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Interview: James Greenberger, NAATBatt International (Part One)

Part One – Top Trends in Energy Storage

James Greenberger

James Greenberger is the Executive Director of NAATBatt International, the trade association for manufacturers, supply chain participants, and research institutions developing or supplying advanced battery technology in North America.

Read part one of our two-part interview with James to learn his predictions for the top trends and new innovations in energy storage.

Q. Can you start by telling us about NAATBatt’s work and your role?

NAATBatt is the trade association for the advanced battery supply chain in North America. Our members manufacture batteries and components used in advanced batteries for use in advanced vehicle technology, stationary energy storage, and other battery applications in the North American market.

We were founded in 2007 at the request of then-Senator Barack Obama, who wanted to make sure that the one million electric vehicles he wanted to put on the road would be powered by lithium-ion batteries made in the United States. NAATBatt was formed out of that initiative, and continues in its mission to promote the use, development, and manufacturing of advanced battery technology in North America. We provide a unique platform for our members to network, get market intelligence, and build their businesses.

Q: What is the top trend you’re watching in energy storage?

The principal trend that is driving everything in the field is the rapidly declining cost of lithium-ion battery technology. Using batteries to power vehicles and store electric energy on the grid were once thought to be completely uneconomic propositions. But today, in many circumstances, using batteries to perform these functions is not only possible, but offers advantages over the incumbent technologies of fossil fuel generation and internal combustion.

We still have a long way to go, but it is quite reasonable to expect that the prices of lithium-ion batteries will continue to fall. The downward price trajectory of lithium-ion technology continues to confound many projections that the price was going to plateau or even reverse. What has happened instead is that the ingenuity scientists, engineers, and manufacturers have continued to innovate in hundreds if not thousands of small but significant ways—continuing to push lithium-ion battery prices down and energy density up. I see no reason why these micro-innovations—joined, perhaps, by a few macro-innovations in lithium-ion technology—will not continue through the next decade. 

Q: What trends do you predict to have major consequences on the industry in the next 3-5 years?

I think there will be a continued emphasis on and questions about the safety of storage technology. There was a very unfortunate incident this spring in Arizona, where there was a fire at a stationary energy storage facility operated by Arizona Public Services (APS) that injured four people. We are still waiting for the results of the investigation to determine what exactly caused the fire and what actions should be taken going forward. But this event presents an opportunity to review best practices for safety in energy storage systems and lithium-ion batteries. I believe it will give rise to a systematic approach to safety at stationary storage systems. That is a good and healthy thing.

Within the next couple months, the New York Fire Department is expected to issue regulations for the deployment of stationary energy storage systems in NYC. We expect those regulations to be highly influential in the development of stationary energy storage safety regulations around the country. NYC will be the first municipality to determine how energy storage can be placed and used in a dense urban environment. That’s important because dense urban areas are an ideal place for stationary energy storage. There are often restrictions or constraints on the amount of power you can wheel into a dense urban area at times of peak demand. The ability to store energy locally within the city at times of low demand and discharge it at times of high demand—rather than wheel it in from the outside through constrained and aging infrastructure—could prove to be a real benefit. Storing electricity in major urban areas using battery energy storage promises to be a very profitable opportunity for the energy storage industry, so long as it can be done safely.

I think the APS and New York Fire Department reports will provide real color for what’s going to happen in the industry over the next year or two. I expect those reports will provide direction to energy storage developers as to what they need to do to address the safety concerns that continue to challenge lithium-ion battery technology.

Q. What do you see as the next big storage innovation?

One of the things NAATBatt is looking at is whether there are non-lithium-ion battery technologies that might, in certain situations, be a better solution than lithium-ion batteries for the storage market. We’re looking at zinc-based technologies as an alternative to lithium-ion and—to some extent—as an alternative to lead acid batteries.

One of the reasons we’re anxious to see the New York Fire Department regulations is because it’s unclear at this point whether those new regulations will favor the use of non-lithium technologies in New York City. There are other battery technologies that are less flammable than lithium-ion battery technology that might be an alternative. Some of those alternative technologies (such as zinc manganese oxide batteries) still need further development and experience in the field in order to become true competitors to lithium-ion batteries in the energy storage market. But it may be that the New York Fire Department regulations will give those alternate technologies the push they need to get into the market (at least in New York City) and see if they can really compete.

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