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The Case for Grid-Connected Energy Storage

grid storageThis past week, I attended the Midwest Energy Forum at the University of Chicago.  The Forum focused on the future of the U.S. electricity grid and the technologies that are likely to transform it over the next 30 years.   Experts in many of these technologies, including energy storage, wind, solar, nuclear, gas, and high voltage DC transmission systems, made presentations.

Of all the technologies discussed, however, I came away with the impression (which I suspect was shared by many) that energy storage was the poor step child of the renewables industry.  Although the representatives of the wind, solar and other renewables industries were polite and nominally supportive of storage, they were consistent in their message that storage has a long way to go and that it was certainly nowhere near as important as the renewable energy technologies they were advocating.

In fairness, the storage experts did not do much to rebut this perception.  While several experts gave good presentations about what storage could do on the grid, none explained with anything near the coherence of the wind, solar and transmission proponents why what storage could do was important and why the public or the government should care about it.

It is, of course, critically important that the energy storage industry make its case for support to the government and to the public in a way that is honest, rational and persuasive.  Our colleagues in the wind and solar industries have done a great job of doing that.  At least in terms of public relations and dialogue, I would agree with them that storage has a long way to go.

So let me give it a try:  Storage is important for the same reason that wind and solar energy are important but only more so–and only assuming that the true value of wind and solar energy technology is properly understood. 

While it is true that wind and solar are relatively clean forms of energy, cleanliness in itself is not their principal value to the grid.  Some experts argue that because of the cycling of thermal energy plants that generally must take place in order to balance the variable nature of wind and solar power, the overall environmental benefits of wind and solar are overstated.  Whether or not that is true, it is certainly true that the relative environmental benefits of wind and solar energy depend on the nature of the fuels they replace.  Where that fuel is relatively clean natural gas (which appears will be the case in the United States for the foreseeable future), it is difficult to argue that the low relative environmental benefits of wind and solar over natural gas justify the billions of dollars of subsidies that the wind and solar industries have received.

But wind and solar energy are, in fact, of great value to the electricity grid.  Their value, however, derives not just from the fact that they are relatively clean but from the fact that they each represent a useful new power resource that permits us to operate the grid more flexibly.  Society can use this new flexibility to change the way that electricity is generated and used across the system so as to pursue whatever goals society wants to achieve.

A good example of this is what is happening in Germany.   Following the Fukushima accident, Germany decided to abandon nuclear power completely within 11 years.  This is no minor ambition, given that in 2010 about 22.4% of all electricity in Germany came from nuclear power.  One may agree or disagree with Germany’s plans to transition away from nuclear power.  But what is beyond question is that Germany could never hope to effect such a transition, let alone to have a rational discussion about doing so, but for the resources and flexibility that wind and solar power (and perhaps storage) now provide.

The fact that wind and solar energy have become useful resources for grid operators—whether to move away from nuclear energy, or move towards cleaner fuels, or to emphasize distributed generation, or to achieve whatever other goals society might want to achieve with its electric power system– is solely a consequence of the investments that have been made in wind and solar technologies over the past ten years.  Ten years ago, both wind and solar energy were not far beyond the stuff of tie dye t-shirts and Hollywood playthings.  No knowledgeable person would have supposed that wind or solar energy could be a major source of generation on the electricity grid.  Costs were too high, reliability was suspect, and capacities and efficiencies were far too low to be of any practical use on the grid.

What a difference ten years and a few billion dollars of subsidies makes.  The cost of wind and solar energy technologies has plummeted.  Reliability and utility have been proven by hundreds of projects around the world.  Even capacity factors, the alleged Achilles Heel of renewable energy, have risen dramatically.  As a wind developer at the Midwest Energy Forum put it: “If my project has a capacity factor of more than 50%, does it still count as variable energy?”

