Visionaries like Elon Musk, who are aiming for a world powered by sustainable energy, would be proud of the industry’s progress in 2018. Over the course of the year, investments flowed into research, the prices of batteries declined, governments across the globe supported clean energy solutions, and electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model 3 led the charge in transitioning the transportation sector away from fossil fuels.
A study from Bloomberg New Energy Finance has noted that in 2018, global annual energy storage more than doubled, reaching 9 GWh, and it is currently on pace to rise another 78% this year. In August 2018, the cumulative sales of electric cars passed the 4 million mark as well, and NEF analysts expect the EV industry to surpass 5 million in sales in the first quarter of 2019. Even in the United States, where companies like Tesla are struggling to meet the demand for their residential energy products, deployments on a rated-power basis across the country rose 57% to an estimated 338 KW after three years of flat to negative growth.
At the core of all this growth are the advancements in battery technology. Producers of batteries have ramped their operations to meet increasing demand, from China’s BYD Co. Ltd. to South Korea’s LG Chem to Japan’s Panasonic Corp. and its US partner Tesla. Benchmark Mineral Intelligence notes that by 2028, the combined manufacturing capacity of these battery producers would likely reach at least 1,330 GWh. That’s about ten times greater than the entire’s industry’s total capacity entering 2018.
In an email to S&P Global Market Intelligence, Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, mentioned that the scale of recent battery projects signifies a change in the market. Moores also pointed out that while the emergence of electric cars is notable, the rise of energy storage has been impressive as well.
“When you see projects now being planned at over 1 GWh in scale, when only 18 months ago a 300-MWh installation was something to behold, you know you have entered a new era. It has been quite interesting to watch the battery makers’ dilemma of where to send the lithium-ion cells. Of course, they have contracts to honor with automotive producers, but the order inquiries from [energy storage] producers have been incredible,” Moores said.
One thing that is working in favor of renewables today is the falling prices of batteries and clean energy as a whole. Tom Buttgenbach, president and CEO of developer 8minutenergy Renewables LLC, described this in a statement to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
“I can beat a gas peaker anywhere in the country today with a solar-plus-storage power plant. Who in their right mind today would build a new gas peaker? We are a factor of two cheaper,” he said.
Buttgenbach’s statements echo the words of Tesla Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel, who noted last year that the age of fossil fuel powered peaker plants is at an end. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Straubel stated that batteries, even at their current state, are already starting to prove themselves as superior to conventional energy solutions.
“I think what we’ll see is we won’t build many new peaker plants, if any. Already what we’re seeing happening is the number of new ones being commissioned is drastically lower, and batteries are already outcompeting natural gas peaker plants,” the Tesla CTO said.
While the progress of batteries has been impressive, though, Logan Goldie-Scot, head of energy storage at Bloomberg NEF, has stated that the past year exhibited uneven growth among different regions across the globe. South Korea, for one, saw a rise in energy deployments, while territories like the United Kingdom took a step back. In the United States, extreme demand such as those faced by Tesla Energy for products like the Powerwall 2 also caused delays in installations. Yet, despite these, Goldie-Scot stated that 2018 was a turning point for energy storage nonetheless.
“Even though progress was uneven, there was a much greater consensus in 2018 over the importance of energy storage, even in the near term, in major markets. In 2017, there were still a lot of people talking about how energy storage was not necessarily a competitive solution and was going to be limited. I hear those conversations much less now. Energy storage is now becoming more integrated into resource plans,” she said.
Amidst this transition, companies such as Tesla are taking the battle to heart. Last November, for example, Tesla opened the doors of Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo, NY to select members of the media. During the media visit, Tesla noted that it is aiming to ramp operations in the site with more hires, and that the 1.2-million sq ft facility is already running 24/7, with employees alternating 12-hour shifts. Tesla’s Gigafactory 2 is expected to play a huge role in the company’s energy business, considering that it is the site where the Solar Roof tiles, the company’s flagship solar product, are being manufactured.