Technologies enabling the storage of energy have been at the very center of discussions over renewable energy this year. And it’s little wonder why. Storage provides the means to make far greater and far more effective use of renewable energy. Added to this, for several reasons, storage represents a fundamental part of our transition to 100% renewables future — for all intents and purposes, storage is an absolute necessity.
Much discussion could be had over the various routes to energy storage. From pumped hydro power and mechanical energy storage like flywheels, to molten salts and power to gas technologies, there’s a plethora of storage systems out there — more yet if we look at the conceptual cutting edge. To be sure, there’s an argument to be made for many of them on account of their respective advantages and disadvantages; technical merits which render them well suited to particular applications.
That said, it’s batteries that take the limelight. In particular, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Without getting into the technicalities, for the time being Li-ion batteries represent the best all round storage solution for our current needs. Highly scalable via daisy-chaining, Li-ion’s well-rounded technical performance balances power output and duration. What’s more, it’s a highly modular solution that can be readily packaged into systems conducive to particularities of varying applications. Compounding these advantages, the adoption of Li-ion by both electric vehicle and energy industries has rapidly driven the costs of Li-ion down to the point where it’s an economically feasible solution in both contexts.
To be sure, this is a highly abridged summary of why Li-ion is the de facto solution for both electric vehicles and stationary energy storage of the sort being advanced by Tesla. But the numbers speak for themselves.
For starters, virtually all major electric vehicles are founded upon Li-ion systems — something not expected to change any time soon.
On the stationary front there are more options for storage. Applications at the utility scale, and in industrial and residential settings allow for more solutions to play a role — but still, Li-ion is leaps ahead of the competition.
Setting aside pumped hydro storage, some 70% (2000MW) of global battery storage deployed to date is Li-ion based — a share that’s only set to increase according to analysts Navigant Research. Of all new storage capacity anticipated to be deployed through 2017, Li-ion battery systems dominate the three core sectors of residential (90% share), commercial & industrial (87%) and utility (78%). These trends persist going forward too, as storage deployment ramps up exponentially.
For more insights on this topic see, ‘Gigafactory & the Looming Necessity of Batteries’
With the outlook for stationary battery storage as it stands, coupled with expectations over the electrification of transport, the forecast for massively increased demand for Li-ion batteries leads to the pragmatic question of whether we have sufficient manufacturing capacity. The short answer is not yet…but we’re working on it.
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, global annual battery production capacity is set to more than double from 103GWh today, to over 278GWh in 2021. Establishing such a supply chain clearly isn’t going to happen overnight, but efforts to amp up worldwide production are already underway.
The future needs high quality, green batteries. And it needs lots of them.
Tesla’s Gigafactory venture is well documented: already partially online, and aiming to reach 35GWh of Li-ion battery capacity by 2018, it’s a $5 billion project of unparalleled scale; one ultimately seeking to produce up to 150GWh of vehicle and stationary storage per year by 2020. Still, the Gigafactory alone pales relative to our future needs.
Fortunately, Tesla isn’t alone in advancing the advent of ubiquitous battery technology; Greentech Media report on ten battery gigafactories in the global pipeline. Slated for Europe are plans from Daimler for a $550 million Li-ion plant in Germany, and Elon Musk’s announcement for another Gigafactory from Tesla.
Another project comes from Swedish newcomer Northvolt: a Li-ion battery plant with capacity production of 32GWh to be built in Sweden. Still under development, the $4.6 billion (€4 billion), phased-build would see a pilot plant by mid-2019, production of 8GWh by late-2020, and ramp-up to full capacity by the end of 2023.
“The factory will be the largest Li-ion battery factory in Europe,” Peter Carlsson, CEO of Northvolt tells Phlebas during an interview.
Explaining that the scale of Northvolt’s ambition is a response to the enormity of task at hand, he says: “It comes down to costs. Manufacturing at this scale brings the final costs of battery cells down and that’s what’s needed if we’re to reach an inflection point where applications, either in transport or storage, can become widespread.”
From raw materials of enriched lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, graphite, aluminium and so on, Northvolt will produce battery cells — the building blocks of batteries as we know them: cells are assembled in battery packs, which in turn are assembled into battery modules . It’s a similar philosophy as being applied at Tesla’s Gigafactory: raw materials go in, and batteries, suitable for both vehicles and stationary applications, come out. “Integrating all the manufacturing processes under one roof adds efficiency and leads to significant savings,” says Carlsson. “It also means we can build more sustainability into the manufacturing flow. That’s a key driver for us — we want a sustainable operation.”
While Northvolt will capitalise on Sweden’s plentiful supplies of clean energy in a bid to ensure a zero carbon footprint, it also intends to advance a sustainable life-cycle model for its products. Carlsson explains: “A central challenge with batteries, but one we expect to solve, is that of circular economy and recycling. Today there is no industrial-grade solution to deal with Li-ion batteries.”
Hinting at Northvolt’s approach, Carlsson says: “We’re interested in reversing manufacturing methods and working toward recycling of key components. A reasonably high proportion of a Li-ion battery is recyclable. Copper, aluminium, that’s easy. The recovery and recycling of other materials, lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite — this is more challenging, but the faster we establish a circular flow, the faster we establish the sustainable, long term supply of batteries that we need.”
The matter of recyclability is inherently connected with questions of whether we even have enough resources for the task ahead. Carlsson offers words of reassurance: “In terms of supply of raw materials, there’s some misconception. There’s certainly over-concern for lithium; it’s actually readily available as a natural resource. We even have it in the ocean if mines ran out so we have sufficient resources to support the transition. Other materials are rare, but this is why recovery and recycling is so important.” (See Visual Capitalist’s infographic for some great insights on this topic.)
The sustainable approach of Northvolt is encouraging considering not only the nature, but also the sheer scales involved in what we’re considering with electrification of transport and proliferation of stationary storage. As Carlsson notes: “We definitely need more factories of this size, and even larger. Unless we start building a number of these facilities, supply is simply not going to meet demand from 2020 onwards. There’s a lot at stake, and it’s absolutely necessary work.”
Northvolt recently announced that it will split its operations over two sites; with manufacturing to be located in Skellefteå (employing between 2,000 to 2,500 people) and main R&D operations located in Västerås (a further 300 to 400 persons).
Construction of the Northvolt factory is set to begin in the second half of 2018, with a demonstration production line in Västerås scheduled to be completed in 2019.