Dylan Ratigan Show   |  June 29, 2011

What’s the future of energy storage?

Author Seth Fletcher and panel debate whether new battery technology can beat out big oil in the fight for energy independence.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> with debate raging over the release of our oil reserves , we are forced, all of us, to look forward and ask how much longer with can continue to depend on oil. our 34% rate of energy efficiency is embarrassing when compared to europeans or asian countries . and yet too often we get caught up arguing over the next fuel source. when what we need is a better system for storing energy. and a better system for being more efficient with all of the energy that we burn. so is the key to energy in battery technology? we're breaking it down with our next guest, seth fletcher. big picture , do you think there's enough potential based on the reporting you did in this book that batteries could significantly reduce our fossil fuel consumption?

>> over time , yes, i think they could significantly. we have a long way to go because there's so many millions of cars on the road already. the electric cars that are going on the road today are being sold in quantities of a thousand or so. so we have a long way to go. but, yeah, we can -- it opens up an array of various fuels that we can use to generate electricity .

>> what about the fact that the battery, you know, it takes too long for them to charge, many people say, the range is just not there. even if the range is there and the charge is good the price is not right?

>> yeah, it's true. they need to get better and they're still too expensive. that's why cars like the chevy volt and nissan leaf are more expensive than comparable cars. the way to get the costs down is built more cars and more baht batteries.

>> do you identify in this book people that are doing that? things that we can do to do more of that? i know i remember talking to john hensy, president at stanford university who was saying, listen, we did google and we did yahoo! and rerealhe really believes the next new break in technology could be with batteries.

>> this is the cool new thing if you are a material science ph.d. student. everybody's going into energy storage more so than any time in recent memory.

>> to that end, what do you believe is the possibility, in other words, what did you discover in terms of talking to and looking at the people that are doing this that you can share with us?

>> it doesn't progress as fast as computer chips , unfortunately. it's going to be kind of a slog. but progress is happening all the time. i mean, current generation lithium ion batteries will keep getting better. and there are a bunch of things being researched at the lab scale right now that could potentially, you know, almost get us to what we can do with gasoline. almost. but it's going to be a long haul.

>> define "long."

>> long. i mean, people talk in a couple decades timeline, you know, for something like a lithium air battery, which is sort of the holy grail battery.

>> what is that?

>> it just operates on lithium and oxygen. it's probably the best chance we have to approach the energy density of gasoline. but it's really, really hard to do. and nobody has quite -- nobody actually has even come close to figuring out how to make it really work in a car.

>> we talk a lot on this show and the political conversation a lot about either subsidies or tax breaks for all sorts of fuel sources.

>> uh-huh.

>> natural, solar, oil, coal, oh, my god, you did it for coal but you didn't do it for me, how could you do this. how relevant is the government in effecting how quickly this happens?

>> i think it's crucial. because right now, as i said, we have to push through this five-year period. i hope it's only a five-year period where these cars are still too expensive because people -- you know, because we aren't building them in large enough numbers. so the government has to support research and it also has to insent vise people to actually buy them. it also has to push the car companies to reduce the costs is that eventually when you go in and look for a car, you can choose gas or electric or plug-in hybrid. all the same price.

>> and what do you see as the barrier to that degree of engagement?

>> to that degree of engagement --

>> from the government relative to batteries.

>> from the government. i mean, the obama administration has done a pretty good job. they're pretty engaged. i think awareness is increasing. i think it's just a matter of getting the cars out in front of people and letting people know electric cars are no longer golf carts. this is a real alternative .

>> you said something interesting to one of our producers earlier which was that you shouldn't wait. that you should be willing to accept incremental reduction in fossil fuel consumption by exploiting incremental benefit from whatever the electric technology that already exists. can you elaborate on that thought?

>> well, i think that a lot of times people argue against electric cars by saying that the batteries so far from being as dense in energy as gasoline that it'll just never work. but we know what we can do with the batteries we have. we can build a car like the nissan leaf that goes 100 miles. and we can build a car like the chevy volt that goes about 40 or 50 miles on electricity then has a gas engine . you drive that car you could very well go without using any gasoline most of the time. so we can use what we have to displace petroleum while we're working on the alternatives that will one day sort of abolish petroleum. that's going to be hard and take a long time.

>> your point is it's not going to be like throwing a switch where on friday we're gas powered and on monday we're electric powered.

>> right. there are just too many cars in the world. it's such an incredibly intrenched system. sit on the highway on your way to the airport to get on a plane that's fueled by petroleum. and sit looking at all the cars surrounding you all fuel bid te troll yum and think about how difficult it's going to be to replace all of those with something runs on something completely different. it's a massive world historical kind of challenge.

>> ultimately the exploration with your book, i presume, was to try to offer an assessment as to whether they can bottle lightning, so to speak?

>> right.

>> can they?

>> yeah, they can. it's just a matter of how well they can do it. we know what we can do today. we know where we are. we know where we want to be. and we see some directions for getting there. it's just a matter of pushing ahead and not sort of taking our eye off of this research as we've done in the past. when oil has gotten cheap we've sort of abadoned alternative energy research including batteries. it happened in the '80s and somewhat in the '90s.

>> seth , a pleasure. seth fletcher, check it out.

"bottled lightning: superbatteries, electric cars and the new lithium."