A National Storage Initiative Would Harness Bipartisan Enthusiasm for Clean Energy Innovation

David M. Hart January 22, 2020
January 22, 2020

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While climate change is, sadly, a highly polarized policy issue in the United States, clean energy is not. Large majorities of Democrats and Republicans want the federal government to make clean energy a high priority and support research and deployment policies.

Renewables like wind and solar benefited greatly from this consensus over the past decade, dominating the growth of electricity-generating capacity not only in blue states like California, but also in red states like Kansas.

While the renewables build-out is far from over, energy storage is poised to surf this bipartisan wave of support in the 2020s. In a paper released on January 23 for the Day One Project, I propose a national energy-storage initiative that would make the most of this enthusiasm by aligning all federal agencies around aggressive, but achievable goals in collaboration with the private sector, academia, and states and localities.

Energy storage is vital because electricity systems, no matter how big or small, must instantaneously balance supply and demand or suffer blackouts. Although generations of researchers have sought the holy grail of affordable, reliable, durable, and safe energy storage, no one has yet found it.

To be sure, lithium-ion batteries (whose inventors won the Nobel Prize this year) have gotten much better and much cheaper, especially in the past 10 years. But their deficiencies are familiar to every cellphone user whose battery has run out at a critical moment. Better energy-storage technologies would make the electronic tools that everyone depends on—including soldiers, doctors, farmers, and teachers—more useful.

At a larger scale, better batteries and other storage technologies would enable renewable resources to play a bigger role contributing to the power grid and accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in place of gas-powered ones. Since electricity and transportation are the two largest greenhouse-gas-emitting sectors in the United States, accelerating progress down these pathways would take the nation a considerable distance toward eliminating emissions by 2050.

The opportunities in these two massive sectors have sparked international competitors like the European Union and China to make significant strategic investments in energy storage. While the United States has enormous science, technology, and manufacturing resources that would give it a leg up in this global race, it has so far remained largely on the sidelines.

That is beginning to change. The Trump administration’s Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced an energy storage “grand challenge,” and bipartisan majorities in Congress have supported raising federal spending for research and development (R&D). Pending bipartisan legislation would extend this effort into technology demonstration and regulatory reform.

Given the urgency of the challenge and growing competition, these tentative efforts should be super-charged. My paper suggests tripling federal spending over five years, building large-scale partnerships to create and test prototype energy-storage technologies, and establishing regional manufacturing innovation centers to develop new production methods, train the workforce, and engage small manufacturers.

The proposed initiative would go well beyond DOE to encompass other basic-research agencies like the National Science Foundation, federal agencies that use energy-storage technologies like NASA and the Department of Defense, and the economic development agencies within the Department of Commerce.

Industrial end users, like power-system vendors, utilities, electronics manufacturers, and automakers, must be deeply involved as well, along with producers of energy storage technologies. States and localities, many of which have announced ambitious goals for grid-scale energy storage, should also be incorporated into the initiative.

The proposed initiative would follow the pattern set by earlier interagency efforts like the Human Genome Project and National Nanotechnology Initiative. White House leadership and coordination will be essential to keep the agencies aligned, bring in nonfederal stakeholders, and build public support. 

Breakthroughs in energy-storage technology will not solve the climate challenge. But they would help a lot. Perhaps more important, a successful energy-storage initiative would begin to build the durable bipartisan consensus, rooted in large-scale public support, that is necessary for the United States to sustain a transformative policy to clean up its energy supply over a period of decades, which will touch every part of the economy and much of our daily lives as well.