As technological innovation is spurs opportunities in the energy sector, the U.S. government wants to facilitate a major shift in how the nation generates its power, top federal energy officials said during a new S&P Global Market Intelligence podcast.
"We are in this incredible American moment where we are really seeing a fascinating transition in our energy landscape," Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee said on S&P Global Market Intelligence's second episode of Energy Evolution. "The challenge is that this transition is putting pressure on traditional forms of baseload power, namely coal and nuclear. As the regulator responsible for the reliability of the grid, ensuring that we can make that transition while maintaining reliability is a challenge."
The administration has taken several steps to try to support coal and nuclear power. However, agencies like FERC and the U.S. Department of Energy are also supporting the development of policies and technology that would support the growing role renewable energy plays in U.S. electricity generation.
"If the cost of renewables, the cost of storage, gets to a point where it can compete, I think that's great for consumers," Chatterjee said. "It's great for the economy. It's great for the environment and it's great for America."
The U.S. electricity grid has already undergone a massive change as cheap natural gas from new shale gas drilling technologies pushed coal-fired generation out of the market. Now, growing renewable energy deployment is causing a "bit of a strain on the system," said Brian Anderson, director of the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory.
"What we're looking for in the future are the options for large scale grid storage of electricity," Anderson said on the Energy Evolution podcast. "There are only a few options: battery packs — the costs are coming down tremendously — and other grid-scale storage options for storing electrons. We're going to start seeing a grid that is much different than we are used to because we need to be able to follow the dynamic nature of intermittent renewables."
The DOE is working on finding a part of that solution. For example, they are studying materials that could be used to create a new generation of battery storage technology that does not have the same limitations as current batteries utilizing lithium-ion.
"Lithium ion's done a great job for the last two or three decades, providing storage capabilities," said Dan Brouillette, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy who has recently been tapped to succeed outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry. "But it is limited and the ability to do utility-scale or large-scale storage still eludes us. That's why we've seen perhaps a slower adoption of some of the renewable technologies and we might otherwise have had."
DOE is examining the possibility of using magnesium-ion instead of lithium-ion, for instance, which may prove to be a better means of storing power for later use. Battery storage research and development, he added is a high priority for the DOE as the technology is expected to be a "very important component" of the U.S. electricity generation mix in the coming years. The agency is also looking to more futuristic technology such as being able to beam power from one point to another without the use of wires.
"Think about that," Brouillette said on the podcast. "Think about a world in which hurricanes matter perhaps a little bit less for the provision of electricity or the recovery from a major catastrophe like that. Those are some of the things we're thinking about at the DOE. And it's a very exciting place to be."
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