Commentary: Silicon supports California’s clean energy practices

Sustainability has edged into the goals of utilities who, over the last decade, have actively made plans to shift energy reliance from traditional fossil fuels towards renewable resources. To make this change a reality, however, utilities will need to start implementing next-generation renewable energy storage solutions that incorporate new material developments to bring a sense of reliability and consistency to these intermittent resources.

PG&E, for example, recently proposed the creation of two new lithium-ion battery projects totaling 43.25 MWs and 173 MWh as part of its Oakland Clean Energy Initiative which promotes clean energy alternatives and shifts away from traditional energy generation in the area. These projects would replace a 40-year-old fossil fuel plant in Oakland, California.

Batteries are essential to wean California and other states off of fossil fuels, which is why funding for these projects is beginning to see an uptick. While some lenders are still hesitant about newer battery innovations, many are becoming more comfortable backing projects with lithium-ion batteries due to their familiarity with these technologies and increased use in applications such as EVs and mobile devices. 

In order for these projects to work efficiently and offer value to their investors, these batteries need to be built to a new set of specifications to meet the demands of the power grid. Building bigger, more complex batteries means new challenges; increased costs and safety concerns emerge when managing the development, transportation and installation of batteries that can weigh upwards of 1,200 lbs, as we’ve seen with the Tesla 85kWh pack. Industrial-grade batteries for the power grid need to be built for longevity to reduce these costs and concerns.

So how can manufacturers and utilities work around these new demands to create batteries that will last? They need to look into silicon material developments including our cyclohexasilane (CHS) solution for lithium-ion battery anodes. We recently took an in-depth look at the standard benefits of CHS for generation 2.0 lithium-ion batteries in a separate blog post here, but the two benefits most relevant to utilities are the reduction in degradation and increased battery density. 

CHS provides six times more silicon per molecule compared to monosilane and, because of its ability to maintain a liquid state at room temperature, it can be used to create highly efficient silicon-based nanowires in more scalable manufacturing for the battery anode. Better control of the nanowire size and morphology can drastically reduce degradation, giving these batteries a longer life in the field through their ability to handle more charge/discharge cycles. A longer life in the field means fewer costs for maintenance and replacement. Additionally, silicon anodes can increase battery density in order to power the grid without adding weight or size to these already gargantuan batteries, reducing costs for transportation and deployment. 

If California truly wants to meet its sustainability goals and shift to a renewable-centric model, next-generation batteries are a must. Utilities and manufacturers need to seek out new material advancements, like CHS, that can create long-lasting batteries capable of managing the inconsistency of renewables while providing consistent energy to consumers.