1. Storing renewable energy: Meeting our global demand for power
particles - where science matters
  • Storing renewable energy: Meeting our global demand for power

    By Kelly Hall, 3M Storyteller

    Image of solar panels on the roof of a home

    • Brandon Bartling’s passion for batteries started with chemistry sets.

      “When I was little, I would find ways to play with electricity. I was amazed by things like current moving everywhere and voltages.”

    • Image of a younger Brandon Bartling experimenting with a model rocket
      A younger Brandon experiments with a model rocket

      It is a fasciation that later propelled him to become an expert on how batteries can change the world. This positive global impact is what Brandon finds the most meaningful, especially in smaller, developing nations and villages.

      “These areas can run on solar panels and windmills – but at night when children are trying to do homework, they don’t have any light,” says Brandon.

      “The problem is, you need electricity when the wind is not blowing or when it’s dark out,” he adds. “The battery is what provides that buffer of energy that allows things to run throughout the night so that, during the day when the sun comes back out, you can continue to have operation. In the day, you can charge the battery back up again. It becomes a continuous cycle.”

      Now an advanced product development specialist at 3M, Brandon works on solving global energy problems for many aspects of our lives – from cars to electronics, to even our homes. He studies aspects of energy that some of us may never stop to think about – why we use it, the way we use it, and most importantly, how we store it.

    • Expanding the power grid

      “Our relationship with energy is changing,” says Brandon. “For a long time, the way we powered our homes and everything around us was through burning coal and oil.”

      Now, our increasing demand for power means we need to find more solutions that enable around-the-clock access to internet and the ability to communicate freely. Most of these things require some kind of electrical communication – or communication that allows information to be transmitted by electrical signals spread over wires or radio signals.

      Brandon explains that electric communication relies on power. “In the past, you would use low voltage and low power to place calls on the phone,” he says. “Now as we get hungrier and hungrier to communicate with videos, for instance, it is critical to have that power available to operate our devices.”

      A limited amount of power is particularly concerning in certain areas of the world. “In some areas of India, they are growing so quickly that the power grid is being stretched,” says Brandon. “Having an hour or two a day without any energy at all is just commonplace.”

      This is why other sources of energy – like renewables – are catching on.

    • Image of solar panels against a cloudy blue sky

      Renewable energy

      “As we start to transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable-based economy, we need to power our vehicles today just to drive around,” says Brandon. “Shifting to these types of more electric-centric devices will require renewable energy sources, like sunlight, wind and hydro.”

      Brandon explains that air quality is improving faster than expected as we use more renewables.

      “In several areas of the world, CO2 generation is impacting life quality. Particulates that existed in coal-dominated economies caused air quality to dramatically decrease,” he says.

      This is why Brandon says renewables will compete in the energy market.

      “It’s not a question of ‘if.’ It’s a question of ‘how soon,’” he says.

    • Image of a wind mill against a blue sky

      From renewable energy to energy storage

      But, we need to be ready for it.

      “Everyone wants more renewables, but there is a point where too many renewables can become an issue,” he says.

      Here is how that can happen: You wake up in the morning. Everyone turns on the lights. You make breakfast and do your normal activities, which collectively cause a massive surge in energy demand.

      So, renewable energy systems jump into action.

      As the sun comes up, solar plants kick in, and then you have a ton of energy for everyone. In those cases, you can have situations where the cost of electricity is negative. “In Texas and Germany, for instance, they have experienced so much generation of electricity through wind and solar that they were paying people to take that energy. They had nowhere to store it. You either sell it to somebody, give it to somebody, or you put it into the ground.”

      Brandon explains that too many renewables can cause destabilization in the grid. He adds that such a situation can result in brownouts, which is a drop in voltage in an electrical power supply. It can also result in blackouts, resulting in a total loss of power to an area.

    • A balanced equation: renewable energy + energy storage

      Integrating energy storage solutions into the renewable energy system can help flatten out this destabilization.

      Brandon says that instead of getting rid of excess generated renewable energy, we should store it. Energy storage could help utility grids operate more effectively, reduce the likelihood of brownouts during peak demand and allow more renewable resources to be built and used, according to the EPA.

      During hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, for instance, solar panels in hospitals were only able to run when daylight was available. “Energy storage allows you to run throughout the entire day and maintain care for those patients,” says Brandon.

    • Brandon and his son visiting the Science Museum of Minnesota
      Brandon and his son visiting the Science Museum of Minnesota

      Thinking globally: a future with energy storage

      Brandon feels that energy storage will be the way that we adapt to our changing world – from being a part of devices and aspects of our lives that allow us to become more mobile to allowing rural organizations and communities to participate with the world as a whole.

      “It is not just a first-world problem,” says Brandon. “In some cases, the areas of the country that do not have energy infrastructure established will actually jump over the old established technologies and straight to these renewables with storage because of the simplicity and elegance that energy storage provides.”

      Being able to make a difference by helping to solve global energy problems is what drives Brandon to continue innovating.

      "I have a five-year-old son. When he grows up, I want to be able to tell him that working on these types of technologies is my way of helping the world. It is my own way of helping individuals as a global economy and global community.