Molly Turner is an urban planner who teaches urban innovation at the Berkeley Haas School of Business. She was the first policy person at Airbnb.
In episode 4 of the podcast Technopolis, we consider how energy storage could change everything about how we turn on the lights and get around town.
Batteries power many aspects of our daily lives, from the the laptops in our backpacks to the electric scooters rolling some urban-dwellers to work. But batteries—big ones—are also increasingly showing up in our homes and offices, powering buildings, and even replacing expensive power plants on the grid. In the not-so-distant future, could those energy storage packs be a key to climate sustainability and change the way we consume energy, too?
We game it all out on the fourth episode of Technopolis, the new podcast from CityLab about how technology is remaking, disrupting, and sometimes overrunning our cities.
Batteries can store power from renewables like solar and wind so they keep our buildings running even when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. So it’s no surprise that utilities in sun-soaked places like Arizona, Hawaii, California, and Puerto Rico have all announced major increases in battery deployments for the next several years. And as extreme weather events intensify, coastal cities like Houston, New Orleans, and San Juan, might come to rely on big batteries to keep the lights on in homes, hospitals, schools, and fire stations.
A future of battery-powered cities is not guaranteed. Most of the world’s utilities still rely heavily on polluting energy technologies and legacy centralized grids. Their monopoly status can make them slow to change without the right regulatory incentives in place. Lithium ion, which is the dominant battery technology, is also burdened by some serious geopolitical and human rights concerns. And lithium has real technological limitations, too. Ever hear of “range anxiety” in the context of battery-powered electric vehicles? That anxiety comes from the fact that batteries are still limited in how long they can store energy.
But Bill Gates and many other prominent investors are pouring billions of dollars into new battery technologies that may eventually replace lithium ion with cheaper, longer-lasting, and less geopolitically fraught alternatives.
There’s another limitation: Batteries today could only store a tiny percent of the electricity produced globally on any given day. But installations had a record year in 2018. Tesla has stated publicly that it intends to double battery deployments in 2019. And traditional big energy companies are also getting into the game, with Shell buying German battery company Sonnen earlier this year.
So what might our battery-powered cities look and feel like?
On episode 4 of Technopolis, we talk with John Zahurancik, the COO of Fluence Energy, who deployed some of the world’s first utility-scale batteries; and Rushad Nanavatty of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit working with cities and countries globally to help them to transition to a clean-energy future. And we hear a revealing anecdote from Dan Neil, auto columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a battery believer with carbon remorse.
Will batteries power our cities toward their climate goals or, like so many other green technologies before them, will their hype run out of juice?