Precisely. And since hydropower is not part of the plans, we cannot use it to store energy by letting the water reach a high level when there is excess energy available and letting it out when we need it. There are companies that use the same concept but with rocks: They are designing monorail frictionless trains, using new technologies, which would carry rocks up and down with minimal energy loss. But the real technology is lithium-ion batteries, vanadium flow batteries, molten salt batteries. My lab is working on many of these leading technologies. We must encourage them. California now requires that energy providers must store 2 percent of their peak production using new storage technologies. We are also working on the electrification of the vehicle fleet: It is a way to build widespread mobile storage in a way that the cost would be borne by individuals and not the state. At the end of the process, we estimate that 20-30 percent of peak energy demand will be fulfilled from some form of storage.
Sounds easy. But the batteries still have problems.
Not many problems. They are too expensive, it’s true. But the technology is improving much faster than solar. The goal is that they would reach the price of $100 for every kWh of storage capacity. Today we are at around $350, but this will come down, as happened for solar. And, furthermore, it will be very important to diversify the technology. A very promising type is the flywheel battery, a sort of wheel that accumulates kinetic energy, not chemical. Among other things, this avoids the problem that, for example, there aren’t enough lithium mines.
You work as consultants for various countries to help them achieve this energy transition. What are the most important steps?
The first is to have good planning tools to assess the possible scenarios. We have developed a model called “Switch” for the energy network. We used it in California, Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, China, Kenya, Bangladesh, Kosovo and Albania. We work with universities to apply it to the local situation. The second important element is the commitment by countries to make the network a market and not a monopoly, and this is much more complicated. Not only because of the problems with corruption, or the suppliers’ old, deep-rooted ways of working, but also because of the more or less hidden subsidies. In my opinion, we should build a market similar to eBay, where you can buy and sell energy. But this requires rules and transparency, and it’s not easy. We must stop thinking that on one hand there are the big power plants and on the other hand the individual consumers. Today people are using an ugly neologism, “prosumers,” meaning consumer-producers.