The Holy Grail of Energy:

Tech Hype, Miracles, and Research

Grid scale energy storage and better battery technology have always been indispensable objectives for large scale renewable energy, electric cars, and countless other benefits. Better batteries have been so sought after, for everything from saving the planet to running a phone longer than a few hours, that Drs. Viswanathan, Sapunkov,  Pande, Khetan, and Choomwattana (of either Carnegie Mellon University at Pittsburgh or the Institute of Combustion Tech of Aachen Germany)(1) analyzed the hype cycle for news and research on new battery technology(2). A similar point could be made for many new technologies--as it has been for renewable breakthroughs and Gen IV nuclear reactors before(3)(4). So there ought to be a little skepticism when Ellen Williams, director at ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) states that "we have reached some holy grails in batteries" (cited in Goldenberg 2016).

The pursuit of energy breakthroughs is a race rich with research and investment. Public efforts like ARPA-E, whose goal since its 2009 founding has been long-shot energy research, have been growing worldwide in recent years. And the most recent COP21 agreements have set the stage for even more growth. At the same time, dozens of high profile private investors, including Bill Gates, are making significant efforts to see energy breakthroughs in the near future(5). Everything together, even as uncertain as it sounds, a "holy grail" or the "miraculous storage solution" Gates has been looking for(6) might actually be around the corner. But statements about miracles should be made and reported with caution, or we'll wind up with yet another fusion reactor that's just around the corner(7).

But even in saying that they've reached this incredibly promising technology, Williams never promised that the technology was ready now, or that it would be changing the world in the next year or two. That implication seems to be entirely from Goldenberg. In the cited Business Insider article Williams follows her statement that they've "reached some holy grails in batteries" by clarifying that this is only "in the sense of demonstrating that we can create a totally new approach." The commercial viability and practicality of the technology are part of this demonstration, but she notes a five to ten year time frame by which these technologies could start to change the grid. ARPA-E's role has always been to take on promising projects that aren't yet stable or reassuring enough to attract sufficient private funding. But the Department of Energy isn't the only one looking for miracles of innovation for the industry. 

"The most straightforward path would be if we could bring the cost of solar electric and wind down by another factor of say, three, and then have some miraculous storage solution" -Gates cited in Baer 2016 (Interview). Though he expects one to occur in the next 15 years, Gates is more clear about what he means by a miracle. Like Williams' holy grail, his miracle is an "energy whose 24 hour cost really is competitive with hydrocarbons given, say, 20 years of learning curve." The key is that year round 24 hour cost, which wind and solar can't meet when the conditions aren't favorable without the miraculous storage solution. But twenty years is a long way off, and it's unpleasant to think about what could happen to the environment in that time (or if there will even be substantial stockpiles of fossil fuels anyway). So news and press releases tend to make feel good headlines with enough hype and expectation like "A US government agency claims it's achieved the 'holy grail' of energy" or solar freakin" roadways. The earnestness of those involved in a project, or how beneficial it can be if implemented, can't save it from becoming vaporware--just a dream that we hope for.

Delayed time frames coupled with the way Williams' announcement was proclaimed in the Business Insider article are indicative of the overhype endemic in tech developments. Perhaps it's a consequence of all the investment and global concern in clean energy research, or the way modern news operates online. But it turns advancements in research into something they aren't: commercial ready or so called proven technology. It happens, as I alluded to above, in practically every energy industry--be it storage, renewable, nuclear, or any other kind of experimental development. The RENEACT article offers a guideline for researchers, press, and readers alike. If a product can't realistically be released in a year, it's not ready for the public; and the common 3 year promises are just too early to get any hopes up. But innovation and discovery are great on their own. Proclaiming the possible benefits a research project isn't a bad thing, it's what drives research interest and news alike. On the other hand, disingenuous titles and proclamations that something not yet ready for 20 years will change the way we do energy, or eliminate all fossil fuel uses, only does a disfavor to the hard work being done and the development process yet ahead.

For a simple reference, a major reason why nuclear power is often overlooked is how long they take to bring online (just as a cursory look, this is more complicated than in reality). After planning and licensing, a nuclear power plant takes between 5 and 7 years(9), which some say is too much time both economically and environmentally. That time is also aggravated by the time needed for regulatory approval and planning; which, depending on the location, public opinion, and design of the reactor can take any number of years (or remain stalled for decades as some U.S. plans have). But even a nuclear power plant could be proposed, approved, constructed and operational well before this battery technology might start hitting the markets. Whether or not you think that nuclear power has potential in preventing further harm to the environment: it can still stand as a benchmark for how far off a new clean energy innovation really is. If a nuclear power plant could be built from start to finish before your innovation is ready to be started, maybe a more realistic optimism is necessary.