because its benefits are widely-shared, regardless of who pays the cost, the temptation for some nations to free-ride on investments made by others is strong.
The United States should cut this Gordian knot by putting together an international initiative on long-duration energy storage R&D. The country has a lot to gain, because researchers elsewhere are at the frontier in some areas of storage technology, such as compressed air energy storage, but also a lot to contribute, because Americans are world leaders in other areas, including flow and liquid metal batteries.
In addition, energy storage R&D is an area of bipartisan consensus. Congress introduced new bills and expanded key programs, like the grid storage R&D program in the DOE Office of Electricity this year, and senior leaders in DOE as well as environmentalists speak enthusiastically about the opportunities in this field.
The Mission Innovation Example
The United States helped to set up Mission Innovation, a broad framework for international climate-related R&D collaboration in 2015. Eight innovation challenges, ranging from sustainable biofuels to affordable heating and cooling of buildings, form its backbone.
The United States is not leading any of these challenges at the moment, although it has actively participated in some of the effort's workshops.
These innovation challenges allow countries to share R&D facilities and prepare roadmaps for technology development to speed deployment. Long-duration energy storage would make a great addition to the list, particularly because energy storage research can be conducted at relatively small scale and there is a consensus on its importance. All member countries in Mission Innovation included energy storage as a technology of interest in their original plans.
In addition to addressing a key technological challenge, taking such leadership would send an important diplomatic signal.
The United States has never supported draconian, top-down measures that would force it or any other nation to take steps that it didn't want to take. It has always preferred voluntary, cooperative, win-win agreements among nations. International R&D collaboration is the quintessential example of such agreements and has, for that reason, been a staple of American diplomacy since World War II.
Mission Innovation is a good framework for cooperation, but its challenges need to be expanded to fill major gaps. A new innovation challenge on long-duration energy storage is a perfect way to rebuild American leadership, one that leaders from both parties, in the administration as well as Congress, can agree on.