Samsung’s Massive Phone Recall Highlights Green Energy’s Biggest Problem

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Samsung recalled 2.5 million smartphones in September due to a battery problem similar to one that has plagued the green energy industry for decades.

The problem with Samsung’s phones is that it attempted to pack “ever more battery power into ever thinner phones.” A similar problem is regularly cited by scientists as one of the biggest obstacles facing green energy.

Wind and solar power only provide electricity during certain times of the day and can’t easily adjust outputs. They provide power unpredictably relative to conventional power sources. On an especially cloudy or windless day, the electrical grid can’t supply enough power from solar or wind alone; on especially productive days they can overload and fry the power grid — just like a Samsung phone. This is why electrical utilities using green energy will occasionally pay consumers to take electricity.

Right now, it’s impossible to economically store power for times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Purchasing enough batteries to provide just three days of storage for an average American household costs about $15,000, and those batteries last for about five years, and are very difficult to recycle.

Researchers have repeatedly found that as the amount of green energy entering national power grids increases, the negative impacts of wind and solar’s volatility will also increase, unless better batteries are developed. Additionally, scientists suspect that it may be physically impossible to build those better batteries.

Supporting wind and solar power with batteries is extremely expensive, particularly in regards to home use. Even after billions have been put into battery research by Samsung, and other huge technology companies, batteries aren’t improving quickly. Despite enormous amounts of financial support from both the private sector and the government, only small gains in battery capacity and reducing costs have been made.

In order for the power grid to function without large-scale energy storage, demand for energy must exactly match supply. Power demand is relatively predictable and conventional power plans, like nuclear plants and natural gas, can adjust output accordingly. Germany paid wind farms $548 million to switch off last year to avoid grid damage.

This is true for home power storage as well, even with the latest batteries, which were invented to make rooftop solar panels and wind turbines economically viable for consumers. A Tesla Powerwall capable of powering a home costs $7,340 to buy.

A conservative analysis estimates a Powerwall can save its owner a maximum of $1.06 a day. A Tesla Powerwall battery would take almost 40 years, or roughly four times its warranty period, to pay for itself, according to analysis performed by the Institute for Energy Research. Tesla offers five- to 10-year warranties on its Powerwalls, and predicts they will last for 15 years.

One of the world’s largest and most powerful batteries, located in Fairbanks, Alaska, weighs 1,300-metric tons and is larger than a football field. It can provide enough electricity for about 12,000 residents, or 38 percent of Fairbanks’ population, for seven minutes. That’s useful for short outages, which happen a lot in Alaska, but isn’t effective enough to act as a reserve for solar and wind.

Currently, the best way humans have of “storing” power is pumping water up a hill, which actually accounts for 99 percent of all global energy storage.

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