By investing in factories to build zinc-ion batteries for energy storage, the US can quickly establish a complete energy storage chain.
Whether it’s California’s record-breaking heat wave causing widespread blackouts or Texas’ dollar efforts to keep the lights on, the need for sustainable energy storage systems across the United States has never been more acute. Unfortunately, the deployment of these systems is hindered by serious issues with the lithium-ion batteries used in these systems. Bottlenecks in battery connections and increased occurrence of catastrophic fires are the worst of these issues. The US can address both by developing a domestic battery supply chain with products tailored to the unique needs of the stationary energy storage market. Achieving this will enable a rapid transition to reliable electricity grids powered by renewable energy.
The EV industry is creating fierce competition for batteries
Although electric cars make up less than 10% of new cars sold, automakers already buy more than 75% of the world’s lithium batteries. With an ever-growing number of companies entering the market, the industry’s demand for EV batteries is expected to grow by more than 500% by 2030. The world is already producing less lithium than these companies need, and this shortfall is expected to last this decade. .
Protecting both high-quality batteries and the scarce materials needed to make them has become a top priority for automakers betting their futures on success in the EV market. Companies like Ford, Tesla, and GM are getting special multi-year supply contracts from miners and battery makers to avoid falling prey to future shortages. Suppliers are keen to sign these contracts as they provide guaranteed returns on the multi-million dollar investment they need to improve their production capacity.
These deals pose serious issues and major risks for energy storage system (ESS) manufacturers, a much more mature market than the EV battery market. Suppliers will often choose years of estimated revenue provided by contract with vehicle manufacturers over orders placed by ESS manufacturers, leaving these companies with greater uncertainty in future battery costs, availability and delivery times. Until recently, the ESS industry avoided this tough competition by buying heavy-duty lithium-ion batteries that use lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cathodes since automakers prefer lighter versions with metal oxide cathodes. However, almost all automakers now plan to include LFP in their entry-level vehicles. This only increases the fact that the ESS industry needs another supply chain dedicated to its unique needs to support its rapid growth.
Batteries solve security and supply challenges
The chemistry behind lithium-ion batteries makes them particularly suitable for applications that require compact and lightweight battery packs. This is why they were first sold in personal electronics in the 1990s – no other technology could match their power density. Since EVs alike require light and compact battery packs, lithium-ion has dominated this industry as well. Any application that requires portable or portable battery packs is best served by lithium-ion. But – as its name suggests – the stationary energy storage industry doesn’t need portable batteries, it needs batteries that are safe, affordable, and built with many raw materials. The energy storage industry has a unique opportunity to adopt new battery technologies that are too complex to be used in EVs, such as zinc-ion batteries, a promising candidate.
Zinc-ion batteries use the same basic design as lithium-ion but use zinc-ion instead of lithium-ion to store the charge. Zinc is much heavier than lithium, making zinc-ion batteries very difficult for EVs. Besides, they offer the same power and service life as lithium-ion, which means they are ideally suited for energy storage systems. The materials used in zinc-ion batteries are much more abundant than those used in lithium-ion, giving ESS manufacturers a comfortable solution to the supply shortage described earlier. Zinc-ion batteries also use a heat-resistant design, which is a significant advantage over lithium-ion batteries. Security is very important in the ESS industry, especially when these systems are installed in homes and businesses.
The new battery chemistries give the ESS business a unique opportunity to develop a dedicated supply chain out of competition with automakers. To hit decarbonization targets, this supply chain will need to match or exceed current lithium-ion production by the end of the decade. This will require governments to invest in the development of energy storage systems as much as they do in EVs.
The US may lead the world’s energy storage battery industry
In 2015, the Chinese prioritized the development of domestic lithium-ion production. As a result, they now produce 70% of the world’s lithium-ion cells. Western governments are currently spending billions of dollars to start production of their cells, but since China accounts for 80% of the world’s cathode production and 90% of the world’s anode production, the world’s automakers will depend on the Chinese supply chain for the foreseeable future. .
The United States has a unique opportunity to avoid the same result in its energy storage industry by prioritizing the development of a supply chain based on zinc batteries. A strong domestic supply chain for zinc mining and refining already exists, and it produces far more zinc than the energy storage market can possibly demand – the only missing link in the domestic storage supply chain is cell production. Fortunately, zinc-ion batteries can be built using the same common methods and materials used to produce lithium-ion cells. The Department of Energy has already invested billions of dollars in cell manufacturing for EVs. By investing in the same types of factories to build zinc-ion batteries for energy storage, the US can quickly establish a complete chain of energy storage.
Estimates have shown that the energy storage industry will need as many batteries as the EV industry to achieve global decarbonization goals. Lithium-ion’s dependence on scarce raw materials means that this technology will not be able to fill the demand from both markets. The solution? The energy storage industry can use new technologies such as zinc-ion batteries to avoid competing with automakers for limited battery supply. The United States can pair its existing zinc supply chain with ongoing investment in cell manufacturing to rapidly develop a domestic energy storage system.
Ryan Brown is the founder and CEO of Salient Energy, developing technologies, such as zinc-ion batteries, to accelerate the transition to clean energy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors themselves, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.
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