This month, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer, announced they are beginning to transition their energy system off of oil. The move was yet another signal that the world as a whole is slowly using less and less oil. One major reason: climate change.
“It’s the scene of melting ice around the world, countries and states flooding and the recognition that we need to do something,” said Quartz’s Steve LeVine to a crowd of about a hundred energy entrepreneurs, technologists and members of the University of Chicago and local community at an event on May 24th. “The progress that is being made in reducing emissions naturally, just through the economy, is only getting us so far. We need big advances in technologies.”
What advances need to be made? How do those advances get made? That was the topic of a series of talks by Argonne National Laboratory researchers at the “Energy Breakthroughs: A Glimpse into the Future” event, cosponsored by EPIC, the Chicago Innovation Exchange and Clean Energy Trust. The event was part of the University of Chicago’s three-week Innovation Fest celebration.
Leah Guzowski, the director of strategy and research programs and an energy policy scientist at Argonne, provided context into the challenges facing the electric grid today and the path moving forward.
Today, the grid is a one-way power flow. There’s no way for consumers to interact with their power, although that is slowly changing. The grid is also based on instant power generation and demand, and because of that there is a major challenge integrating renewables. Additionally, the system of long transmission lines leads to fragile points in the system. To confront these challenges, Guzowski said the future grid will need to better integrate renewables and energy storage and allow consumers and buildings to interact with it.
One of the major factors driving the future of the grid is climate change. The U.S. alone is experiencing $25-75 billion in damages due to power outages caused by natural disasters. In talking with cities, Guzowski said that they confirm that they’re seeing more significant natural disasters with climate change. But, they don’t know what that means for their city.
“So Argonne is really working to change that,” Guzowski said. “We’re working to build scenarios where we can actually say ‘what does this mean for specific 12 kilometer areas?’”
Argonne also has a collaborative project with ComEd and other institutions where they’re developing two microgrids, imposing weather patterns and other factors, and seeing how they behave and interact in different situations.
There is a lot of uncertainty. But, Guzowski said, “The one thing that is certain is that the grid is changing.”
One factor vastly forcing a change in the grid is distributed energy like wind and solar because they are so variable. But they are also necessary, said Seth Darling, a nanoscientist at Argonne who leads the lab’s Solar Energy Systems division.
Today, almost all of our energy comes from fossil fuels because they are the cheapest. But that energy costs a lot more than we realize, Darling said.
“We’re not paying it to ComEd or at the gas pump, we’re paying it in all these other places…It’s on our health insurance bill not on our ComEd bill.”
It’s estimated that these hidden costs are $5.3 trillion. And, with climate change, those costs will only get significantly worse. If we’re going to avoid this, we need to turn to other sources of energy, Darling said.
The source with the most potential is solar. Enough energy comes from the sun in one hour to power the entire planet for one year, Darling said. Of course, all of the solar energy hitting the earth can’t be captured—likely only about 2 percent can be used, the same amount currently covered by roads in the U.S.
Once it’s captured, all of that sunlight also won’t be turned into electricity because of fundamental losses in the process. Today, the solar panels on roofs are able to convert about 22 percent of that power into electricity. But even if conservatively only 12 percent of that sunlight is converted into usable electricity, the feasible solar energy supply is more than two times larger than the total projected global energy demand in 2050, Darling said.
“For all intents and purposes it’s an inexhaustible energy supply,” he said. “It needs to be a huge mix of our energy moving forward and much larger than projected.”
That doesn’t mean solar is without its significant limitations. For one, there are three types of panels on the market today: silicon, cadmum telluride and CIGS. The latter two contain too many rare materials to bring them to scale.
Silicon is what is largely used today. The prices for silicon-based PVs have dropped significantly since 1970. Looking at the global capacity of solar, today we’re at about 0.2 terrawatts. In an average location it currently costs more to get energy from solar than it does to buy it off the grid. But in places like Hawaii and California, it already costs less. As solar is used more and more, prices will continue to drop, and not too long in the future solar will become cheaper than buying off the grid everywhere.
“Something that was just a pipe dream a few decades ago is looking a lot more promising,” Darling said.
The hitch is that at that point solar is going to need to scale really fast. And that is where the problem with silicon comes in, Darling explained. It takes a huge amount of energy to make silicon solar panels. It takes about two years to get back the energy put into making the panels, also known as the energy pay-back time. That will limit how fast the panels can be scaled up.
“Even by 2050 we’re not making that big of a dent in the energy mix because it takes so long to get the energy back,” Darling said.
So what we need are new technologies that take less energy to make, are made of readily available materials and are also scalable. Right now researchers at Argonne and elsewhere are working towards that goal with three main types of solar cells being the focus: dye-sensitized solar cells, organic and hybrid PV, and perovskite PV.
Organic PVs are flexible, lightweight and charge in low-light conditions. Plus, even with only 1 percent electricity, organic PVs have an energy payback that is already faster than any other commercial technology that’s out there, Darling said. If the efficiency grows to 10 percent, the energy payback goes down to a week or even a few days. That is impossible for silicon technology. So now you can scale up much faster and by the year 2050 you can get to 20 terrawatts of energy.
Another challenge with solar is that the sun isn’t always shining. Or, sometimes it’s shining too much. In places like Hawaii and California there is so much over-generation that it’s getting to the point where they may need to start paying people to either use electricity or start throwing it away, said Kevin Gallagher, a chemical engineer at Argonne’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR).
“Here you have an economically viable, in a big way, case to not only have solar but to include batteries to make it something you can rely upon and predict,” Gallagher said.
Hawaii has partnered with SolarCity who has selected Tesla to supply lithium ion batteries to create a dispatchable solar energy installation. The utility can now call on them any time of the day to dispatch the solar energy that was produced eight hours before.
“This is game changing because the price of the utility is 14.5 cents a kilowatt hour. And this is an area that in the not-so-distant past was paying 40 cents a kilowatt hour during peak times,” Gallagher said, because of their reliance on imported oil.
Gallagher credits in large part not Elon Musk—though he played an important role in making the issue exciting to average Americans—but John B. Goodenough. Goodenough is one of the key inventors of the lithium ion battery, and he is an alumnus of the University of Chicago. Goodenough still comes to work every day trying to make an even better battery—one that is cheaper and lasts longer. That, Gallagher said, is what he and his colleagues at JCESR are trying to do. And, they are “stringing together how a physicist thinks with what a company needs” to make that battery realistic.
But, “transitions take decade,” Gallagher cautioned. “And that’s fine because we have technologies that are getting us to play in the marketplace. We just need to get to a discovery that makes them cheaper.”