Transport and Storage

I've done a lot of thinking about this, trying to think of some scheme for energy around the planet that actually makes sense, technologically and economically, that's up to this terawatt challenge we have. I call this idea the distributive storage grid. In the year 2050, instead of transporting energy by moving masses of coal or oil, you transport energy as energy. You do that with a grid of electrical connections, an interconnected grid of hundreds of millions of local sites.

Consider, for example, a vast interconnected electrical energy grid for the North American continent from above the Arctic Circle to below the Panama Canal. By 2050 this grid will interconnect several hundred million local sites. There are two key aspects of this future grid that will make a huge difference: (1) massive long-distance electrical power transmission and (2) local storage of electrical power with real-time pricing.

Storage of electrical power is critical for the stability and robustness of the electrical grid, and it is essential if we are ever to use solar and wind as our dominant primary power sources. The best place to provide this storage is locally, near the point of use. Imagine that by 2050 every house, every business, every building has its own local electrical storage device, an uninterruptible power supply capable of handling the entire needs of the owner for 24 hours. Because the devices are, ideally, small and relatively inexpensive, the owners can replace them with new models every five years or so as worldwide technological innovation and free enterprise continuously and rapidly develop improvements in this most critical of all aspects of the electrical energy grid.

Today, using lead-acid storage batteries, such a unit for a typical house to store 100 kilowatt hours of electrical energy would take up a small room and cost more than $10,000. Through revolutionary advances in nanotechnology, it may be possible to shrink an equivalent unit to the size of a washing machine and drop the cost to less than $1,000. With these advances the electrical grid can become exceedingly robust, because local storage protects customers from power fluctuations and outages. Most importantly, it permits some or all of the primary electrical power on the grid to come from solar and wind.

The other critical innovation needed is massive electrical power transmission over continental distances, permitting, for example, hundreds of gigawatts of electrical power to be transported from solar farms in New Mexico to markets in New England. Then all primary power producers can compete, with little concern for the actual distance to market. Clean coal plants in Wyoming, stranded gas in Alaska, wind farms in North Dakota, hydroelectric power from northern British Columbia, biomass energy from Mississippi, nuclear power from Hanford, Washington, and solar power from the vast western deserts. Remote power plants from all over the continent contribute power to consumers thousands of miles away on the grid. Nanotechnology in the form of singlewalled carbon nanotubes (aka "buckytubes"), forming what we call the "Armchair Quantum Wire," may play a big role in this new electrical transmission system.

Such innovationsin power transmission, power storage, and the massive primary power-generation technologies themselvescan come only from miraculous discoveries in science, together with free enterprise in open competition for huge worldwide markets.

The key is not only an energy source but also energy storage and energy transport. If you can solve the problem of local storage, you've basically solved the whole problem. That's because, by definition, the storage you need is local. You've got terawatts of power moving into the grid. The biggest problem with renewable energies in general, and solar and wind in particular, is that they're episodic and not dispatchable. You've got to have storage. Storing energy in batteries, capacitors, fuel cells, and some chemical systems like hydrogen depends on nanoscale interactions. It depends on charge transfer reactions that take place over the span of a few atoms on their surface. The next generation of storage devices are all optimized by nanoengineered advances and the use of nanoscale catalyst particles. Nanotechnology is where the action is in energy storage.

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