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    The reasons behind lithium-ion batteries’ rapid cost decline

    Lithium-ion batteries, those marvels of lightweight power that have made possible today’s age of handheld electronics and electric vehicles, have plunged in cost since their introduction three decades ago at a rate similar to the drop in solar panel prices, as documented by a study published last March. But what brought about such an astonishing cost decline, of about 97 percent?

    Some of the researchers behind that earlier study have now analyzed what accounted for the extraordinary savings. They found that by far the biggest factor was work on research and development, particularly in chemistry and materials science. This outweighed the gains achieved through economies of scale, though that turned out to be the second-largest category of reductions.

    The new findings are being published today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, in a paper by MIT postdoc Micah Ziegler, recent graduate student Juhyun Song PhD ’19, and Jessika Trancik, a professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    The findings could be useful for policymakers and planners to help guide spending priorities in order to continue the pathway toward ever-lower costs for this and other crucial energy storage technologies, according to Trancik. Their work suggests that there is still considerable room for further improvement in electrochemical battery technologies, she says.

    The analysis required digging through a variety of sources, since much of the relevant information consists of closely held proprietary business data. “The data collection effort was extensive,” Ziegler says. “We looked at academic articles, industry and government reports, press releases, and specification sheets. We even looked at some legal filings that came out. We had to piece together data from many different sources to get a sense of what was happening.” He says they collected “about 15,000 qualitative and quantitative data points, across 1,000 individual records from approximately 280 references.”

    Data from the earliest times are hardest to access and can have the greatest uncertainties, Trancik says, but by comparing different data sources from the same period they have attempted to account for these uncertainties.

    Overall, she says, “we estimate that the majority of the cost decline, more than 50 percent, came from research-and-development-related activities.” That included both private sector and government-funded research and development, and “the vast majority” of that cost decline within that R&D category came from chemistry and materials research.

    That was an interesting finding, she says, because “there were so many variables that people were working on through very different kinds of efforts,” including the design of the battery cells themselves, their manufacturing systems, supply chains, and so on. “The cost improvement emerged from a diverse set of efforts and many people, and not from the work of only a few individuals.”

    The findings about the importance of investment in R&D were especially significant, Ziegler says, because much of this investment happened after lithium-ion battery technology was commercialized, a stage at which some analysts thought the research contribution would become less significant. Over roughly a 20-year period starting five years after the batteries’ introduction in the early 1990s, he says, “most of the cost reduction still came from R&D. The R&D contribution didn’t end when commercialization began. In fact, it was still the biggest contributor to cost reduction.”

    The study took advantage of an analytical approach that Trancik and her team initially developed to analyze the similarly precipitous drop in costs of silicon solar panels over the last few decades. They also applied the approach to understand the rising costs of nuclear energy. “This is really getting at the fundamental mechanisms of technological change,” she says. “And we can also develop these models looking forward in time, which allows us to uncover the levers that people could use to improve the technology in the future.”

    One advantage of the methodology Trancik and her colleagues have developed, she says, is that it helps to sort out the relative importance of different factors when many variables are changing all at once, which typically happens as a technology improves. “It’s not simply adding up the cost effects of these variables,” she says, “because many of these variables affect many different cost components. There’s this kind of intricate web of dependencies.” But the team’s methodology makes it possible to “look at how that overall cost change can be attributed to those variables, by essentially mapping out that network of dependencies,” she says.

    This can help provide guidance on public spending, private investments, and other incentives. “What are all the things that different decision makers could do?” she asks. “What decisions do they have agency over so that they could improve the technology, which is important in the case of low-carbon technologies, where we’re looking for solutions to climate change and we have limited time and limited resources? The new approach allows us to potentially be a bit more intentional about where we make those investments of time and money.”

    “This paper collects data available in a systematic way to determine changes in the cost components of lithium-ion batteries between 1990-1995 and 2010-2015,” says Laura Diaz Anadon, a professor of climate change policy at Cambridge University, who was not connected to this research. “This period was an important one in the history of the technology, and understanding the evolution of cost components lays the groundwork for future work on mechanisms and could help inform research efforts in other types of batteries.”

