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US DOE Budget Discussions Open the Door for Low Cost Battery Chemistries

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US DOE Budget Discussions Open the Door for Low Cost Battery Chemistries

In testimony March 27, 2012 before the House Appropriations Energy & Water Development Subcommittee, witnesses from the U.S. Department of Energy presented a subtle shift in the department’s focus on energy storage research from rare and expensive chemistries to ones emphasizing “lower cost” and “increased fast charging.”

The hearing was held to examine the Fiscal Year 2013 budget request from DOE, which has proposed overall increases in agency budgets aimed at reducing petroleum consumption in vehicles and increasing the use of “clean” energy in electric power production. In both mobile and stationary applications, energy storage plays a key role in the DOE budget proposals.

Dr. Henry Kelly, Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), which runs the energy storage for vehicles program, told the subcommittee:

“Major concentrations will be on advanced battery design optimization and innovative battery manufacturing processes. Additional research will focus on developing high performance, low cost power electronics and electric motors that require reduced or no rare earth materials.”

Dr. Kelly said the energy storage research would be featured in a new DOE program, “EV Everywhere,” which he said is intended “to make electric-powered vehicles as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered vehicles for the average American family within a decade.”

The “EV Everywhere” program has been designed to repackage a goal announced by DOE three years ago to have one million electric vehicles on the road in America by 2015, a goal that clearly will not be met since the cost of lithium-based battery systems is one of the chief reasons the cost of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles remains too high for average consumers.

This does not mean that DOE’s new “EV Everywhere” program will abandon research into lithium batteries. That research will continue to be a major part of the energy storage program. Rather, it means there is a subtle shift to embrace more than one chemistry and also look more into “innovative battery manufacturing processes.” Dr. Kelly also said the EERE program would dedicate greater effort to natural gas vehicle development.

DOE’s vehicle technologies budget for the current Fiscal Year 2012 stands at $328.8 million. DOE is asking for a $91.2 million increase for FY 2013.

In energy storage for stationary applications such as the electric power grid, the DOE budget is considerably smaller ($15 million) than the one for vehicle energy storage. Nevertheless, the performance of lead-carbon batteries in tests already underway in DOE laboratories has been impressive enough to warrant specific mention in the March 27 testimony of Ms. Patricia Hoffman, Assistant Secretary for Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, who told the subcommittee:

“The request for energy storage reflects scaled-back research into lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries. It supports the development of a suite of technologies (e.g. lead-carbon, sodium metal halide, metal air, and advanced flow batteries, and flywheel and compressed air storage) that span the range of services associated with grid applications including frequency regulation, wind and solar ramping, and energy management; as well as different scales suitable for central (large) stations, distributed, and end-user deployment.”

For the past several years, congressional appropriations leaders have complained about what they say is the lack of a “return on investment” made to develop advanced batteries using expensive chemistries, rare earth elements and other properties. The March 27 hearing, therefore, was an opportunity for DOE to tell the House appropriations subcommittee that it has gotten the message.

Does the mean that Congress will give DOE all the funding it seeks for Fiscal Year 2013? Probably not.

Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey) said that while research into energy storage and other programs remains necessary, he nonetheless would like to see Congress allocate more funding to development of nuclear and clean coal technologies.

Two important points about the March 27 hearing: First, energy storage for both mobile and stationary applications will remain an important part of DOE’s research and development programs even if DOE does not receive all the appropriated funds it seeks. Second, research into lead-carbon batteries has been recognized by DOE as having an important role in developing low-cost, reliable energy storage products.


What does EPA’s new greenhouse gas rule mean?

The US Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited proposed rule to limit emissions of carbon dioxide from the nation’s power plants. The rule, once implemented, means that any new power plant built in the US will not be allowed to emit more than 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

The rule will prevent any new “conventional” coal-fired plant from being built since such plants emit more than 2,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. It will essentially pave the way, therefore, for new natural gas-fired plants since they emit roughly 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour.

The new rule would allow new coal-fired plants to be built, but only if they use carbon capture control equipment. Such plants, however, are considerably more expensive than conventional coal-fired plants. This would appear to make natural gas-fired plants more attractive to utilities and ratemaking authorities.

There are two major loopholes in the new EPA rule:
1. It does not apply to plants currently in operation.
2. It would not apply to plants proposed to be built within one year of the rule’s final approval.

The proposed rule is subject to a 60-day comment period and is expected to be finalized by EPA before the end of the year. Several Congressional lawmakers have threatened to introduce a resolution of “disapproval” to block the rule from being implemented, but few expect such an effort to succeed.

The rule is the latest step in efforts by EPA to curb CO2 emissions. Last year, EPA and the National Highway Transit Administration put into place new rules restricting emissions of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles.

These rules stem from a decision by the US Supreme Court in 2007 that reaffirmed the authority of EPA to declare emissions of CO2 an “endangerment” to public health and implement regulations to control the emissions.

While the rule would appear to clear the way for construction of new natural gas-fired plants in the US, it could also benefit developers of power from nuclear and renewable resources. Developers of energy storage technologies for the electric grid also could benefit from the new EPA rule.

Why could nuclear, renewable and energy storage benefit from the new EPA rule? If the electric power industry becomes too reliant on natural gas-fired generation and commodity prices increase, the industry would have to turn more to nuclear, renewable and energy storage projects if clean-coal technology does not become more affordable.