Innovation through Coordination: DOE Should Create a BatteryShot Initiative

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Earlier this year the Department of Energy (DOE) started the SunShot Initiative – an inter-organizational effort to speed up efforts to make solar energy cheaper than fossil fuels.  The initiative harmonizes and refocuses the work and funds of numerous labs and programs working on solar technology.

DOE should adopt a similar model of organization – innovation through coordination – for energy storage technology programs and call it BatteryShot.  It should aim to boost energy storage innovation by efficiently leveraging DOE’s numerous storage research programs towards a series of high-impact goals, but without additional Congressional authority or appropriations.

The need for additional support for energy storage innovation, even in a time of budget austerity, is clear.  Cheap, high-performance energy storage is one of the most important clean energy breakthroughs needed to rapidly deploy low-carbon technologies.  Electric vehicle batteries are expensive and limited to an average of 40 miles per charge.  And utility-scale energy storage is similarly expensive, unreliable, geographically limited (pumped-hydro), or energy capacity limited.  To say the least, energy storage innovation could be the key to boosting electric vehicle adoption and making solar and wind a baseload power option.

But as it stands, DOE is funding a number of vital research programs across the country that can be better coordinated:

Argonne National Lab. The lab has a history of breakthroughs in energy storage including the development of over 150 advanced lithium battery technologies for vehicles in the last decade.  Kicking this wealth of experience into high gear, Argonne has recently launched an Energy Storage Initiative that coordinates the labs testing facilities and basic and applied research capabilities to accelerate the development of advanced battery materials and cell engineering. In addition, the Lab is collaborating with the Department of Defense (DOD) to build a Materials Engineering Facility to scale-up production of innovative new energy storage materials.

Sandia National Lab. A key energy storage program within DOE is the Energy Storage Systems program run by the Sandia National Lab. Their focus is on large, grid-scale energy storage systems for utilities and industry.  Numerous innovative technologies including new storage chemistry and power electronics have been developed from collaborations among the lab, businesses, and utilities.  Further, the Lab is the central organization that runs DOE’s Energy Storage Systems Program within the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).  The Vehicle Technologies Program within EERE provides grants to universities and businesses to accelerate the development and demonstration of next generation lithium batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). DOE’s high-risk/high-impact research program is currently funding a number of next generation utility-scale and vehicle-scale energy storage projects.  The Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation (BEEST) program funds RD&D teams of researchers that include businesses and universities working on breakthrough battery solutions for vehicles including metal-air batteries and ultracapacitors.  The Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage (GRIDS) program funds similar RD&D teams working on breakthrough energy storage systems at the utility-scale like flow batteries and superconducting magnets.  Whereas EERE is producing incremental lithium battery innovations, ARPA-E is striving to innovate next-generation batteries to replace lithium batteries.

National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). The lab’s Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems provides modeling, thermal management, and life-cycle cost analysis support for the DOE, industry, and automotive manufacturers to improve energy storage efficiency and reduce costs. In addition, NREL collaborates with DOE’s Vehicle Technology Program and industry groups to create standard testing procedures for energy storage systems.  Supporting analysis and data is provided to NREL and DOE by the Idaho National Lab.

Now this is not to say that there isn’t any coordination within DOE programs.  In fact, individual programs do coordinate and collaborate with the labs and other programs, typically on a project-specific basis. For example, the FreedomCar partnership – a voluntary industry-government partnership within EERE aimed at accelerating R&D on making zero-carbon vehicles – coordinates work among Argonne, Sandia, NREL, EERE, and industry.

But the purpose of creating a BatteryShot initiative is to take the collaborative culture within each project and expand it DOE-wide to drive down the cost of a particular energy technology category. And this proposal isn’t new.  It is in line with other proposals calling for greater coordination among DOD programs as well as DOE’s recent Quadrennial Technology Review which plans to address, “how DOE can best coordinate activities between and among its labs, programs, institutions, and the private sector.”

As for specifics, BatteryShot should set aggressive technology goals.  The defining characteristic of the SunShot initiative is that it focuses existing solar programs on a central goal of reducing the system cost of solar technology to $1/watt. A BatteryShot initiative should set similar goals for both vehicle batteries and utility-scale storage.  For example, DOE could choose ARPA-E’s existing technology goal of producing a battery with a total system cost of less than $250/kWh (a cost reduction of a factor 4 compared to existing technology) and a range of 300-500 miles per charge (doubling energy density of current battery technology).  Similarly, DOE could set a utility-scale technology goal of less than $100/kWh (comparable to pumped hydro) and the ability to rapidly dispatch up to 1 GW of energy within a short period of time (similar to rapid changes in wind and solar power availability).  Additional goals for streamlining permitting, codes, and standards should also be set.

These aggressive goals – expanded and coordinated across all of DOE’s existing energy storage programs – would create a competitive environment to spur innovation as well as ensure that all of DOE is collaborating towards the same objective.  And with many energy programs on the budget cutting room table, it’s vital that DOE enhances its existing innovative capacity. Creating a BatteryShot initiative would be a relatively simple, but effective first step.

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About the author

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.