    The research was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the MIT Technology and Policy Program. More

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    Design’s new frontier

    In the 1960s, the advent of computer-aided design (CAD) sparked a revolution in design. For his PhD thesis in 1963, MIT Professor Ivan Sutherland developed Sketchpad, a game-changing software program that enabled users to draw, move, and resize shapes on a computer. Over the course of the next few decades, CAD software reshaped how everything from consumer products to buildings and airplanes were designed.

    “CAD was part of the first wave in computing in design. The ability of researchers and practitioners to represent and model designs using computers was a major breakthrough and still is one of the biggest outcomes of design research, in my opinion,” says Maria Yang, Gail E. Kendall Professor and director of MIT’s Ideation Lab.

    Innovations in 3D printing during the 1980s and 1990s expanded CAD’s capabilities beyond traditional injection molding and casting methods, providing designers even more flexibility. Designers could sketch, ideate, and develop prototypes or models faster and more efficiently. Meanwhile, with the push of a button, software like that developed by Professor Emeritus David Gossard of MIT’s CAD Lab could solve equations simultaneously to produce a new geometry on the fly.

    In recent years, mechanical engineers have expanded the computing tools they use to ideate, design, and prototype. More sophisticated algorithms and the explosion of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies have sparked a second revolution in design engineering.

    Researchers and faculty at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering are utilizing these technologies to re-imagine how the products, systems, and infrastructures we use are designed. These researchers are at the forefront of the new frontier in design.

    Computational design

    Faez Ahmed wants to reinvent the wheel, or at least the bicycle wheel. He and his team at MIT’s Design Computation & Digital Engineering Lab (DeCoDE) use an artificial intelligence-driven design method that can generate entirely novel and improved designs for a range of products — including the traditional bicycle. They create advanced computational methods to blend human-driven design with simulation-based design.

    “The focus of our DeCoDE lab is computational design. We are looking at how we can create machine learning and AI algorithms to help us discover new designs that are optimized based on specific performance parameters,” says Ahmed, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.

    For their work using AI-driven design for bicycles, Ahmed and his collaborator Professor Daniel Frey wanted to make it easier to design customizable bicycles, and by extension, encourage more people to use bicycles over transportation methods that emit greenhouse gases.

    To start, the group gathered a dataset of 4,500 bicycle designs. Using this massive dataset, they tested the limits of what machine learning could do. First, they developed algorithms to group bicycles that looked similar together and explore the design space. They then created machine learning models that could successfully predict what components are key in identifying a bicycle style, such as a road bike versus a mountain bike.

    Once the algorithms were good enough at identifying bicycle designs and parts, the team proposed novel machine learning tools that could use this data to create a unique and creative design for a bicycle based on certain performance parameters and rider dimensions.

    Ahmed used a generative adversarial network — or GAN — as the basis of this model. GAN models utilize neural networks that can create new designs based on vast amounts of data. However, using GAN models alone would result in homogeneous designs that lack novelty and can’t be assessed in terms of performance. To address these issues in design problems, Ahmed has developed a new method which he calls “PaDGAN,” performance augmented diverse GAN.

    “When we apply this type of model, what we see is that we can get large improvements in the diversity, quality, as well as novelty of the designs,” Ahmed explains.

    Using this approach, Ahmed’s team developed an open-source computational design tool for bicycles freely available on their lab website. They hope to further develop a set of generalizable tools that can be used across industries and products.

    Longer term, Ahmed has his sights set on loftier goals. He hopes the computational design tools he develops could lead to “design democratization,” putting more power in the hands of the end user.

    “With these algorithms, you can have more individualization where the algorithm assists a customer in understanding their needs and helps them create a product that satisfies their exact requirements,” he adds.

    Using algorithms to democratize the design process is a goal shared by Stefanie Mueller, an associate professor in electrical engineering and computer science and mechanical engineering.

    Personal fabrication

    Platforms like Instagram give users the freedom to instantly edit their photographs or videos using filters. In one click, users can alter the palette, tone, and brightness of their content by applying filters that range from bold colors to sepia-toned or black-and-white. Mueller, X-Window Consortium Career Development Professor, wants to bring this concept of the Instagram filter to the physical world.

    “We want to explore how digital capabilities can be applied to tangible objects. Our goal is to bring reprogrammable appearance to the physical world,” explains Mueller, director of the HCI Engineering Group based out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

    Mueller’s team utilizes a combination of smart materials, optics, and computation to advance personal fabrication technologies that would allow end users to alter the design and appearance of the products they own. They tested this concept in a project they dubbed “Photo-Chromeleon.”

