Energy Storage Systems: Impacts & Outlook

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If you’ve experienced a brownout or a blackout before, then you know an inconvenient fact about power generation—the amount of electricity being generated at any given time doesn’t necessarily match up with demand. By helping to supply energy where and when it is needed, energy storage systems (ESS) perform a vital role in our modern world. Here, we’ll explore what energy storage systems do, why their use is growing, and what we can expect from the energy storage sector in the future. 

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What are energy storage systems?

By definition, energy storage systems are devices that convert electricity to a storable form of energy, hold it, and release the energy when it is needed. The main types of energy storage in commercial use today are batteries, thermal systems, and mechanical systems, such as pumped hydro storage and flywheels. Batteries are the most familiar of these technologies, and that category alone spans a variety of device designs and chemistries, including lead acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries, and nickel metal hydride batteries, among many others. There are also a number of energy storage technologies still in development but likely to enter into commercial use soon. Notable examples of emerging energy storage technologies include compressed air energy storage and hydrogen storage, among others.

Benefits of energy storage systems

Energy storage systems perform key roles in our power infrastructure by making it possible to meet fluctuations in demand. In so doing, they offer key benefits, including:

  • Enhancing reliability. Energy storage systems help to manage peak demand and ensure that grid customers have reliable access to electricity, while minimizing disruptions like blackouts and brownouts. Think of it this way: at times when the amount of electricity being generated is greater than the amount being consumed, an energy storage system can capture the surplus energy. Then, during peak demand periods when energy consumption exceeds production, the ESS can release stored energy back to the grid to make up for any shortfalls. Similarly, energy storage systems can act as backup power sources if energy generation equipment goes offline for any reason, particularly during extreme weather events.
  • Supporting renewables. By their very nature, renewable energy sources only produce electricity when conditions are right—solar panels work when the sun is shining, turbines work when the wind is blowing. But demand isn’t just restricted to these periods of active generation. For this reason, suppliers use energy storage systems to manage delivery of the energy produced by renewables, capturing excess energy during periods of generation and releasing it when needed to meet demand. As a result, consumers simply experience a consistent supply of power regardless of weather conditions.
  • Decentralizing grids. Particularly in the US, but in other parts of the world as well, the energy market is highly centralized, with large grids that serve consumers over vast geographic areas. The problem is that a disruption can mean prolonged and massive outages for consumers, as was the case during the 2021 winter weather event in Texas, and in 2022 when Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Ian. Current decentralization trends are aiming to prevent future outages like these by building more localized, distributed energy production systems that lend greater resiliency to our energy infrastructure. Energy storage systems support this transition by allowing small-scale systems, like residential solar panels or rooftop wind farms, to store excess energy and/or route it back to the grid.

Trends to watch in the energy storage sector

Buoyed by investment in energy infrastructure, the energy storage sector is expected to see significant growth in the coming years. In fact, some analysts project that the energy storage market will nearly double in size within the next five years, growing to almost $90 billion by 2028. Within these larger growth patterns are some interesting trends, which we explore a bit below.

Strong demand for lithium-ion batteries

The energy storage market has seen explosive growth in recent years, and a fair portion of that growth can be attributed to strong demand for lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Compared to other battery technologies, Li-ion batteries offer many advantages, like high energy density, portability, and long life, which have contributed to their use in everything from cell phones to electric vehicles (EVs). For these reasons, strong demand for Li-ion batteries is expected to continue to drive growth in the energy storage sector.

But this growth trend is complicated by a couple of things: first, lithium is incredibly scarce, with deposits scattered in only a few remote locations throughout the world. Second, extraction and processing of lithium takes a lot of lead time, and it requires lots of water, often in water-stressed regions. So even though demand for lithium batteries is expected to continue to rise in the coming years, there are some significant challenges that may very well throttle the growth potential for lithium batteries. In anticipation of future lithium shortages, some analysts are recommending that battery manufacturers and the miners that supply them take steps now to aggressively adopt sustainability measures to make more efficient use of limited resources, like water and lithium.


