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.

Listen and subscribe to Technopolis: Apple Podcasts / Stitcher / Google Play / Spotify

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?

Listen and subscribe to Technopolis: Apple Podcasts / Stitcher / Google Play / Spotif

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. The facade of a casino in Atlantic City.
    Photos

    Photographing the Trumpian Urbanism of Atlantic City

    Brian Rose’s new book uses the deeply troubled New Jersey city as a window into how a developer-turned-president operates.

  2. Design

    The Many Lives of Notre-Dame

    Far from being a single author’s definitive text, the beloved cathedral’s history is a palimpsest.

  3. Life

    Who’s Really Buying Property in San Francisco?

    A lot of software developers, according to an unprecedented new analysis.

  4. a photo of a man surveying a home garage.
    Transportation

    How Single-Family Garages Can Ease California's Housing Crisis

    Given the affordable housing crisis, California cities should encourage single-family homeowners to convert garages into apartments and accessory dwelling units.

  5. Equity

    The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed

    Manhattan’s new luxury mega-project was partially bankrolled by an investor visa program called EB-5, which was meant to help poverty-stricken areas.