    First, a mix of photochromic cyan, magenta, and yellow dies are airbrushed onto an object — in this instance, a 3D sculpture of a chameleon. Using software they developed, the team sketches the exact color pattern they want to achieve on the object itself. An ultraviolet light shines on the object to activate the dyes.

    To actually create the physical pattern on the object, Mueller has developed an optimization algorithm to use alongside a normal office projector outfitted with red, green, and blue LED lights. These lights shine on specific pixels on the object for a given period of time to physically change the makeup of the photochromic pigments.

    “This fancy algorithm tells us exactly how long we have to shine the red, green, and blue light on every single pixel of an object to get the exact pattern we’ve programmed in our software,” says Mueller.

    Giving this freedom to the end user enables limitless possibilities. Mueller’s team has applied this technology to iPhone cases, shoes, and even cars. In the case of shoes, Mueller envisions a shoebox embedded with UV and LED light projectors. Users could put their shoes in the box overnight and the next day have a pair of shoes in a completely new pattern.

    Mueller wants to expand her personal fabrication methods to the clothes we wear. Rather than utilize the light projection technique developed in the PhotoChromeleon project, her team is exploring the possibility of weaving LEDs directly into clothing fibers, allowing people to change their shirt’s appearance as they wear it. These personal fabrication technologies could completely alter consumer habits.

    “It’s very interesting for me to think about how these computational techniques will change product design on a high level,” adds Mueller. “In the future, a consumer could buy a blank iPhone case and update the design on a weekly or daily basis.”

    Computational fluid dynamics and participatory design

    Another team of mechanical engineers, including Sili Deng, the Brit (1961) & Alex (1949) d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor, are developing a different kind of design tool that could have a large impact on individuals in low- and middle-income countries across the world.

    As Deng walked down the hallway of Building 1 on MIT’s campus, a monitor playing a video caught her eye. The video featured work done by mechanical engineers and MIT D-Lab on developing cleaner burning briquettes for cookstoves in Uganda. Deng immediately knew she wanted to get involved.

    “As a combustion scientist, I’ve always wanted to work on such a tangible real-world problem, but the field of combustion tends to focus more heavily on the academic side of things,” explains Deng.

    After reaching out to colleagues in MIT D-Lab, Deng joined a collaborative effort to develop a new cookstove design tool for the 3 billion people across the world who burn solid fuels to cook and heat their homes. These stoves often emit soot and carbon monoxide, leading not only to millions of deaths each year, but also worsening the world’s greenhouse gas emission problem.

    The team is taking a three-pronged approach to developing this solution, using a combination of participatory design, physical modeling, and experimental validation to create a tool that will lead to the production of high-performing, low-cost energy products.

    Deng and her team in the Deng Energy and Nanotechnology Group use physics-based modeling for the combustion and emission process in cookstoves.

    “My team is focused on computational fluid dynamics. We use computational and numerical studies to understand the flow field where the fuel is burned and releases heat,” says Deng.

    These flow mechanics are crucial to understanding how to minimize heat loss and make cookstoves more efficient, as well as learning how dangerous pollutants are formed and released in the process.

    Using computational methods, Deng’s team performs three-dimensional simulations of the complex chemistry and transport coupling at play in the combustion and emission processes. They then use these simulations to build a combustion model for how fuel is burned and a pollution model that predicts carbon monoxide emissions.

    Deng’s models are used by a group led by Daniel Sweeney in MIT D-Lab to test the experimental validation in prototypes of stoves. Finally, Professor Maria Yang uses participatory design methods to integrate user feedback, ensuring the design tool can actually be used by people across the world.

    The end goal for this collaborative team is to not only provide local manufacturers with a prototype they could produce themselves, but to also provide them with a tool that can tweak the design based on local needs and available materials.

    Deng sees wide-ranging applications for the computational fluid dynamics her team is developing.

    “We see an opportunity to use physics-based modeling, augmented with a machine learning approach, to come up with chemical models for practical fuels that help us better understand combustion. Therefore, we can design new methods to minimize carbon emissions,” she adds.

