by Julian Spector
October 15, 2019

It's official: Lithium-ion batteries are Nobel Prize-worthy.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded this year's chemistry prize to three scientists who, working separately in different parts of the world, discovered key improvements that eventually unlocked today's era of digital mobility, electric cars and widespread renewable electricity. 

This marks a mass-market pivot for the academy, which spent the last few years awarding the chemical equivalent of obscure art-house flicks ("phage display of peptides and antibodies," anyone? How about "cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution"?). This time around, the big prize goes to work that the typical person can actually appreciate.

For those of us following the battery industry's daily activities, the award may be, as my editor put it, "a lagging indicator" of the technology's significance. But I'll dig into how this honor could change things for the industry, with some insights from a more-than-adequate expert on the topic. That would be University of Texas-Austin professor John Goodenough, who won the Nobel along with M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino.

But this week's column won't stop there, because the high-tech epicenter of the U.S. spent much of the last week anticipating and enduring man-made blackouts. Utility PG&E cut the power to hundreds of thousands of Northern Californians to save itself from causing more deadly wildfires during a period of hot, dry winds. The move incited understandable outrage from customers, who are wondering why there isn't a better way forward. Energy storage could provide that better way, either at the level of home nanogrids or as a tool for community-level segmentation of the grid.

And lastly, this week saw the first big revelations in the Arizona battery fire saga. I dug in with Arizona Public Service and Fluence to hear what they've learned in the months since the McMicken storage plant caught fire and exploded. The early results suggest the industry will need to seriously reconsider its dominant safety engineering philosophy.

One last announcement before we dig in: I'm heading to Austin, Texas at the end of the month for our third annual Power & Renewables Summit. The goal of the event is to unpack how ever-increasing competition from wind, solar and batteries is reshaping the power markets designed before these resources hit their stride. Since you're a Squared subscriber, you get $200 off the event with the code SQUARED. Come eat some barbecue with us!

Nobel nod for battery breakthroughs

The Nobel Prize provides a reason for the public to stop and think about the indispensable role this technology plays in modern life. From cellphones and laptops to grid batteries for solar power and electric cars, batteries have enabled a more connected and lower-carbon mode of existence.

Pinning down what the award means for the battery industry today is a trickier matter. After all, the lab work that earned the recognition dates back to the fossil fuel constraints of the 1970s oil embargo, decades before climate change took over as a driver to cut oil consumption. The best thing that could come out of this, however, is a renewed zeal for basic science research to improve on lithium-ion technology.

You couldn't ask for a better avatar of this mission than Goodenough.

When I tracked him down in his UT-Austin office, after the first Power & Renewables Summit two years ago, he was 95 years old and still showing up to work each day to push battery science forward. He's still at it at age 97, which makes him the oldest-ever Nobel laureate. I asked him what keeps him coming to work at that age.

"My wife has died. She had Alzheimer's and died," he said. "It was such a long, difficult process. And you've got to keep yourself sane. You've got to have relationships with people. Work is the best place to do it."

After serving in World War II, Goodenough earned a doctorate in physics at the University of Chicago and wound up at an Air Force lab at MIT that was developing aircraft detection technology for the Cold War effort. This research later became the basis for the air traffic control system. But to achieve that task, the lab needed memory to enhance its primitive computer — even a ballroom full of vacuum tubes couldn't lend enough computing power. So Goodenough helped design materials for the first random access memory. That was his introduction to solid-state chemistry.

From there, he accepted a professorship in the discipline at Oxford University, despite his academic history only including a single course of freshman chemistry.

"I was using chemists to answer physics questions in my research," he said. "That's how they decided that I was a chemist."

What I find most compelling about his account is that Goodenough insists he had "no idea" that his research would eventually kick off a wireless revolution and power miniaturized versions of the computers that used to fill ballrooms with vacuum tubes. Nor did he envision an electric vehicle revolution.

"It was fundamental research: How do you make a better battery?" he recalled. "The point is to try to do something that will be useful for humanity."

We owe our batteries to that urge to solve a scientific problem without knowing where the outcome will lead. That's exactly the kind of basic research funding that U.S. institutions have cut way back on over the years. But Nobel prizes confer a lot more than the $900,000 cash prize; they deliver an intrinsically rare form of prestige, which research institutions covet.

Perhaps the funders who allocate money to projects will notice this award and bet on the successor science. However powerful lithium-ion batteries have become, they still typically rely on a flammable electrolyte, which threatens safety and cycle life.

"It's demonstrated that you can get the performance with an electric car," he said. "But with the liquid electrolytes, you cannot get the cost of safety down with big energy density."

That's why Goodenough gets out of bed in the morning: to build a solid-state battery that holds more energy without the risk of combustion. Any more recognition and funding that mission receives will trickle down to the energy storage industry eventually.

Dark times in sunny California

As a newly converted Angeleno, I was in no way personally affected by PG&E's decision to preemptively cut power to hundreds of thousands of customer meters around the Bay Area. But it's all anyone can talk about, even down here, where a smattering of brush fires from the same weather pattern failed to block the summery October sunshine for long.

