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MIT report says energy storage is crucial to stall climate change

A major report from the MIT Energy Initiative finds the development and deployment of new ways to store renewable energy will be crucial to transitioning to clean energy and averting the worst effects of climate change.

The report surveys the emergence of grid-scale storage technologies and concludes that more government investment is necessary. It took three years to complete and was presented Monday in Washington, D.C.

MIT chemistry professor Robert Armstrong, director of the Energy Initiative, said increased federal research funding and demand for energy storage will help lower the cost of large-capacity batteries that can power and stabilize regional electric grids.

“I’m very optimistic,” Armstrong told WBUR before the report’s release. “There are a variety of technologies and if we can develop [them] and drive those costs down, it could make getting to net-zero or zero in the electricity sector more affordable.”

Meeting the world’s mid-century climate goals will require decarbonizing the global economy and producing most of our electricity from renewable resources like solar and wind energy instead of fossil fuels.

But while these clean resources can produce prodigious amounts of energy, they are intermittent; the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow. That is where large-scale storage must play a fundamental role, Armstrong said.

“What we want to do is capture that excess energy produced by wind and solar and store it so we can use it later,” he said.

According to the report, 99.9% of the world’s current large-scale energy storage capacity is pumped hydro, a system in which water collected in a reservoir is sent flowing downhill to turn into turbines when electricity is needed and prices for power are high. When electric demand is low and cheap, the energy from the electric grid is used to pump water back into the reservoir.

Massachusetts has one of the largest pumped hydroelectric facilities in the world. It is hidden in a mountain.

MIT spin-off companies are also developing large-scale, low-cost energy systems, including iron-air batteries, molten metal and thermal storage and flow-cell batteries.

Hydrogen gas is another potentially powerful energy storage option. The gas can be combined with oxygen in a fuel-cell to create water and electricity, mixed with other fuels and burned in generators or furnaces, or compressed and used as a liquid fuel in heavy vehicles and airplanes.

The report finds that the use of hydrogen as a storage option will depend on the cost of the technology, but Armstrong says he is encouraged by the U.S. Department of Energy’s new $8.1 billion Hydrogen Hub project.

In March, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut formed a coalition to compete to become one of at least four regional hubs the federal government wants to form to jumpstart demand for low-cost hydrogen production. The production hubs would focus on making industrial products that require very high temperatures, including steel, aluminum and the manufacturing of many important pre-cursor materials used to make fertilizer and ammonia.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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