    While Deng is utilizing simulations and machine learning at the molecular level to improve designs, others are taking a more macro approach.

    Designing intelligent systems

    When it comes to intelligent design, Navid Azizan thinks big. He hopes to help create future intelligent systems that are capable of making decisions autonomously by using the enormous amounts of data emerging from the physical world. From smart robots and autonomous vehicles to smart power grids and smart cities, Azizan focuses on the analysis, design, and control of intelligent systems.

    Achieving such massive feats takes a truly interdisciplinary approach that draws upon various fields such as machine learning, dynamical systems, control, optimization, statistics, and network science, among others.

    “Developing intelligent systems is a multifaceted problem, and it really requires a confluence of disciplines,” says Azizan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering with a dual appointment in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “To create such systems, we need to go beyond standard approaches to machine learning, such as those commonly used in computer vision, and devise algorithms that can enable safe, efficient, real-time decision-making for physical systems.”

    For robot control to work in the complex dynamic environments that arise in the real world, real-time adaptation is key. If, for example, an autonomous vehicle is going to drive in icy conditions or a drone is operating in windy conditions, they need to be able to adapt to their new environment quickly.

    To address this challenge, Azizan and his collaborators at MIT and Stanford University have developed a new algorithm that combines adaptive control, a powerful methodology from control theory, with meta learning, a new machine learning paradigm.

    “This ‘control-oriented’ learning approach outperforms the existing ‘regression-oriented’ methods, which are mostly focused on just fitting the data, by a wide margin,” says Azizan.

    Another critical aspect of deploying machine learning algorithms in physical systems that Azizan and his team hope to address is safety. Deep neural networks are a crucial part of autonomous systems. They are used for interpreting complex visual inputs and making data-driven predictions of future behavior in real time. However, Azizan urges caution.

    “These deep neural networks are only as good as their training data, and their predictions can often be untrustworthy in scenarios not covered by their training data,” he says. Making decisions based on such untrustworthy predictions could lead to fatal accidents in autonomous vehicles or other safety-critical systems.

    To avoid these potentially catastrophic events, Azizan proposes that it is imperative to equip neural networks with a measure of their uncertainty. When the uncertainty is high, they can then be switched to a “safe policy.”

    In pursuit of this goal, Azizan and his collaborators have developed a new algorithm known as SCOD — Sketching Curvature of Out-of-Distribution Detection. This framework could be embedded within any deep neural network to equip them with a measure of their uncertainty.

    “This algorithm is model-agnostic and can be applied to neural networks used in various kinds of autonomous systems, whether it’s drones, vehicles, or robots,” says Azizan.

    Azizan hopes to continue working on algorithms for even larger-scale systems. He and his team are designing efficient algorithms to better control supply and demand in smart energy grids. According to Azizan, even if we create the most efficient solar panels and batteries, we can never achieve a sustainable grid powered by renewable resources without the right control mechanisms.

    Mechanical engineers like Ahmed, Mueller, Deng, and Azizan serve as the key to realizing the next revolution of computing in design.

    “MechE is in a unique position at the intersection of the computational and physical worlds,” Azizan says. “Mechanical engineers build a bridge between theoretical, algorithmic tools and real, physical world applications.”

    Sophisticated computational tools, coupled with the ground truth mechanical engineers have in the physical world, could unlock limitless possibilities for design engineering, well beyond what could have been imagined in those early days of CAD. More

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    At UN climate change conference, trying to “keep 1.5 alive”

    After a one-year delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, negotiators from nearly 200 countries met this month in Glasgow, Scotland, at COP26, the United Nations climate change conference, to hammer out a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate impacts. A delegation of approximately 20 faculty, staff, and students from MIT was on hand to observe the negotiations, share and conduct research, and launch new initiatives.

    On Saturday, Nov. 13, following two weeks of negotiations in the cavernous Scottish Events Campus, countries’ representatives agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact. The pact reaffirms the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement “to pursue efforts” to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and recognizes that achieving this goal requires “reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century.”

    “On issues like the need to reach net-zero emissions, reduce methane pollution, move beyond coal power, and tighten carbon accounting rules, the Glasgow pact represents some meaningful progress, but we still have so much work to do,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who led the Institute’s delegation to COP26. “Glasgow showed, once again, what a wicked complex problem climate change is, technically, economically, and politically. But it also underscored the determination of a global community of people committed to addressing it.”

