We cannot end carbon emissions from power plants until we find a way to efficiently and safely store large amounts of power. We need to master the ability to quickly charge batteries without destroying their lifespans before electric vehicles take over. To truly make a difference, we need to make the creation and disposal of batteries less harmful to the environment and less reliant on mining in countries with exploitative labor practices. We need to find a way to store massive amounts of solar and wind power to be distributed upon demand to make renewable energies viable as baseload producers on the grid.
The battery revolution that we need will be a major technological breakthrough. There was once a time when such major innovations were wholly the work of private industrious inventors, but maybe that time has passed. The wheel, the printing press and the airplane were all invented by people, not corporations. In the twentieth century, governments and large institutions became more involved in grand advances in technology because of the expense and scale. The government led the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. The space race was a match between the Soviet Union and the U.S. governments and led to dozens of essential new technologies. The government was also instrumental in the development of the internet. Perhaps government funding and support is needed to push the battery revolution.
That is why it is so disappointing that the European Commission is not considering any battery innovation projects for its potential €1 billion research prize, but there may be some positive news to come. The current “flagship” size prize has shortlisted six projects: two in health, two in solar energy technology, one in artificial intelligence and one concerning the ability to search historical records. However, according to Nature, “Another flagship, on battery technologies, is under discussion.” This would be great news.
The battery revolution may come from European government funding. Maybe it will result from a challenge posed by an iconic American, just as President Kennedy told us in 1962 that we “choose to go to the moon… not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Maybe the great academic institutions will join together to focus efforts on this goal. Maybe the effort will be organized elsewhere, such as in Saudi Arabia where the economy must diversify away from oil.
The truth of the matter is that current renewable energy technologies will never be enough to satisfy even the growth in energy demand without a complete revolution in energy storage. Decarbonization on the massive scale sought by proponents of the Green New Deal and other climate change policies will only be feasible with cheap, effective and efficient batteries . If governments truly value the environment as they claim, perhaps they should be focusing more on battery research and less on centralized grand reorganizations of the economy.