Man, this has been a tough year for renewable energy. We've had:
- DOE loan guarantee investigations
- The dawn of a solar trade war between the U.S. and China
- Crashing solar stock prices
- First Solar losing its CEO in a poor executive transition; its stock tanks
- China owning the U.S. in cleantech
- Solyndra, Spectrawatt, and Evergreen bankruptcies
- Incentives for wind and solar being reconsidered in the U.S. and across the globe
- The Beacon Power flywheel bankruptcy
- Ener1 delisted; Westinghouse Solar under threat of delisting
And here's another lowlight to add to the list:
NGK, the maker of what has long been considered the most bankable electrochemical energy storage solution, sodium sulfur batteries, has had to revise its revenue forecasts due to a "fire incident." Excerpts from a statement by the firm follow:
On September 21, NGK-manufactured NAS batteries for storing electricity owned by The Tokyo Electric Power Company, Incorporated (Head Office: Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo) and installed at the Tsukuba Plant (Joso City, Ibaraki Prefecture) of Mitsubishi Materials Corporation (Head Office: Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo) caught on fire.
At present, the fire authorities are investigating the cause of the fire.
NGK began shipping NAS batteries in 2002 and since then they have been installed in a total of 174 locations in 6 countries around the world, storing 305,000 kilowatts of electricity.
NGK is putting the highest priority on identifying the cause of this incident and looking at measures to prevent a reoccurrence. At the same time, NGK has temporarily halted production of NAS batteries in the meantime. Furthermore, in order to make doubly sure of safety, NGK also asks customers who need to maintain a minimal level of functionality such as using the batteries as an emergency power source and so on, to consult with it on an individual basis about the method of operation.
NGK has requested that customers refrain from using the NGK batteries until the cause of the fire is discovered. NGK has halted production of the energy storage product and reduced its revenue forecasts for the year by about 20 percent.
Grid-scale energy storage remains a missing piece of the renewable energy puzzle. Batteries from NGK can do the job, but they remain way too expensive to position renewables as dispatchable and compete against a natural gas peaker plant. Lithium-ion batteries from A123 and others are aiming to address the same problem, but also suffer from uncompetitive pricing except for some special circumstances. Jeff St. John discusses those exceptions in his Beacon Power article.
And while we're discussing "fire incidents" with energy storage, Xtreme Power, another energy storage firm, also experienced a "small fire" at their Kahuku wind farm installation in Hawaii.
Now that I've listed the bad news, allow me to provide a reality check.
Energy technology is by its nature volatile. We are storing and transforming immense and concentrated energy sources.
Automobile gas tanks are exploding across the world at this very moment and there is little effort to withdraw from automotive technology. Electrical transformers are leaking and exploding, oil tankers are leaking and exploding, and traditional energy companies are going belly-up every day.
Failure in businesses and product glitches are the norm in the energy industry, and in any industry, for that matter. If we are seeing product issues in renewables and energy storage, it is actually good news. It means that renewable energy is becoming an actual industry, and it is certainly not cause to retreat. It is simply the sign of a growing industry that is addressing one of the globes' most challenging -- and yes, most volatile -- problems.
The NGK battery "fire incident" won't be the last energy explosion we will see, nor will Solyndra or Beacon be the last corporate failure in the renewable energy sector.