Imagine how life in 21st century Australia would be without your personal electronic devices such as the smartphone or a laptop computer. Made possible no doubt by the internet the other reason we have taken to these power-hungry devices is primarily due to the development of the lithium-ion battery. Now consider the other major use of electricity in this country that affects us all; powering of the family home. Australia’s electricity grid was designed and built 50 years ago, with its principal source of energy being coal-fired power stations. In the 1960s and 1970s when the grid and power stations were developed, the cost of burning coal to heat water, to create steam to turn a turbine, to spin magnets around the copper wire to create electricity, was socially and economically acceptable.

Wind the clock forward to 2019 where global warming is very real, the cost of electricity is at all-time highs, and political activism by the population is rising, the case for a looking at how Australia generates and consumes electricity and the price we pay for it is a very real issue.

The capability of the existing and aged power grid to deliver what for most Australian’s take as a national right, reliable and affordable electricity, is proving more problematic as each day passes and our weather patterns become more extreme. What is needed is a scaled version of the revolution in powering personal devices, that is building large scale energy storage systems as the heart of a smarter electricity grid.

At present in Australia, grid-scale battery storage makes up but a fraction of the installed capacity of our electricity network. As society gradually builds the political will to transition away from reliance on coal-burning generation to renewables in solar, wind and pumped hydro, the demand for grid-scale batteries will increase dramatically.

Despite what we hear or read in the popular media, Australia is on the front foot in terms of installing residential battery storage capacity. In 2017, the number of residentially battery systems installed in Australia was 21,000 almost treble the previous year. Of the 1.4 gigawatts of battery storage capacity supplying 1.6hrs of electricity supply installed globally in 2017, 246 megawatts were installed in Australia. This ranked Australia’s deployment of battery storage in 2017, a close second in overall to the USA.

This takes up of residential energy storage systems reflects the high take up of renewable energy generation in Australia. Australia, as Mike Cannon-Brooks, highlighted this week at Morgan Stanley’s Tech conference, has an abundant resource in solar and wind energy that is entirely free, and equally important is carbon emissions free. The harnessing of this abundant power source at the grid scale is not as easy or as cheap as the average Australian consumer of electricity would want. That said, as technological advances in battery capability improve, along with the political will to shift away from coal, the rollout of grid-scale batteries and residential storage systems will continue to increase.

The recent state-wide blackout in South Australia has proven that grid-scale batteries can be incorporated into the existing grid and can be done so in a very quick time frame. The Tesla supplied lithium-ion battery connected to the Hornsdale wind farm has the capacity, in theory, to provide 100 megawatts of power for 90 minutes into the national grid. The reality is at present that the battery provides 30 megawatts and keeps 70 megawatts as a reserve, should a disruption occur anywhere in the South Australian electricity network. The important issue is that a grid-scale battery has demonstrated that it can supply reliable power at an “on-call basis”, something the doomsayers of renewables have long been saying is impossible.

The benefits of Lithium-ion batteries are their small size and lightweight, however, as many of us with small electronic devices realize, over time, the performance of lithium-ion batteries decreases as the number of discharge-recharge cycles increases with age and use. For residential households, the size and weight of key items are less of an issue. Think, hot water systems, stoves and aircon units. Once these are installed, they stay with the house, so the size and weight of such items is not front of mind.

Lithium-ion batteries are not the only type of small grid-scale batteries being developed. Zinc-bromine flow batteries are one such technology being developed by Brisbane based company Redflow Ltd (ASX:RFX), that has a solution to the charge and discharge issue that plagues lithium-ion batteries.

When we consider large scale battery storage, pumped hydro is one of the few proven technologies that can reliably provide large amounts of power. Genex, (ASX GNX) is developing its 3 stages Kidston Renewable Energy Hub, which combines solar power and pumped hydro.

This project is unique as it has combined the reuse of the old pits from the Kidston gold mines for its pumped hydro with covering the tailings site with hectares of solar panels, in a region which receives the highest number of sunlight hours in Australia. When finished the pumped hydro/solar project can provide 2000MW of electricity into the national electricity grid.

A decade ago, almost all Australian households received their electricity from the grid and paid for it like any other household expense. With these new age methods of generating and delivering power to the people, the financial viability of both the individual household to generate their own power and new grid-scale power sources will all rely on some shape or form on electrical storage in the form of batteries. As the upfront cost of batteries continues to fall and the awareness of battery storage systems increases, along with the political will to shift away from coal as a source of electricity, the new dawn in Australia as a role model for the rest of the world will gradually emerge.