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Better Batteries Could Revolutionize Solar, Wind Power

Faced with growing global demand for electricity and a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change, countries around the world are intensifying efforts to improve the lithium-ion battery or replace it. Still, batteries face obstacles, including cost and safety. Batteries are one of many ways to store grid-scale energy.

On an arid mountain in Eureka County, Nev., a mining company believes it’s struck the 21st-century equivalent of gold. The precious commodity is vanadium, a metal that can be extracted from shale rock and used to make powerful, long-lasting batteries for cars, homes and utilities.

If Vancouver-based American Vanadium gets federal approval for its proposed Gibellini Hill Project — a 30-day public comment period ends May 29 — it will operate the only vanadium mine in the United States.

The battle to build a better battery is intensifying as the United States and other countries, faced with growing global demand for electricity and a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change, look to expand carbon-free renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Batteries are key. They can directly power electric cars and buses, and indirectly, homes and big buildings, by storing solar and wind power for times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. They balance out renewables that produce energy intermittently, so consumers can power laptops or run refrigerators 24/7.

The race is on. Universities, start-ups and major companies are working with new materials such as vanadium, or tweaking the lithium-ion battery that Sony introduced more than 20 years ago for personal electronics. Some advances, such as the ones that Toyota and IBM are developing to power cars for 500-plus miles on a single charge, won’t make it to market for at least five years.

Others are making their debuts this year, including a battery by Ontario, Canada-based Electrovaya, which enables homes with solar panels to go entirely off grid, or one by General Electric, which will be paired with a Texas wind farm to provide continuous power.

“It’s the dawn of the energy-storage age,” says Bill Radvak, president of American Vanadium, which is partnering with the German CellCube battery manufacturer Gildemeister. He says storage could be the “holy grail” for renewable energy. “There was no major battery market three years ago,” he says, adding that is changing quickly.

In February, California, which mandates that 33% of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, required a Los Angeles-area utility to ensure some capacity comes from energy storage. On May 1, Germany, which is shuttering its nuclear power plants as it boosts renewables, began subsidizing homeowners’ purchases of batteries to store power from solar panels. China’s five-year plan calls for 5% of all electricity to be stored by 2020. In the United States, about 2% of electric capacity is pumped-hydro storage: water that sits behind dams that generates electricity when sent through turbines. (continued…)
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