Solar power or batteries? Which will be the breakthrough?

3045988-inline-i-1-for-friday-a-solar-powered-plane-is-about-to-take-a-five-day-flight-across-the-pacific-ocean-copWill electric cars revolutionize the world? We have seen, just last week, news of a battery powered plane. Will this change our transport structures? It is certainly possible, but we probably need better ways of generating electricity if we are to see major environmental benefits from any such change.

In large parts of the US, an electric car is, effectively, a coal-fired car. Worse, there is tremendous loss of efficiency when the electricity is put into a battery and, at the end of the car’s life, you have a battery to dispose of. That’s not to say there are no environmental benefits. The internal combustion engine has its own inefficiencies, and cars produce their pollution on the spot. At least electric vehicles produce their pollution outside cities.

But some sort of shift will probably come if someone makes a technological breakthrough either in generating electricity or in storing it. Either of them would do. One might well lead to a breakthrough in the other. These changes won’t just change your vehicles. They will change the way you power your home.

The efficiency breakthrough on the generating side will probably come in the solar industry. Right now conversion efficiency is pathetically low. The Solyndra company, which absorbed $500 million in federal aid before failing, claimed it could make solar panels with 12% efficiency at commercially viable prices. This turned out to be nonsense. But the failure of Solyndra is not the failure of solar power. That present efficiency levels are in single figures and 12% is an unrealized target suggests that there is plenty of room for improvement. At 20-30% efficiency a few solar panels on your roof would supply all the power you need for the year.

But such a technological advance would not be necessary if batteries were more efficient. The other weakness of solar (and other alternative) power is that it doesn’t necessarily provide power at the time you want it. In northern latitudes such as the Lake Champlain region heating homes at night in the winter is very energy intensive. Peak demand is when solar supply is at its lowest. In California, where peak demand is driven by air-conditioning, there is a more natural fit. But what if solar energy could simply be collected in New Mexico and Arizona – or in the deserts of Australia – and shipped to you in the form of an efficient and inexpensive battery?

Battery technology has advanced considerably in recent decades. Some of the shrinkage and extra life in cell phone and laptop batteries has come from the devices themselves becoming more efficient, and simply needing less power, but the batteries themselves are also much better. Similar advances in vehicle and home storage batteries will probably follow. 

In 2010, Poul Norby, of the University of Oslo, estimated that electric vehicle batteries would have to double their energy density and bring down costs from $500 to $100 to seriously challenge gasoline powered cars. Such an advance would probably not be enough to run your home from a battery instead of connecting to an electricity grid. 

Some progress in converting solar power and some in storing it could tip the balance. But a sufficiently big breakthrough in one field could make the other unnecessary. If your car could run from a solar panel on its own roof, it wouldn’t need a battery at all. 

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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