Alternative battery technologies are gaining ground

Today, lithium-ion batteries are the obvious pick for a lightweight, long-lived energy storage option. But given the scarcity of lithium, there is a lot of incentive to identify alternative battery technologies that rival the performance of Li-ion batteries, while using more readily available materials. Recently, there have been some breakthroughs on this front, with some emerging technologies showing promise in their ability to compete with Li-ion batteries.

Sodium-ion (Na-ion) batteries, for example, offer fast-charging and improved safety over lithium-ion batteries, and are manufactured from one of the most abundant chemicals on Earth, making them more cost-effective as well. The downside of Na-ion batteries is that they offer less energy density than Li-ion batteries, so their greater bulk and weight has mostly limited their use to stationary applications, like home or grid energy storage. But that’s starting to change, as recent developments are improving the energy density of Na-ion batteries and making them viable for a wider array of energy storage applications—including electric vehicles.

Another technology that is gaining ground is the flow battery. Like Na-ion batteries, flow batteries have been around for some time, but they are often passed over in favor of Li-ion batteries. Recently, however, sharp increases in costs for lithium have been driving greater adoption of flow batteries, particularly for large-scale renewable energy storage applications, where they offer some distinct performance advantages over lithium, including longer performance life, better safety, and unlimited energy storage capacity.

Solid-state batteries are yet another energy storage technology to watch. Today, they are seeing a lot of investment in research and development due to their promise in providing even greater energy density than Li-ion batteries, and improved safety. Solid-state batteries are well on their way to becoming a game-changer for electric vehicles, but the technology is still quite young, so it will likely be at least a few years until they see broad commercial use.


Increasing emphasis on water management

It’s all but certain that demand for energy storage systems will continue to accelerate in the coming years. As issues of water scarcity persist, however, those in the energy storage industry and the closely related mining industry will need to contend with challenges such as more restrictions on water use and discharge and increases in cost for water.

Take, for example, the production and use of ultra-pure water (UPW) in battery manufacturing. Batteries and their components require precise chemical formulations to ensure proper conductivity. For this reason, a battery manufacturer will likely need to use a combination of water treatment technologies to attain the high level of purity needed to make the electrolyte solution contained in the finished battery. This will likely entail multiple treatment steps, including:

  • Pretreatment: Source water is first treated for removal of total suspended solids (TSS) and organic contaminants. This step is done in preparation for additional downstream purification, as appropriate to the application at hand, and can be achieved through various methods, including media filtration, membrane filtration, and/or chemical treatment. Water treated to this basic level of quality may be routed for use as cooling water, or it may be treated further for use as process water.
  • Demineralization: The stream then undergoes additional treatment for removal of total dissolved solids (TDS), typically using ion exchange (IX) or reverse osmosis (RO).
  • Polishing: Finally, a process such as electrodeionization (EDI) is used to remove residual contaminants from the stream, resulting in UPW that is ready for direct use in battery production.

At each step of the treatment process, water is lost as a reject or a wastewater stream. That is, unless the facility employs a closed loop approach. By employing wastewater treatment or zero liquid discharge (ZLD) system, the facility can essentially recirculate reject water and waste streams to make the most of every drop of water that they draw in. These types of systems also provide added benefits, like facilitating recovery of materials from reject streams, including valuable resources like lithium. 

Taking steps to recycle and reuse water and other materials will be critical to keep up with increasing demand for energy storage systems, not just for battery manufacturers and other ESS manufacturers, but for lithium mining operations as well. In short, for many analysts, embracing a more circular resource economy through ZLD systems, battery recycling, and other sustainability measures will help the energy storage market live up to its full growth potential in the coming decades.

How can SAMCO help?

SAMCO has over 40 years of experience in the design and fabrication of custom water treatment systems for a range of industrial applications. For more information, please contact us to discuss your water treatment goals. Our engineers are available to help you plan a treatment solution that meets your water quality needs, while delivering all the benefits you expect from a water conservation strategy.

Be sure to have a look around our blog, where you can learn more about water and wastewater treatment technologies relevant to the energy, mining, and energy storage industries. Here are some articles that may be of interest to you:

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