While the 2020’s are off to a tumultuous start, the renewable energy market is expected to make great strides. By mid-decade, renewable energy is set to be a $1.5 trillion industry globally. At the end of the previous decade, renewables powered the equivalent of 43.5 million homes in the US alone. The two biggest sustainable energy sources (solar and wind) boasted $18.7 and $14 billion in respective investments as well as over a hundred thousand jobs each.
Government incentives may play a part in this spectacular growth, but demand is also high for renewable energy. In American, 3 in 4 citizens want to reduce pollution, 71% think clean energy should be a priority, and nearly half of consumers would pay more per month in energy bills if it meant they got their electricity from a sustainable source. Their main reasons for supporting clean energy are wanting to provide a better life for future generations and acknowledging that sustainable energy is less harmful to people’s health.
The main problem renewable energy companies will need to solve before they can meet demand is their battery. As of 2019, less than 5% of behind-the-meter solar systems included a battery. Both wind and solar are intermittent in that both can only generate electricity under certain conditions. Electricity usage happens in any circumstance, so power needs to be stored for when it’s needed. The current system of net metering (in which residential solar users sell excess power to their utility company) is set to end soon in the US. Without batteries or net metering, residential solar will become less financially attractive across the nation.
RIght now, batteries of all stripes fall under the category of lithium-ion. Invented in 1912, lithium-ion batteries have not changed much over the past century. By next year, lithium-ion batteries are expected to fuel 61% of demand for renewable energy. Unfortunately, this class of batteries has several limitations preventing it from being a sustainable choice. Lithium-ion batteries degrade over time and quickly lose storage capacity. Their material extraction, production, and disposal can cause toxic water contamination. Also, their recycling process is difficult and costly due to variance in materials. The point of switching to renewable energy is to decrease pollution, not perpetuate it. While lithium-ion batteries are still the best available choice for mobile applications, companies should consider other options for long duration, energy intensive, stationary applications like solar and wind systems.
Given current technology, the best replacement for the lithium-ion battery is a vanadium flow battery. Vanadium flow batteries have several advantages over their predecessors: their useful lifespan is over 25 years, they can fully charge and discharge without degrading, and recycled vanadium is just as effective as freshly mined vanadium in batteries. With vanadium flow batteries, mining will only be necessary to bring new batteries online, not to replace old ones. Everything considered, vanadium flow batteries are the sustainable choice for renewable energy companies to use. Investing in a greener future goes beyond energy sources.