    An “ambition gap”

    Both within the conference venue and at protests that spilled through the streets of Glasgow, one rallying cry was “keep 1.5 alive.” Alok Sharma, who was appointed by the UK government to preside over COP26, said in announcing the Glasgow pact: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

    In remarks delivered during the first week of the conference, Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, presented findings from the latest MIT Global Change Outlook, which showed a wide gap between countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — the UN’s term for greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledges — and the reductions needed to put the world on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and, now, the Glasgow pact.

    Pointing to this ambition gap, Paltsev called on all countries to do more, faster, to cut emissions. “We could dramatically reduce overall climate risk through more ambitious policy measures and investments,” says Paltsev. “We need to employ an integrated approach of moving to zero emissions in energy and industry, together with sustainable development and nature-based solutions, simultaneously improving human well-being and providing biodiversity benefits.”

    Finalizing the Paris rulebook

    A key outcome of COP26 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 26th time) was the development of a set of rules to implement Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which provides a mechanism for countries to receive credit for emissions reductions that they finance outside their borders, and to cooperate by buying and selling emissions reductions on international carbon markets.

    An agreement on this part of the Paris “rulebook” had eluded negotiators in the years since the Paris climate conference, in part because negotiators were concerned about how to prevent double-counting, wherein both buyers and sellers would claim credit for the emissions reductions.

    Michael Mehling, the deputy director of MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) and an expert on international carbon markets, drew on a recent CEEPR working paper to describe critical negotiation issues under Article 6 during an event at the conference on Nov. 10 with climate negotiators and private sector representatives.

    He cited research that finds that Article 6, by leveraging the cost-efficiency of global carbon markets, could cut in half the cost that countries would incur to achieve their nationally determined contributions. “Which, seen from another angle, means you could double the ambition of these NDCs at no additional cost,” Mehling noted in his talk, adding that, given the persistent ambition gap, “any such opportunity is bitterly needed.”

    Andreas Haupt, a graduate student in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, joined MIT’s COP26 delegation to follow Article 6 negotiations. Haupt described the final days of negotiations over Article 6 as a “roller coaster.” Once negotiators reached an agreement, he says, “I felt relieved, but also unsure how strong of an effect the new rules, with all their weaknesses, will have. I am curious and hopeful regarding what will happen in the next year until the next large-scale negotiations in 2022.”

    Nature-based climate solutions

    World leaders also announced new agreements on the sidelines of the formal UN negotiations. One such agreement, a declaration on forests signed by more than 100 countries, commits to “working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”

    A team from MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), which has been working with policymakers and other stakeholders on strategies to protect tropical forests and advance other nature-based climate solutions in Latin America, was at COP26 to discuss their work and make plans for expanding it.

    Marcela Angel, a research associate at ESI, moderated a panel discussion featuring John Fernández, professor of architecture and ESI’s director, focused on protecting and enhancing natural carbon sinks, particularly tropical forests such as the Amazon that are at risk of deforestation, forest degradation, and biodiversity loss.

    “Deforestation and associated land use change remain one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in most Amazonian countries, such as Brazil, Peru, and Colombia,” says Angel. “Our aim is to support these countries, whose nationally determined contributions depend on the effectiveness of policies to prevent deforestation and promote conservation, with an approach based on the integration of targeted technology breakthroughs, deep community engagement, and innovative bioeconomic opportunities for local communities that depend on forests for their livelihoods.”

    Energy access and renewable energy

    Worldwide, an estimated 800 million people lack access to electricity, and billions more have only limited or erratic electrical service. Providing universal access to energy is one of the UN’s sustainable development goals, creating a dual challenge: how to boost energy access without driving up greenhouse gas emissions.

    Rob Stoner, deputy director for science and technology of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), and Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga, a visiting professor at the Sloan School of Management, attended COP26 to share their work as members of the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty, a collaboration between MITEI and the Rockefeller Foundation. It brings together global energy leaders from industry, the development finance community, academia, and civil society to identify ways to overcome barriers to investment in the energy sectors of countries with low energy access.

    The commission’s work helped to motivate the formation, announced at COP26 on Nov. 2, of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, a multibillion-dollar commitment by the Rockefeller and IKEA foundations and Bezos Earth Fund to support access to renewable energy around the world.

