The future is battery powered

I remember the Olden Times when Rush Limbaugh (may he Rot in Peace) would rail against solar power — what will we do when the sun goes down? — and wind power — what about calm days? — and tell us to keep burning coal and gas.

Technology marches forward, and now we have these things called batteries that can smooth out the highs and lows of electricity production. Now when we hear about solar farms going up, they’re usually accompanied by energy storage farms. Here’s what energy production in California looks like:

Solar power production is swelling during the day, and is extended into the peak demand period with batteries. Maybe they could also expand wind power, and possibly be better at conserving energy? I think if I plotted energy usage at my house, it would be much more uniform: we don’t have air conditioning, and I’ve done more cooking with an eye towards preparing meals that can produce leftovers that last a few days.

As it is, California is sometimes producing more solar energy than it can use. They have to throttle solar power output back, or even pay neighboring states to take it.

Good things are happening here in Minnesota, too. We’ve got a gigantic energy storage facility going up in Becker, a town between Morris and the Twin Cities.

One of the largest solar projects in the country is moving closer to completion, and it’s not in a famously sunny state like California, Texas, or even Florida. It’s in Minnesota, on former potato farms near the site of a retiring coal plant.

The Sherco solar and energy-storage facility will be the largest solar project in the Upper Midwest, and the fifth-largest in the U.S. by the time it’s fully completed in 2026. The first phase of the project should begin sending emissions-free electricity to the grid this fall, heralding the start of a new era in a state whose largest solar project until now has been just 100 megawatts. This new project will have a capacity of 710 megawatts. It’s being built by utility Xcel Energy, which will also operate the facility once it’s online.

The project is poised to deliver on the many promises of renewable energy: It will partially replace the nearby coal plant set to retire over the coming years, address the variability of solar power by pairing it with long-duration storage, and provide good-paying union jobs in a community that’s losing a key employer in the coal facility.

They’re using iron-air batteries, which are cheaper and less toxic and less flammable than the now-familiar lithium batteries. It’s also positive that this facility is going up explicitly to replace a coal plant, one we often saw as we drove along I-94. It hasn’t been so prominent in recent years, I guess they’ve been gradually shutting it down and we don’t see the giant exhaust plumes so much any more.


Even closer to home, my university has begun a major energy storage project.

For many years now, UMN Morris and UMN WCROC [West Central Research and Outreach Center], have explored the potential of energy storage in rural Minnesota.

Now, UMN Morris and UMN WCROC are partnering to launch the Center for Renewable Energy Storage Technology, or CREST. In order to reach high levels of renewable power generation, efficient and economic energy storage systems are critically needed. This field is poised for significant growth and attention in the coming years. The new UMN intercollegiate Center will provide leadership in research, demonstration, education, and outreach in this vital field by organizing teams and partnerships and incubating energy storage research and demonstration-scale projects.

A hallmark and unique characteristic of renewable energy efforts at the Morris campuses has been the ability to test systems at commercial or near-commercial scales. This scale is especially crucial in moving new technologies from labs into the commercial market. CREST will also expand opportunities for Minnesotans to learn more about energy storage technologies and potential applications. Recently, UMN WCROC announced it will host the $18.6 million US DOE ARPA-E REFUEL Technology Integration 1 metric ton per day ammonia pilot plant. In addition, WCROC received $10 million from the State of Minnesota in the 2021 legislative session through the Xcel Energy RDA account to develop ammonia-fueled power generation and self-contained ammonia storage technologies. UMN Morris announced a new project to develop a large-scale battery-storage demonstration project. These projects are done in collaboration with partners from across the University of Minnesota and with many partners in the public and private sectors.

It’s too bad we can’t rub Limbaugh’s face in the progress that’s being made.


  1. says

    It’s too bad we can’t rub Limbaugh’s face in the progress that’s being made.

    It’s a fair trade to not have to listen to his voice anymore.

  2. numerobis says

    They’re using iron-air batteries, which are cheaper and less toxic and less flammable than the now-familiar lithium batteries.

    There isn’t really a storage component. There’s a pilot project for a 10 MW battery, at a 710 MW solar farm.

