Whether we like it or not, the most efficient energy storage technology available today is petroleum -- captured and "stored" millions of years ago, retrieved from under the ground or under the seafloor, heavily processed, always burned, occasionally spilled and frequently fought over. But the societal costs of using energy stored in fossil fuels are staggering. It is my view that when historians look back at the early 21st century energy revolution, the commentary will be about efficient and cost-effective energy storage breakthroughs that minimized reliance on gasoline.
Gasoline is fundamentally an energy storage technology. In essence, the energy captured millions of years ago by the planet's plant and animal life is powering our vehicles today. Gasoline is the medium by which the energy of prehistoric Earth is "time shifted" to the present day. Today's energy storage technologies are accomplishing the same basic feat; energy captured at one time (when there is an excess of energy) is shifted to another (when energy is scarce).
In short, energy storage eliminates waste. For example, utilities try to match energy supply and demand without the benefit of energy storage. As a result, they continuously over-supply to guarantee that they can keep up with demand. Today it is cheaper for utilities to waste this over-generation, and generate more later, than it is to store excess energy for later use. If utilities could cost-effectively time shift their energy through storage mechanisms, we could eliminate the waste of over-generation and significantly improve our efficiency. The time shifting of energy through storage is an absolutely key concept in our efforts to solve the energy efficiency challenge.
Renewable energy generation plants often produce without regard for the timing of demand. Consider wind farms: they produce energy when the wind blows; demand has nothing to do with it. Application of time shifting storage technologies would enable capturing energy whenever the wind blows and distributing it when demand requires. However, to do so at an economically viable scale requires accelerated development of cost-effective energy storage technologies.
The transportation sector is another vast opportunity for efficiency through energy storage. Every time we hit the brakes, for instance, enormous amounts of energy are wasted: kinetic energy is lost -- usually forever -- in the form of heat. While today's hybrid-drive vehicle technologies already partially time shift that kinetic energy to the next acceleration event, the ultimate automotive energy time shifter is the fully electric car. Energy generated elsewhere, ideally from a renewable source at a time when demand is low, powers your trip to work, to soccer practice, or to the grocery store.
Yet a singularly critical question remains: can enhanced energy storage technology help make widespread adoption of fully electric cars a reality? In my opinion, the fundamental key to widespread adoption of the electric car -- and the eventual demise of gasoline -- is energy storage. As the technologies develop and mature, energy storage will become the foundation for this new vehicle industry. Without energy storage advancements and a greater awareness about energy waste, the electric vehicle opportunity will not fulfill its ultimate potential.
But how do we accelerate innovation and adoption? This is where the government has a key role to play. While it is micro-economically rational to use fossil fuels until they run out, it is socially and environmentally detrimental to do so. The societal impacts of gasoline are market externalities that demand government intervention and microeconomic incentives. It has effectively become a requirement that governments collaborate with each other and with the private sector to mitigate the effectiveness of gasoline as an energy storage technology.
There are three areas where I believe the government can make a vital contribution: using policy to encourage R&D innovation, both in the public and private sector; aiding in the development of a domestic energy storage industry; and ensuring the necessary utility infrastructure is available to support electric vehicles.
The very early stages of this type of successful public-private partnership are already visible in a city like Seoul, South Korea, which has begun aggressively experimenting with hybrid taxis and is introducing its first electric buses. Within 10 years, the city will replace all 9,000 buses and 72,000 taxis with electric or hybrid vehicles. To reinforce the shift, Seoul is buying electric cars for public use and offering subsidies for transport companies that are switching to green vehicles. It has also promised motorists who drive electric cars discounts on parking fees and congestion charges.
Japan is another example. Over the last decade, the Japanese government has invested significant capital into lithium ion battery industry initiatives to establish a leading global manufacturing presence. This investment is paying off many times over as the Japanese dominate the global lithium-ion battery industry.The U.S. government can take both lessons and inspiration from these examples. Progress is possible, even likely. Nonetheless, adoption of new energy storage technologies has been slow, but only due in part to the need for better and more effective time shifting. Energy users are equally culpable. There is a real and deep lack of awareness and demand for solutions. Simply put, the value of energy storage is not obvious to most people.
Ultimately, it is everyday consumers that will drive the adoption rate for energy storage technologies. If consumer demand for full electric vehicles is there, then capital, technologies and products will follow. Government must play a key role here too by increasing the awareness of both the problem and the opportunity. Remember the crying American Indian from the 1970s advertising campaign to end littering? The impact of that campaign was deep and long-lasting -- and ultimately it changed our behavior.
When it comes to alleviating energy waste, energy storage advocates need a similarly focused and clear educational initiative. A concerted and cohesive effort would help us take strides toward a meaningfully improved energy and environmental future. The nation is now at a tipping point; unlike the failed solar boom of the 1970s, people are ready to change the way we generate and use energy. I believe that they need to be equally ready to store and time-shift energy, and they should be asking for technologies that do it in fundamentally new ways.
Even with encouraging signs and indications of a tipping point, we can't lose sight of the fact that clean energy is harder than fossil fuels to use; the generation and use points are too often disconnected. To improve that connectivity, we must harness cutting-edge energy storage technologies to provide that currently elusive time shift of supply to meet demand.
The next generation of energy storage improvements is already helping move us in this direction. In the end, I believe that these up-and-coming innovations will almost certainly spell the demise of gasoline in our society. Yet the timing of gasoline's death sentence is really up to us. It is about consumer motivation, business engagement and government participation. The effort must be collective and collaborative to end the reliance on gasoline and to improve the efficiency of our energy consumption.
Rick Luebbe is CEO of EnerG2, a seven-year-old company focused on introducing advanced nano-structured materials for next-generation energy storage breakthroughs.