Net zero won’t happen unless the battery industry snaps out of its one-size-fits-all mindset

The energy storage market is approaching a very specific pivot point.

You can think of it in terms of a combination — or clash — of Moore’s Law and Eroom’s Law.

In the case of Moore, computing power grows exponentially while simultaneously decreasing dramatically in cost. Eroom’s, on the other hand, observes that resource discovery becomes slower and much more expensive over time.

In the case of batteries, and renewable energy storage, the future promises a combination of these two effects. Meeting the increased demand for energy storage that modern societies expect is, on our current, lithium ion-dependent trajectory, only going to get harder and more expensive as demand grows. A crunch point is on its way.

The signs of this oncoming crunch are all there. Chief among them, in my view, is the ongoing segmentation occurring within the lithium-ion market itself. The debates around LFP versus NMC or LCO versus NCA offer a signpost for wider diversification within the battery market at large.

As we begin to discuss renewable energy storage solutions in terms of their specialist properties and uses (or benefits, like cost or safety) we move away from the one-size-fits-all thinking that has dominated the battery conversation for decades.

However, I sometimes feel alone in believing this.

Last month, at Solar Media Limited’s Energy Storage Summit 2023, I took part in a panel debate that pitted NMC, LFP, sodium, and iron oxide technologies against each other.

Now, I get it: debates like these are framed in a specific way to generate ideas, arguments and counterpoints, thoughtful questions and comments from both the panellists making their case and the audience listening in.

They’re set up to be, at least partly, combative affairs. I also know that my role in these situations is to fight the corner of the optimistic upstart, threatening disruption of the status quo: the start-up guy, who’s there to tell everyone how they’d got everything wrong and why the one thing the world should be interested in is the silver bullet that just so happens to be loaded in my chamber.

But there is no new one-size-fits-all solution to all the world’s energy storage woes. And that was, essentially, what I argued on the day. We’re in a position now where we can match the right tech to the right problem.

Segmentation within the lithium-ion market indicates an awareness, or proof even, that while Li-ion is great — there’s a reason it’s been the go-to for so long, and for so many different use cases — it has its limitations.

These limitations are emerging into the public consciousness via things like range anxiety in electric vehicles, but also into the industrial sector where depending on Li-ion storage in hot climates, for instance, is showing up depleted performance and slowing deployment.

Temperatures in India grazed the 50°C mark last year, part of a wider trend of soaring scales on the subcontinent. These events serve not only as a reminder of the real-world impacts of climate change and the urgency of our net zero transition, but of the need for solutions that match the conditions we expect to use them in.

I use the word transition deliberately here, because this is going to take time — in spite of the urgency.

There is no place for myopia in this conversation. The energy market currently balances on a delicate supply chain, and one that’s already being crunched. We’re not even at the inflection point for battery mass adoption yet (electric vehicles are still a relative novelty), but closing our eyes and hoping for the best isn’t how we’ll achieve our net zero ambitions.

As an industry, we need to direct our efforts at actually bringing alternative technologies to market — and not just testing them in a lab and then making a lot of noise about how they’re going to change the world (before moving on to the next new thing). We’ll achieve net zero with a complementary, not competing, suite of storage technologies.