James Glover II / Courtesy Reuters Batteries included: the Tesla Gigafactory under construction in Nevada, November 2014

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The Promise of Energy Storage

The plunge in oil prices that began in mid-2014 has been relentless. It has pushed a clutch of oil-exporting nations into deficit spending, hobbled Russia’s ambitions, and altered the calculus behind Iran’s nuclear program. It has also given an opportune boost to the U.S. economy and other petroleum-consuming countries. No other force on earth packs such latent capacity to move events. Apart from one, that is: batteries.

When it comes to energy, new technologies can upend the status quo almost overnight, surprising everyone. And just as the shale revolution, unleashed by fracking, has largely triggered the current oil upheaval, batteries could roil geopolitics and business. Renewable power has long been held back by the problem of electricity storage, because the hours when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing do not necessarily match the hours when people use electricity most. The key to unlocking renewables’ potential is thus stationary energy storage, batteries that would allow consumers to draw on electricity generated at an earlier time. If today’s off-the-shelf lithium-ion batteries were scaled up and used to store electricity for the grid, they could rival shale oil in terms of their capacity to reshape the energy landscape.

For starters, they could eradicate some four million barrels of global oil demand a day, as countries that rely heavily on oil for electricity generation, such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, slashed their consumption and turned instead to solar or wind power stored in batteries. That volume equals a whopping 4.5 percent of current global oil consumption—about the same amount, counting new supply and lost demand, as what triggered the oil-price plunge. On top of that, batteries would represent an environmental boon, since solar and wind power could finally begin to substitute for coal and natural gas as go-to sources of power. And as with shale oil and gas, grid-scale batteries would make a gargantuan commercial splash. According to research by Citi, they will account for more than $400 billion

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