    “Less toxic” than something that isn’t toxic is going to be hard to demonstrate. The pilot project is going to be trying to demonstrate technical viability in a real deployment, durability, and cost.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    and now we have these things called batteries

    This is a situation where ironic scare quotes would have been appropriate.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    I am willing to bring back zombie Rush Limbaugh to rub his face in it. After I bring back zombie Ronald Reagan to show him how his idea of making the GOP a right-wing populist party worked out.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    Fun coincidence – a small town 100 miles to my north (Skellefteå) has become the home for one of the largest battery factories -Northvolt- in Northern Europe.
    This is what science and engineering have wrought in a relatively short time.
    My own preferred solution to a stable wind power supply would be to open gates to parallel Earths, as the wind averaged over several versions of reality would be a relatively flat graph.
    Also, if one of those parallel worlds still has thalycines or dire wolves, I would totally steal a breeding population.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Gijoel @ 6
    I have already invaded the thread, but my vision of ‘nuclear’ involves Project Orion. We cannot waste uranium on boring organic life.

  7. says

    “May he Rot in Peace”
    I would prefer that asshole to burn in hell. Because fuck that dipshidiot.

    That’s the asshole who radicalized my father. My dad was rational, until he hit his mid-forties back in the 1990s. Then he went full-blown “gubermint bad, militia gud”. Listening to Rush and G. Gordon Liddy pretty much fucked him up forever.

  8. says

    It’s too bad we can’t rub Limbaugh’s face in the progress that’s being made.

    We could, but we’d have to dig him up first. There’d be paperwork, backhoe rental, etc.
    That “what do you do at night or when it’s cloudy” is the energy policy equivalent of “if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” I never want to laugh and cry at the same time so much as when complete dolts put maybe three seconds of thought into something, and think they’ve come up with an objection that some of the smartest people in the world, who have spent their whole adult lives studying and working in a chosen field, have failed to consider.

  9. chrislawson says


    The sad thing is that those very smart people you talk about are necessary for things like battery chemistry, engineering, manufacturing, solar panel electron capture, and so on. The kind of anti-renewable arguments that get thrown around in public are not even remotely that smart. The concept of managing a fluctuating resource with storage seems to flummox an awful lot of educated adult humans. A concept understood by squirrels.

  10. Robbo says

    renewable energy is all well and good–I am for it.


    the US has had it’s energy consumption grow a couple percent per year. a quick google search projects 5% over the next five years. that means in about 35 years the US energy consumption will double.

    that is unsustainable.

    we have to increase renewable energy use, and decrease fossil fuel consumption.

    but we really have to decrease our energy use too.

    if we continue a 2.3% growth in energy use, and extrapolate 400 years into the future, the surface of the earth will be 100° C, just due to the waste heat produced to generate the power we need. basic thermodynamics.

  11. numerobis says

    Primary energy in the US isn’t increasing at the moment. Net primary energy was 99 quads at its peak in 2007 and was 93.4 quads last year. It fell a lot in the Great Recession and has never recovered. It is now poised to fall quite dramatically over the coming years.

    Most of the energy we get from burning fossil fuels, we waste. Convert a car from gasoline to electric from renewables, and the energy it uses goes down by a factor of about 4. Convert a house from a gas-fired boiler to a heat pump powered by a gas-fired power plant, and the energy use goes down by about 20%. So per capita energy usage in the US is about to fall a lot, enough that overall energy use will fall.

    What you may have read is that electricity use will increase. It will — at the expense of fossil fuels. New electric generation is mostly solar nowadays.

  12. says

    @Robbo, I agree we should work towards more efficient use of electricity, but:
    Firstly, you cannot extrapolate current growth linearly 400 years into the future no matter what. Most growths have an upper limit.
    Secondly, you cannot increase the overall earth’s temperature with waste heat from using electricity generated by renewables like solar, wind, hydro, and biomass because all these originate initially from solar radiation and they all would eventually degrade into thermal radiation anyway. The only way to increase the overall earth’s temperature by using renewable energy is if its use were to significantly alter the earth’s albedo thus changing the proportion of light absorbed and light reflected into space unchanged. But unless you change the amount of long-wave radiation retained by the atmosphere (that is what CO2 from fossil fuels is doing) or the amount of light that gets absorbed somewhere around the surface of the earth, nothing will happen to the temperature at all.

    An argument could be made that too many renewables will affect biodiversity, weather patterns, and even earth’s albedo etc. but that is not one you made, and the one you made is erroneous.

