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10 Questions with Energy Storage Expert Imre Gyuk

March 17, 2016 - 9:30am

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Dr. Imre Gyuk -- pictured speaking at a Green Mountain Power energy storage event -- was recently recognized for his game-changing work in energy storage. | Photo courtesy of the Clean Energy States Alliance.

Dr. Imre Gyuk -- pictured speaking at a Green Mountain Power energy storage event -- was recently recognized for his game-changing work in energy storage. | Photo courtesy of the Clean Energy States Alliance.

Imre Gyuk has been the program manager for energy storage in the Energy Department’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE) for over a decade. He was recently recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries, or NAATBatt. We spoke with him about the importance of energy storage and what we can expect to see in the future.

1. What is energy storage?

The idea of storage is all around us. Books are stored knowledge. Money is stored value. Food is stored. We find storage everywhere, except, until recently, in the electricity business. By-and-large, electricity is still consumed as soon as it is produced, like food in a primitive hunter-gatherer society: hand-to-mouth.

Energy storage is a vessel to store energy to be used at a later date. Energy storage provides energy when it is needed, just as transmission provides energy where it is needed.

2. Why is energy storage important?

The traditional grid works as a one-way flow from generation to load, and it is relatively predictable. But then we started to get increasing amounts of renewables. Renewable energy sources are variable, and the flow is bi-directional. The grid doesn’t like fluctuations.

We are also getting increased digitization in industry. We are going from analog to digital. Analog is very forgiving; digital needs exquisitely precise input in frequency and voltages and so on. Any fluctuation may produce an equipment outage, and these outages are immensely expensive. So we need a more even supply of electric energy.

The modern grid needs buffers such as demand response and storage, to integrate renewables more easily and stay balanced.

3. How did you get interested in this field? What were you working on before you started your work in energy storage?

It’s a long story. I’m a theoretical physicist, and I started out exploring the wonders of elementary particles -- those ultimate constituents of the material world. I did some research on groundwater flow, which led me to water resources. And that got me increasingly interested in sustainability.

I then taught environmental architecture for a number of years: exploring how a building interacts with its environment causing minimal disturbances to that environment. Then I returned to physics again and taught at the University of Kuwait. Kuwait is a desert country and presents more examples of environmental stress and more challenges to sustainability. I became interested in the interplay between environmental degradation and societal collapse. Many civilizations collapsed or imploded, and I believe much of that is due to overexploitation of scarce resources.

Eventually I returned to the U.S. and joined the Department of Energy.

4. You became the program manager for the energy storage program 13 years ago. How has the field changed since then?

When I started the OE program, energy storage was in the realm of dreams and visions. There were less than half a dozen projects. Now, a decade later, storage has become one of the hottest fields in the electricity business. And our effort with the National Labs is right at the root of that. Now our global energy storage database lists over 1,400 projects worldwide!

5. When we talk about storage, we talk a lot about batteries. How do energy storage batteries compare to the AA batteries in a flashlight?

Batteries for stationary grid operations need to be rechargeable. They can absorb energy from the grid, and they can give it back. Your flashlight battery starts charged, and then gives off its energy until the current is too meager, and then you throw it away. Storage batteries for the grid must sustain thousands of cycles.

They’re also bigger. We’re talking thousands to millions of watts, instead of a few watts for your flashlight.

But otherwise, it’s all electrochemistry. All batteries consist of electrolytes, a membrane in the middle and electrodes for the flow to go in and out.

6. What can we expect to see in terms of new innovation in storage technology in the next 5-10 years?

We will create more cost effective, longer-lived and more reliable devices. Lithium-ion will continue as a power battery used by the EV industry, but long duration flow batteries are gaining a hold, too.

We are currently working on research to replace the metal-based electrolytes (e.g. vanadium) with batteries based on organic molecules. This will free storage from the fluctuations of the commodities market and the reliance on foreign mining. Since the basic materials are mainly carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, it’s only up to our ingenuity how well and how cheaply we can do it.

7. What is the biggest challenge facing the industry at this point in time?

We not only have to reduce the cost. We also have to increase our understanding of the value of storage. Value has to go up just as the cost has to go down.

The problem is, many of these values, like emergency preparedness and resilience, may become apparent only after the systems are actually in operation. Cost and value will have to be equal to reach full commercialization. Closing the gap is a major challenge facing the industry.

We also need to ensure safety. And this doesn’t just involve people who make batteries. It also involves the utilities, the scientists, fire marshals, fire fighters, insurance people, building inspectors, all of those disciplines who have never worked together before are now in one room working on energy storage safety.

8. What do you wish the average American knew about energy storage?

I find myself talking to people about storage on the Metro coming home from work and at conferences around the world. I do want people to know about the importance of energy storage for balancing the grid, but even more, I want people to have an understanding of electricity and of the grid that delivers it. The grid is an incredibly complex structure that is the backbone for modern civilization. People ought to be more aware of that.

9. What is the project you’ve worked on that you’re proudest of or most excited about?

I am proud of all of them: the development of novel chemistries, the construction of intricate devices, the insights we have gained from analysis, and the innovative applications we have found to deploy storage. Currently, I am excited about our state initiative. It’s a joy to see projects initiated in state after state: Vermont, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Massachusetts. All of those are different, and the funding mechanisms are different. Generally, we put only a very small amount of money into a project, but we provide all of the expertise of the National Labs. It’s technical assistance at the highest level. The leverage which we get is outstanding.

For example, our Vermont project with Green Mountain Power provides 4 megawatts of storage and 2 megawatts of photovoltaic solar power for a community emergency shelter in Rutland, Vermont. The facility was intended as a resiliency microgrid, but it turns out to be very profitable when used to reduce demand charges. So it will be a money maker, and at the same time, assure resilience in the face of disaster.  

10. You’ve just been given a lifetime achievement award by the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries (NAATBatt), what does this award mean to you?

It represents in some ways a vindication of the dreams and visions of a dozen years ago. It also represents the respect of my peers. But it’s only a milestone. Much work remains to be done before storage becomes ubiquitous.

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