Why the humble battery is the most exciting technology of the future

I was talking to my colleague Nick O’Connor a week or so ago.

Nick was heading off to California, the hub of almost all of the most exciting technology being created in the world right now, to go to a conference and investigate the big tech trends.

It all sounded quite sci-fi, so we got to talking about which trends we thought would have the most impact over the next few decades.

For me, one stood out – batteries.

Compared to tourist flights to the Moon or anti-ageing compounds it might sound dull.

But it’s far from it…

Batteries are the key to a revolution

Why do batteries matter? Because decent storage is the key to turning renewable energy into something that we can use far more widely, and which can potentially replace fossil fuels.

Put aside the issues of climate change and even pollution for the moment. Fossil fuel extraction is a costly business. Even with oil prices collapsing, having long-term reliance on a source of energy that booms and busts with regular frequency, and is often found in politically unstable or even hostile areas, is simply not much fun.

Wouldn’t it be better if we could all source energy from a stable, politically neutral source – like the sun, say?

There are plenty of things we need to make that reality. Solar panels are getting ever more efficient, and in several areas are becoming competitive with other sources of energy. In California, for example, solar is playing havoc with the energy market. Reports Bloomberg: “A glut of solar energy has crimped prices in the California market, driving them below zero at some on-peak times.” That means that grids and power systems need to adapt too.

But perhaps the biggest requirement is a way to store all this power so that it can be used as and when it’s needed. The problem at the moment – and one of the factors causing such problems in California and Germany – is that renewables can at times generate all the power anyone needs. But for all those other times, you need a fossil-fuel (or nuclear) powered back-up that can be switched on and off as and when necessary.

Batteries are the key to getting past this. And according to a piece by Ed Crooks in the FT this morning, investment bank Lazard reckons we’re getting there.

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“The cost of batteries is falling to the point that they are becoming an increasingly viable option for uses such as supporting the stability of power grids,” notes the piece. As a result, wind and solar power could increasingly be relied upon.

“Within five years, Lazard believes, the price of batteries is likely to have fallen to the point that they will be competitive against back-up fossil fuel power generation for a wide range of uses”. In other words, instead of having a back-up power plant for night times, or days when there’s no wind, you’d use stored battery power instead.

Electric car manufacturer Tesla’s gigafactory – designed to pump out huge quantities of batteries – is the most obvious example of this trend in action. But it’s not just Tesla – plenty of companies and university departments are working on making better batteries.

A world with no traffic jams and far fewer cars

Of course, batteries wouldn’t just enable us to run our homes on renewables. It would make mass adoption of electric cars far more feasible too, which in turn would speed up the adoption of ‘self-driving’ cars (they can charge themselves and they’re far easier to build).

My colleague Bengt Saelensminde has written a lot about this in MoneyWeek and on the website, and it’s a topic we’ll be returning to again and again.

But here’s an interesting statistic I read the other day, in Allen Brooks’  ‘Musings from the Oil Patch’ email (courtesy of the FullerTreacyMoney website) – it might give you some real food for thought.

Apparently, researchers at the University of Texas conducted a simulation of vehicle use in cities. “They found that if our vehicle fleet was fully autonomous, every shared autonomous vehicle could replace 11 conventional vehicles.”

That’s staggering. And as Brooks puts it: “That doesn’t sound like a bright future for either the automobile or petroleum industries.”

Sure, that relies on people being willing to give up not only driving, but also ownership of their cars – you’d presumably ‘subscribe’ to a car service that would come and pick you up with a tap on a smartphone. (Presumably you’d also need a breakthrough in smart materials or robo-cleaners to keep the things spotlessly hygienic between users).

But if it’s even half-true, the future for many industries we now take for granted could be staggeringly different to what we see today.

Anyway, it’s an interesting flight of fancy and I’d be very interested to get your thoughts at editor@moneyweek.com.