    Another MITEI member of the COP26 delegation, Martha Broad, the initiative’s executive director, spoke about MIT research to inform the U.S. goal of scaling offshore wind energy capacity from approximately 30 megawatts today to 30 gigawatts by 2030, including significant new capacity off the coast of New England.

    Broad described research, funded by MITEI member companies, on a coating that can be applied to the blades of wind turbines to prevent icing that would require the turbines’ shutdown; the use of machine learning to inform preventative turbine maintenance; and methodologies for incorporating the effects of climate change into projections of future wind conditions to guide wind farm siting decisions today. She also spoke broadly about the need for public and private support to scale promising innovations.

    “Clearly, both the public sector and the private sector have a role to play in getting these technologies to the point where we can use them in New England, and also where we can deploy them affordably for the developing world,” Broad said at an event sponsored by America Is All In, a coalition of nonprofit and business organizations.

    Food and climate alliance

    Food systems around the world are increasingly at risk from the impacts of climate change. At the same time, these systems, which include all activities from food production to consumption and food waste, are responsible for about one-third of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions warming the planet.

    At COP26, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab announced the launch of a new alliance to drive research-based innovation that will make food systems more resilient and sustainable, called the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance. With 16 member institutions, the FACT Alliance will better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders around the world.

    Looking ahead

    By the end of 2022, the Glasgow pact asks countries to revisit their nationally determined contributions and strengthen them to bring them in line with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. The pact also “notes with deep regret” the failure of wealthier countries to collectively provide poorer countries $100 billion per year in climate financing that they pledged in 2009 to begin in 2020.

    These and other issues will be on the agenda for COP27, to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, next year.

    “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is broadly accepted as a critical goal to avoiding worsening climate consequences, but it’s clear that current national commitments will not get us there,” says ESI’s Fernández. “We will need stronger emissions reductions pledges, especially from the largest greenhouse gas emitters. At the same time, expanding creativity, innovation, and determination from every sector of society, including research universities, to get on with real-world solutions is essential. At Glasgow, MIT was front and center in energy systems, cities, nature-based solutions, and more. The year 2030 is right around the corner so we can’t afford to let up for one minute.” More

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    Making the case for hydrogen in a zero-carbon economy

    As the United States races to achieve its goal of zero-carbon electricity generation by 2035, energy providers are swiftly ramping up renewable resources such as solar and wind. But because these technologies churn out electrons only when the sun shines and the wind blows, they need backup from other energy sources, especially during seasons of high electric demand. Currently, plants burning fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, fill in the gaps.

    “As we move to more and more renewable penetration, this intermittency will make a greater impact on the electric power system,” says Emre Gençer, a research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). That’s because grid operators will increasingly resort to fossil-fuel-based “peaker” plants that compensate for the intermittency of the variable renewable energy (VRE) sources of sun and wind. “If we’re to achieve zero-carbon electricity, we must replace all greenhouse gas-emitting sources,” Gençer says.

    Low- and zero-carbon alternatives to greenhouse-gas emitting peaker plants are in development, such as arrays of lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen power generation. But each of these evolving technologies comes with its own set of advantages and constraints, and it has proven difficult to frame the debate about these options in a way that’s useful for policymakers, investors, and utilities engaged in the clean energy transition.

    Now, Gençer and Drake D. Hernandez SM ’21 have come up with a model that makes it possible to pin down the pros and cons of these peaker-plant alternatives with greater precision. Their hybrid technological and economic analysis, based on a detailed inventory of California’s power system, was published online last month in Applied Energy. While their work focuses on the most cost-effective solutions for replacing peaker power plants, it also contains insights intended to contribute to the larger conversation about transforming energy systems.

    “Our study’s essential takeaway is that hydrogen-fired power generation can be the more economical option when compared to lithium-ion batteries — even today, when the costs of hydrogen production, transmission, and storage are very high,” says Hernandez, who worked on the study while a graduate research assistant for MITEI. Adds Gençer, “If there is a place for hydrogen in the cases we analyzed, that suggests there is a promising role for hydrogen to play in the energy transition.”

