Randy Wright – Daily Herald
In a modest building on the west side of Salt Lake City, a team of specialists in advanced materials and electrochemistry has produced what could be the single most important breakthrough for clean, alternative energy since Socrates first noted solar heating 2,400 years ago.
The prize is the culmination of 10 years of research and testing — a new generation of deep-storage battery that’s small enough, and safe enough, to sit in your basement and power your home.
It promises to nudge the world to a paradigm shift as big as the switch from centralized mainframe computers in the 1980s to personal laptops. But this time the mainframe is America’s antiquated electrical grid; and the switch is to personal power stations in millions of individual homes.
Former energy secretary Bill Richardson once disparaged the U.S. electrical grid as “third world,” and he was painfully close to the mark. It’s an inefficient, aging relic of a century-old approach to energy and a weak link in national security in an age of terrorism.
Taking a load off the grid through electricity production and storage at home would extend the life of the system and avoid the expenditure of tens, or even hundreds, of billions to make it “smart.”
The battery breakthrough comes from a Salt Lake company called Ceramatec, the R&D arm of CoorsTek, a world leader in advanced materials and electrochemical devices. It promises to reduce dependence on the dinosaur by hooking up with the latest generation of personalized power plants that draw from the sun.
Solar energy has been around, of course, but it’s been prohibitively expensive. Now the cost is tumbling, driven by new thin-film chemistry and manufacturing techniques. Leaders in the field include companies like Arizona-based First Solar, which can paint solar cells onto glass; and Konarka, an upstart that purchased a defunct Polaroid film factory in New Bedford, Mass., and now plans to print cells onto rolls of flexible plastic.
The convergence of these two key technologies — solar power and deep-storage batteries — has profound implications for oil-strapped America.
“These batteries switch the whole dialogue to renewables,” said Daniel Nocera, a noted chemist and professor of energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who sits on Ceramatec’s science advisory board. “They will turn us away from dumb technology, circa 1900 — a 110-year-old approach — and turn us forward.”
Why not just upgrade to a so-called “smart grid” as President Obama has proposed in his economic stimulus package? There are complications, Nocera said.
“First you have to rebuild the grid because the one we have now is a creaky machine from the 1920s, and we keep trying to retrofit it,” he said. “Then you’re going to have computers trying to manage the energy, which brings up issues like security. You have to make it really secure so you don’t have people hacking into things. And then politics. Just wait until you try to run power lines through someone’s backyard.
“I can’t imagine anything more secure than generating my own energy with the sun at my house, and now I’ll have a way to store it. It’s the ultimate in security, and the ultimate in control.”
With small-scale electrical generation taking place at millions of individual homes — as opposed to today’s large-scale power generation from a handful of giant power plants — there would be less worry about what’s called “point failure” on the grid. That’s when a single component gets knocked out and shuts off power to a whole region. California-style rolling blackouts would be history.
The threat of terrorism has heightened the worry. But wide distribution of batteries in homes would virtually eliminate it.