  13. Jean says

    Matt G @#4

    Gravity batteries cannot store enough energy. A 100 ton weight with a 1km lift can only store less than 278 kWh (unless my computations are wrong) which could be stored in the chemical batteries from 2 or 3 EV pickup trucks. And there is no amount of technology that will change that; only more weight and/or more lift.

    The only gravity battery that makes sense is pumped hydro but you cannot ‘install’ this where you want.

  14. magistramarla says

    I’m proud to say that my husband and I are two of those California residents who are doing our part with rooftop solar panels, a battery, and a hybrid plug-in car. Our bills from PG&E are low, we can run local errands without using a drop of gas and we are very happy to do our part.

  15. John Morales says

    [Jean — check]

    E = mgh → 100000kg * 9.8m/s/s * 1000m = 9.8E8 Joules.
    1 kWh = 3600 J → 9.8E8 ÷ 3600 = 272 and a bit kWh.

    Plenty of other non-chemical-battery grid storage options, though.
    Compressed air or hot rocks, for example.

  16. cheerfulcharlie says

    I just read that in England, their last coal fueled power plant has just shut down.
    Sometimes, there is a spot of good news. Down here in Texas, 31% of our energy comes from renewables. There plans to build massive wind farms off the coast of the gulf of Mexico to make hydrogen, which can be stored in large amounts in large salt domes found along our coast. Cheaper than batteries. In Texas, the last of our coal fired plants will be shutting down shortly. They can’t compete with cheap wind power.

  17. Artor says

    Pissing on Limbaugh’s grave is on my bucket list, along with Kissinger and Trump. I’ll need to make a road trip East someday.

  18. John Morales says

    Nothing more than I have to the ∗, O wannabe.

    Had you ever been paying attention, you’d have noted my acquaintance with certain… entities.

    You know the old adage: “I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe”.

    I misremembered, and thus these hellish consequences.

    ( Iä! Iä!
      Here I am )

  19. John Morales says

    [Also, right angles are where the Hounds of Tindalos can manifest]

    Oh, right.

    Grid storage.

    Lots of battery chemistries, lots of other approaches, nascent technology, S-curves.

    But there’s no need for such subtleties.

    For example, how heavy might a full train of water become?
    A: very.

    The record-breaking ore train from the same company [BHP], 682 cars and 7,300 m or 7.3 km long, once carried 82,000 metric tons of ore for a total weight of the train, largest in the world, of 99,734 tonnes. It was driven by eight locomotives distributed along its length to keep the coupling loads and curve performance controllable.


    That’s three orders of magnitude higher.

    (And, renewable!)

    272000 kWh per trip. 272 MWh.

    (Or: such things are scalable)

  20. John Morales says

    Better a trainload of water than one of coal, right?

    (Reusable, too)

    Though, of course, one could use anything denser than water.
    Same voume, more mass.
    Dirt, maybe. Old rubble.

    And any high point can have multiple paths to the summit, more so when one considers kilometer-level elevations, right?

    So, run multiple trains full of dense stuff up, using the daily solar or wind excess (very cheap, maybe even negative cost) electricity, arbitrage the time differencial and sell it when wind and solar generation are least.

    Tens of megawatt-hours right there. For free.

  21. John Morales says

    Point being, so many people argue large scale grid storage is not doable, because of lithium or cobalt or whatnot.

    I shan’t summon the shadow of the Great Atomic Creature — you know, “that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.”

    (Thanks for the inspiration, Silentbob!)

  22. John Morales says

    Let’s face it, you’re helping, Silentbob.

    Someone I can reliably mock? Priceless.

    (And I can feel superior to you, too!)

  23. says

    “I wonder how long it’ll be before the Nuklear bros invade this thread.”
    Don’t know if I qualify as such, but at the moment, I still think there’s a role for nuclear power alongside renewable energy and reducing how much energy we use. The big problem I have with nuclear, however, is maintaining all the necessary safety protocols. We definitely don’t want a system like capitalism to encourage corner-cutting or anti-science politicians in control of the policies. Until we get past those enormous hurdles, any nuclear program will need continuous scrutiny.

  24. rrutis1 says

    “We definitely don’t want a system like capitalism to encourage corner-cutting or anti-science politicians in control of the policies. Until we get past those enormous hurdles, any nuclear program will need continuous scrutiny.”

    A thousand times, this! I guess I qualify as a nuklear bros too, but only if we cut out the profit motive.

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