Flow Batteries Versus Lithium Ion: What’s Best for Grid Scale Storage?

Lockheed Martin has contracted with the Pentagon to install a large vanadium redox flow battery system at U.S. Army base in Colorado.

Wind and solar photovoltaic are widely deployed, carbon free energy sources. But they are highly intermittent, and coping with this irregular power flow has traditionally required peaker plants usually powered by natural gas, oil or coal. 

Grid-scale battery storage promises to eliminate the need for the peaker plants, and multiple battery projects have been deployed around the world. Which battery technology is best for this application, however, is still at issue. 

The world’s largest defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, believes that vanadium redox flow batteries, whose high weight and low energy density make them impractical for transportation, are in fact the ideal solution for ground-based large-scale storage. 

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When it comes to grid-scale alternate energy generation, solar photovoltaics and wind turbines are always in the media spotlight. But these sources are intermittent, and even where applied at scale, it is common for fossil fuel generating plants to stand ready to provide fill-in power when needed. 

Grid-scale battery storage is the obvious solution to the intermittency problem and several companies, including Tesla, build systems that are being deployed worldwide, including the U.S. For electrical utilities, there is a double benefit: reduction of reliance on fossil fuels, and the ability to retire existing peaker plants or expand service without the expensive permitting and environmental review processes necessary to build power plants today. For major power utility customers, however, there is another economic incentive to use large-scale storage: security. 

Recent wide-scale weather-related blackouts in California and Texas are expected by climate scientists and power systems engineers to occur with increasing frequency, and many industrial processes are very intolerant of power interruption. One customer that is highly dependent on reliable power is the U.S. Army, and Lockheed Martin has been awarded a contract to build the 1st MW scale, long-duration energy storage system for the U.S. Department of Defense. 

The company will install its GridStar Flow vanadium redox flow battery technology at the U.S. Army installation at Fort Carlson, Colorado, under the management of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL). The project is designed to test the performance of the Lockheed Martin system as a storage and distribution technology for renewable energy sources, although it could also be used as a backup power source to conventional power generation. 

This first unit is expected to provide up to 10 hours of power for essential base needs in the event of a service interruption. Commercial grid-scale batteries have been deployed worldwide using multiple technologies, from older lead acid and nickel cadmium types to sodium salt and lithium-ion cells as used in electric vehicles. 

Vanadium redox flow batteries, however, use a different chemistry and in a significant difference, the charge carriers are circulated in a liquid from tanks, using pumps to flow electrolytes past an ion-selective membrane. Compared to lithium-ion technologies developed for automotive use, flow batteries are large, heavy, require moving parts such as pumps and have a poor energy to volume ratio compared to other battery types. 

For ground-based energy storage applications, however, weight and volume are rarely a consideration, and the technology has several advantages. There are no limits to energy capacity, the aqueous electrolytes are non-flammable and systems can have a long life, 15,000 to 20,000 charge discharge cycles. 

But most importantly, flow batteries promise low cost when used in large-scale systems. Vanadium redox flow batteries are one of several grid-scale storage technologies in active development and deployment around the world. Lockheed Martin, a provider of weapon systems and services to the Pentagon and U.S. allies for a century, has six decades of experience in power generation and storage for military applications, but the GridStar Flow system is branded by the company as a commercial product. 

Will Lockheed Martin emerge as a major player in large-scale battery storage? Commercial sales are a radically different proposition from military procurement, but the fact that the largest defense contractor in the world is targeting vanadium redox flow technology at both military and civilian markets suggests that the age of the gas or coal fired peaker plant may be over.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for ENGINEERING.com. Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.