Scientists and engineers are racing to develop new tech to help decarbonize the planet’s buildings. One method with great potential is thermal energy storage, which is attracting attention from various agencies like the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Thermal energy storage allows excess energy to be stored and used later, such as capturing energy during off-peak times and using it during peak demand on the electric grid.
Buildings account for 40 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S., and almost half of it goes toward thermal loads such as space heating and cooling, as well as water heating and refrigeration. By 2050, the U.S. electric grid demand from thermal loads is expected to rise dramatically as natural gas is phased out and heating is powered increasingly by electricity. The need for batteries to store energy will be massive, but there are concerns about the limited availability of raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel.
Researchers are getting around this constraint with phase-change materials that absorb and release energy when transitioning between phases, such as from liquid to solid and back, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The way it works is a thermal battery, powered by a phase-change material, is connected to a building’s heat pump or HVAC system. It stores excess electricity, allowing that energy to meet heating, cooling, and electricity needs days, weeks, or months later.
Along with building electrification such as heat pumps, energy storage is essential because it solves renewable energy’s ‘intermittency’ problem. When the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t powering solar panels, energy needs to be stored somehow. Be on the lookout, because property owners looking to achieve deep energy and emissions targets under the dictates of new regulations will likely hear more about thermal energy storage in the years ahead.