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Home » Editorial » National Labs Guide Critical AI, Energy Storage, And Grid Research

National Labs Guide Critical AI, Energy Storage, And Grid Research

Ken Silverstein 

The electric grid may be the greatest invention ever, delivering power to the masses and fueling the global economy. Artificial intelligence and other technologies will take it to a new level by increasing reliability, reducing emissions, and cutting costs.

The research and development done at the national laboratories is making room on the grid for more renewables and electric vehicles. The goal now is to ensure a smooth and dependable transition. Indeed, green energy grew by 250,000 megawatts over the last decade while EVs are gaining market share. The decreased usage of fossil fuels will lead to greater electricity consumption, requiring a smarter grid and advanced energy storage.

Artificial intelligence “will drive unprecedented innovation,” says Steven Ashby, director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “An AI-empowered grid could make autonomous decisions to manage load and generation in real-time,” adding that AI could also help streamline the permitting process.

Electricity is the lifeblood of American commerce, making up 7% of the U.S. economy. However, the nation’s transmission network must grow and improve to handle a massive influx of EVs and wind and solar plants. In 2022, commercial and industrial energy customers announced clean energy deals worth nearly 17 gigawatts, which is record-breaking. AmazonAmazon 0.0%, Meta, GoogleGoogle 0.0%, Verizon, Ford, and General Motors General Motors 0.0% led the charge, said the Clean Energy Buyers Association.

Government policies are backing the objectives. The country can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline with some help from the Inflation Reduction Act that provides $369 billion for 21st-century energy and climate projects.

The U.S. Department of Energy says the grid may need to expand by 60% by 2030 and triple by 2050 to meet clean energy demands. Upgrading the grid is also an option — or adding new digital components so that the wires can carry more electrons. “Reconductoring” is a solution that involves installing new conductor wires onto the existing transmission.

Consider the Tennessee Valley Authority: Reconductoring has the potential to increase the throughput of its lines “two to four times.” That’s huge, says Stephen Streiffer, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The numbers will only get better with advancements in technologies and materials.

“We will need a solid transmission system in the United States,” adds Martin Keller, director of the National Renewable Energy Lab. “We must continue to invest in the research to develop this, but also build transmission as quickly as possible.”

Innovation is paramount to enhancing transmission and battery technology, which harnesses wind and solar electrons and releases them when needed. Lithium-ion batteries are the go-to battery storage device today. They use cobalt, which is difficult to mine and leads to thermal runaways or fires. However, the technology has greater density and allows more energy storage.

Competing technologies are on the horizon. One is “solid-state” batteries that avoid lithium and use oxides, sulfides, phosphates, and solid polymers. Flow batteries are another. They can be charged and recharged multiple times a day for decades. Short-term lithium-ion batteries, in contrast, will wear down after 10 years.

“The cost of batteries has come down by an order of magnitude that is massive,” says Claus Daniel, associate director for advanced energy at Argonne National Laboratory. The batteries contain various raw materials such as copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, and magnesium. Cobalt is the “only material” that Argonne is “worried about,” he says, adding that much of the lab’s research goes to “changing the energy materials in there.”

Beyond that, the focus is on recycling the existing materials, diversifying supply chains, and making more efficient use of the materials, adds Kimberly Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. For instance, TeslaTesla 0.0% says recycling is less expensive than buying those minerals, noting it can recover 92% of a battery’s materials.

Better raw material management is imperative if the global community is to comply with the Paris Agreement. That includes reaching 33,000 gigawatts of renewable energy and electrifying 90% of the transport sector by 2050—all predicated on a clean energy infrastructure.

The energy transition is well underway, facilitated in considerable measure by the national labs’ work in conjunction with private enterprises. Technology will continue to leap forward. In truth, AI, smart grids, and battery technology have the potential to revolutionize the way electricity is generated and delivered, improving reliability. Pollution levels will fall, and electricity costs will drop as a result—lifting economic prospects worldwide.