David Clarke doesn’t believe in miracles. The chief executive of the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) frowns and stirs in his chair when asked to define the supernatural. “We’re not looking for it,” he tells the FT Global Energy Leaders Summit. “Physics doesn’t change. Every week, I get five letters about new technologies on my desk. It ain’t gonna happen,” he adds.
Clarke is part of a four-man panel that’s let itself in for some mischief. Their session’s called Breakthrough Technologies: Praying for an Energy Miracle — and their interrogator’s playing devil’s advocate. “What does an energy miracle look like?”
The panel, reluctant to play Nostradamus, but keen to push their agendas, pass round the crystal ball like a hot potato. They all return to one word though, and it’s not ‘gas’, but ‘storage’. (Wildcat remembers the party scene in The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman’s repeatedly asked to pledge his future to “plastics” by an industrialist.)
“Energy storage could be a big one,” says Clarke. The answer seems to satisfy the gallery, and the panel nods with relief. Simply put, technology to trap energy is the industry’s cutting edge – think batteries, pumped storage, and thermal energy reservoirs. “Energy you don’t use is the cheapest energy,” Clarke adds.
The ‘miracle’ is more economic than scientific. Clarke claims that replacing the UK’s distribution networks from scratch would cost around 53% more than rebuilding all the country’s power stations. “Energy storage is a mechanism by which you can mitigate investment,” he says.
Heat is storage’s most interesting prong. Networks to capture waste heat from power stations and store it underground for homes and offices, are “critical” to generation and distribution efficiency, according to the ETI’s website. Here’s where gas comes in. Heat accounts for almost 40% of energy consumption in the United States. Gas provides 1,024 Btu per cubic foot in heat, and almost 25% of the country’s power.
Back at the conference, Clarke has opened the floodgates. “Storage is key – it allows supply and demand to be flexible,” says Mike Davis, the chief executive of China’s influential National Institute of Clean-and-Low-Carbon Energy. The man on his right, Eric Isaacs, a physics grandee at the University of Chicago, forecasts “huge storage developments within five years.”
The panel agrees that environmental imperatives have forced storage to get better, but admit that in pure energy-giving terms, current solutions aren’t in the same ballpark as fossil fuels. There’s even some misty-eyed nostalgia for petroleum. “Petroleum’s energy potential lies someway between a mobile phone and a bomb,” says Isaacs. “It’s ten times more ‘energy dense’ than, say, a car battery. Lots of cool science is needed if storage is going to rival gasoline,” he adds.
Fortunately, storage has campus cachet, says Donald Sadoway, an MIT Professor of Materials Chemistry. “The best students want to use science as a service for society,” he says. He’s the only panel member looking beyond storage. “It’s important, but we’ll solve it.”
Sadoway even sends an Age of Enlightenment shiver through the room. “We’re still looking for a catalyst that drives down energy use. It could be out there — Mother Nature loves to go to the jewellery store.”
As they must say in energy storage circles: watch this space. CN