Storage Pains

The development of storage technology will help India combat pollution.

Illustration: Raj Verma Illustration: Raj Verma

Nitin Gadkari is dreaming big. He is looking at ways to run 150,000 state corporation buses on lithium ion batteries instead of diesel. The idea is to prune imports of crude oil. It'll also be environment friendly, cutting CO2 emission by 48, 000 kg annually.

It appears to be a good idea. Indeed, the lithium ion battery is transforming storage technology globally. Not only is it smaller than conventional nickel-cadmium or nickel-metal-hydroxide batteries but it also has much higher energy density, three times higher than other clean technologies. Unlike petroleum, coal and many other conventional energy sources and minerals, lithium can be endlessly recycled.

But there are roadblocks ahead for Gadkari. It is related to capacity and economics of storage. The lithium ion is still 40 per cent costlier than conventional batteries. Also, petrol and diesel are about a hundred times superior to lithium in terms of energy density. Globally, American automotive and energy storage company Tesla Motors is working on bigger size lithium ion batteries to run automobiles at its Gigafactory plant outside Sparks, Nevada since June 2014. By 2020, the Gigafactory is expected to reach full capacity and produce more lithium-ion batteries annually than were produced worldwide in 2013.

Gadkari has lost no time in approaching Tesla. In July, he visited its headquarters in California and invited it to set up their manufacturing hub in India. Tesla might not be interested in introducing lithium ion powered buses, but officials say it can focus on trucks, bikes and cars.

Meanwhile, in the US, research is being encouraged to discover ways of making storage systems cheaper. The US Department of Energy has funded the research departments at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, the Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge laboratories. The research is not limited to lithium ion based principles but range from hybrid fuel-cell to zinc-air batteries, along with next generation flywheels, a system that stores energy as heat in molten glass. Indeed, in the US there is a lot of interest in the renewable energy market and developing storage facilities. India certainly can take advantage of this development and move ahead. In addition to lithium ion systems, research is also underway on batteries based on magnesium, aluminum or even sodium - salt. These technologies are still to be tested beyond the laboratories.

In Japan, another energy hungry nation, technology major Toshiba is working on using hydrogen for energy storage. The prototype storage fuel cell is called H2One. It outputs 'clean' electricity and hot water. The energy is CO2 free and hydrogen is derived from water, making it a clean technology, says Toshiba India MD, Tomohiko Okada. India, too, is doing research on how to use hydrogen as a fuel, but till now very little has been achieved. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has commissioned several studies to IITs, R&D wings of universities and other prestigious engineering colleges to explore mechanical technologies to use hydrogen in internal combustion engines.

Hydrogen-based storage cells are seen as a good alternative for telecommunication towers. Internal studies of the Ministry of Power show that about 70 per cent of India's 425,000 odd telecom towers experience power outages of approximately eight hours every day impacting nearly half of the country's mobile phone users. Diesel generators are used as a back-up which emit harmful gases.

But hydrogen fuel cell technology is at very nascent stage and a drawback is the requirement of water. Okada of Toshiba is very confident that "this is the future of storage".

Meanwhile, globally, the industry is hoping for quick breakthroughs in both lithium ion and hydrogen based technologies. If the cost of storage comes down, it can actually revolutionise the renewable energy and power sector as a whole. India is estimated to require 250-400 GW of additional power over the next two decades and most of this will come from renewable resources. Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL) report on Green Corridors estimates that 30 GW of new generation will require at least 5 GW of energy storage. The batteries can also ensure reliability of renewable resources and empower them to reduce the dependence on coal, oil and nuclear based energy.

India is building a policy and regulatory framework to encourage the development of storage technology. The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan will devote $4.2 billion to putting six million electric and hybrid vehicles on the streets by 2020. India's Smart City programme is ensuring an enabling environment for storage devices. This includes infrastructure for electric and hybrid automobiles, reliability on renewable resources, and net zero energy buildings. An investment of Rs 50,802 crore has been planned for modernising 20 cities.

Indeed, lithium ion technology appears promising in the current scenario. India is not banking on Tesla alone. Gadkari roped in scientists at the country's premier space institute ISRO, to work on a lithium ion battery. There is some hope - in April, officials from the Automative Research Association of India informed him that ISRO has provided them with a prototype of automotive duty cycles and they are testing them at their facility in Pune. The idea is to use indigenous materials and reduce the cost. Gadkari is expecting that these batteries will be available for Rs 5-6 lakh, instead of the current price of Rs 55 lakh. Tesla expects to cut the price of its batteries by 30 per cent.

"ISRO has already worked out the lithium ion technology, which they use for spacecrafts. They have already developed a cell level Prototype. The issue globally is how to reduce the cost and scale up the economics. If we can bring in some indigenous elements, the battle is won," says a senior official from Gadkari's ministry.

India has made a big commitment to drastically cut down on carbon emissions. And the development of storage technology will help in meeting that target.