    Adding up the costs

    California serves as a stellar paradigm for a swiftly shifting power system. The state draws more than 20 percent of its electricity from solar and approximately 7 percent from wind, with more VRE coming online rapidly. This means its peaker plants already play a pivotal role, coming online each evening when the sun goes down or when events such as heat waves drive up electricity use for days at a time.

    “We looked at all the peaker plants in California,” recounts Gençer. “We wanted to know the cost of electricity if we replaced them with hydrogen-fired turbines or with lithium-ion batteries.” The researchers used a core metric called the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) as a way of comparing the costs of different technologies to each other. LCOE measures the average total cost of building and operating a particular energy-generating asset per unit of total electricity generated over the hypothetical lifetime of that asset.

    Selecting 2019 as their base study year, the team looked at the costs of running natural gas-fired peaker plants, which they defined as plants operating 15 percent of the year in response to gaps in intermittent renewable electricity. In addition, they determined the amount of carbon dioxide released by these plants and the expense of abating these emissions. Much of this information was publicly available.

    Coming up with prices for replacing peaker plants with massive arrays of lithium-ion batteries was also relatively straightforward: “There are no technical limitations to lithium-ion, so you can build as many as you want; but they are super expensive in terms of their footprint for energy storage and the mining required to manufacture them,” says Gençer.

    But then came the hard part: nailing down the costs of hydrogen-fired electricity generation. “The most difficult thing is finding cost assumptions for new technologies,” says Hernandez. “You can’t do this through a literature review, so we had many conversations with equipment manufacturers and plant operators.”

    The team considered two different forms of hydrogen fuel to replace natural gas, one produced through electrolyzer facilities that convert water and electricity into hydrogen, and another that reforms natural gas, yielding hydrogen and carbon waste that can be captured to reduce emissions. They also ran the numbers on retrofitting natural gas plants to burn hydrogen as opposed to building entirely new facilities. Their model includes identification of likely locations throughout the state and expenses involved in constructing these facilities.

    The researchers spent months compiling a giant dataset before setting out on the task of analysis. The results from their modeling were clear: “Hydrogen can be a more cost-effective alternative to lithium-ion batteries for peaking operations on a power grid,” says Hernandez. In addition, notes Gençer, “While certain technologies worked better in particular locations, we found that on average, reforming hydrogen rather than electrolytic hydrogen turned out to be the cheapest option for replacing peaker plants.”

    A tool for energy investors

    When he began this project, Gençer admits he “wasn’t hopeful” about hydrogen replacing natural gas in peaker plants. “It was kind of shocking to see in our different scenarios that there was a place for hydrogen.” That’s because the overall price tag for converting a fossil-fuel based plant to one based on hydrogen is very high, and such conversions likely won’t take place until more sectors of the economy embrace hydrogen, whether as a fuel for transportation or for varied manufacturing and industrial purposes.

    A nascent hydrogen production infrastructure does exist, mainly in the production of ammonia for fertilizer. But enormous investments will be necessary to expand this framework to meet grid-scale needs, driven by purposeful incentives. “With any of the climate solutions proposed today, we will need a carbon tax or carbon pricing; otherwise nobody will switch to new technologies,” says Gençer.

    The researchers believe studies like theirs could help key energy stakeholders make better-informed decisions. To that end, they have integrated their analysis into SESAME, a life cycle and techno-economic assessment tool for a range of energy systems that was developed by MIT researchers. Users can leverage this sophisticated modeling environment to compare costs of energy storage and emissions from different technologies, for instance, or to determine whether it is cost-efficient to replace a natural gas-powered plant with one powered by hydrogen.

    “As utilities, industry, and investors look to decarbonize and achieve zero-emissions targets, they have to weigh the costs of investing in low-carbon technologies today against the potential impacts of climate change moving forward,” says Hernandez, who is currently a senior associate in the energy practice at Charles River Associates. Hydrogen, he believes, will become increasingly cost-competitive as its production costs decline and markets expand.

    A study group member of MITEI’s soon-to-be published Future of Storage study, Gençer knows that hydrogen alone will not usher in a zero-carbon future. But, he says, “Our research shows we need to seriously consider hydrogen in the energy transition, start thinking about key areas where hydrogen should be used, and start making the massive investments necessary.”

    Funding for this research was provided by MITEI’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers and Future of Storage study. More