As I type at a tropically themed Echo Park cafe, a visiting San Francisco blockchain entrepreneur at the next table took time out from his biohacking update to recount the local grievances to his companion. "I pay an ungodly amount of money in rent, street people defecate on my front doorstep, and now the utility's shutting off my power?"

Later in the day, Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, took the utility to task in language that was unusually blunt for a regulatory communique.

“Failures in execution, combined with the magnitude of this [public safety power shutoff] event, created an unacceptable situation that should never be repeated,” she said in a statement Monday.

By the CPUC's count, the shutoffs affected more than 2 million individuals. To recap, those people lost power because PG&E maintained its sprawling grid infrastructure in such a way that operating it during periods of high winds carries an unacceptably high risk of sparking a deadly conflagration. The best-case outcome, somehow, is for the utility to abdicate its one real job.

The utility industry refrain of "We have to keep the lights on" works as a deliciously versatile rhetorical trump card, sealing the deal for nearly anything a utility company could ask for. But the cliche contains a kernel of truth: maintaining electric power for people accustomed to it really is more important than most other interests. 

In PG&E territory, schools shut down, businesses closed, Berkeley University labs had to evacuate long-running research projects, and there was some confusion over whether a crucial highway tunnel through the East Bay could stay open (workers scrambled overnight to hook up portable generators).

I'll leave it to my colleagues who still live in the area to unpack the details, but it's worth exploring what this galvanizing moment could mean for the storage industry, at both the small and large scale.

It would be tacky for the companies to proclaim this outright, but it's hard to imagine a better ad for home storage than this debacle. Solar salespeople have long pitched the long-term unreliability of the utilities as a reason to go it alone with your own household power supply. Solar alone doesn't achieve that, but now solar customers have good reason to retrofit batteries, and homeowners who had been on the fence may take the solar-plus-storage deal.

Now it is incumbent upon the industry to earn these customers' trust.

Crucial to that is being upfront about the actual capabilities of solar and batteries to back up a house. My colleague Emma Foehringer Merchant dove into this, and the reality at this point does look a little shabby. Commercially available battery systems can't handle typical household consumption for long; the best case requires seriously pared-down home consumption, which can stretch out an LG Chem Resu or Powerwall for about 12 hours.

There are a lot of caveats here. It depends on home size and appliances, and then the ability of solar to recharge the battery adds another wild card. But the upshot is, unless a customer shells out for a stack of batteries, just one is not going to provide a seamless transition off of grid power. 

That suggests two priorities: expand battery product capacity and streamline the engineering for backup power. Cheaper batteries will help achieve the first step. The second requires better energy usage data, innovative hardware like the Tesla alums at startup Span.io are working on, and salespeople who can effectively communicate the complexities.

In front of the meter, the man-made blackouts should spur greater attention for storage as a tool to segment the grid into semi-autonomous units.  

PG&E's ambitions in this effort have demonstrated remarkably low expectations for itself. The only localized grid proposal on the books is a single "Resilience Zone" in Napa County, in which the utility is upgrading the local grid so it can truck in mobile generators and more easily plug them in when the company shuts off power to the area. Even then, the goal is not to power the community but to maintain "centrally located facilities such as the fire station and gas station." As my colleague Jeff St. John noted, that project hit delays this summer due to design challenges.

Utilities in places like New England and North Carolina are using batteries to shore up rural grids in case feeders get cut off by severe weather. Northern California wine country now faces blackouts as an annual occurrence. The choice increasingly looks like microgrid or outage; then the question is who communities can trust to actually build and operate what they need.

Arizona answers emerge

Last week, I revisited the investigation into the April battery explosion outside of Phoenix, and crucial details are emerging.

The good news, as far as battery designs go, is that the fire was contained to a single rack of batteries. The cells in that rack got thoroughly burned up, but the fire did not spread to neighboring racks. The bad news is, that one rack seems to have released enough flammable gas to cause the explosion.

That revelation changes the conversation about battery safety. Storage integration has tended to focus its safety engineering around how to minimize the risk of fire and suppress one if it emerges. But the "contain and suppress" strategy left the McMicken system vulnerable to a gaseous explosion: There was no monitoring for explosive-gas concentration, nor was there ventilation to remove it.

Ventilation complicates the engineering, because it could let a fire break out of the enclosure and let oxygen in. But now that the explosion scenario is widely known, it will be hard to pitch a customer on a design that fails to address it. Arizona Public Service has frozen all new storage construction until it finalizes a new safety standard to address the McMicken failure.

New York City authorities called this situation years ago, as I discussed in an April Squared column on battery safety. But New York City is not an encouraging regulatory model for anyone who hopes to see considerable amounts of storage developed in the coming years.

That's the predicament now facing the industry: to solve the glaring safety problem that the Arizona fire exposed without getting locked into regulations that freeze storage development altogether.