And that brings us back to energy storage.  For however much flexibility wind and solar technology may offer to grid operators, energy storage technology offers more.  The ability to move electrons over time as well as over space opens a world of opportunities as to how that ability can be used and how the grid can be designed.  Storage can be used to alter the balance of generation technologies, favoring those that are cleaner or otherwise deemed more favorable over those that are not.  Storage can reduce the need for physical grid infrastructure, promoting energy efficiency, reducing O&M costs and improving viewscapes.  Energy storage can reduce the cycling of thermal plant, provide greater power security, enable distributed generation, allow the development of microgrids, and facilitate a wide variety of other possibilities on the grid, the benefits of which may be difficult fully to understand today.  After all, who in 2010 would have predicted that in 2011 a top priority of Germany’s energy policy would be eliminating nuclear power?

If the highest objective of new energy technology is to provide greater flexibility to manage the electricity grid in ways that society deems most beneficial, then no technology—not wind, not solar, not biomass, not new transmission technology—is more important to develop than energy storage technology.  Energy storage is not just about making the grid cleaner (though it can be).  It is about making the grid more robust and more flexible so that policy makers, now and in the future, can shape the grid to the requirements of society as those requirements change over time.  No new energy technology can do that as well as energy storage.

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Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Feb 17, 2013

No mention of the proverbial elephant in the room for (battery) energy storage: costs are a bit high.

James Greenberger's picture
James Greenberger on Feb 17, 2013

The elephant is real.  My point is that it is the same elephant that the wind industry faced ten years ago.  Thanks to government subsidies in the United States and abroad, the costs and limitations of wind energy have dropped dramatically over the past 10 years.  The low price of natural gas has temporarily masked this great energy policy success story.  But if gas prices go back above $6 per 1,000 cubic foot for any extended period of time (a not unlikely occurrence), the payoff from the investment in wind technology will quickly become apparent.  Storage is the same story, only more so.  The payoff from storage coming "into the money" would theoretically be much greater than that of wind power.  But storage technology needs the same investment and development as did wind and solar to reach commercial viability.  Unfortunately, it has received only a fraction of the investment.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Feb 17, 2013

This underlines why it is vital that we invest heavily in artificial photosynthesis catalysts R&D.

James Greenberger's picture
James Greenberger on Feb 17, 2013

The difference, of course, is that artificial photosynthesis is a technology which, though it holds great promise, still needs a lot of work at the basic science level before anyone can say for sure that there will be a practical application for it.  As Robert Oppenheimer said, scientific breakthroughs don't happen because we want them to happen.  They happen because science allows them to happen.  

Energy storage technology (or at least much of it) is well past the stage of being a basic science challenge.  We know that it works and we know how to deploy it in the field.  It is just that experience with grid-connected energy storage is limited and the cost of the technology is high.   Energy storage is a technology that cries out for more current deployment, so that experience with it can increase and the cost of storage systems can come down.  And, yes, it also cries out for more investment in basic science research on next generation storage technologies, which could further reduce the cost of energy storage systems.

Steven Scannell's picture
Steven Scannell on Feb 17, 2013

Someone should write a book on the storage of electricity, BUT also as a "compare and contrast"  horsepower storage in it's many forms. Of course such a book would be outdated the minute it was published. So such a compilation would have to be somehow in real time and always evolving.  James, you are of course the go to battery guy, and I also share your opinion that if we invested in these storage systems with more vigor, there may well be a worthy payoff. Let's share the risk and reward, using common systems, or rather consortium systems, and average out our efforts.  

The power and transmission utilitiy models are increasingly as outdated dinosaurs in our new and changing age. We have to get the utilities in the game, so that they can make money as systems change, rather than being marginalized into oblivian. The way to do this is to use the transportation/energy/utility consortium model.  All the horses have to pull their weight together, if we don't want the chaos of an infrastructure battle: standard utility models versus the green systems. I see them as both competitive and complimentary, ideally.  However ideals don't pay the bills. 

In the context of a comprehensive consortium model, standard utilities would be among the new technology players and have skin in the game. The capital reformations must be done fearlessly. This takes leadership and authority, and especially obedience to a broader common grid system.  As an example a connected series of PV to battery storage for street and residential lighting. Normally with the utility model of today, the utility loses it's customer base. However this sub grid could be backed up by the electric grid, and by fuel cells that use hydrogen from the wind and wind to battery: and all this could benefit a consortium financially, while it could not be of financial gain for a standard utility model.  It makes more sense to delightfully capture the rewards of a consortium model, than have winners and losers in a chaotic systems infrastructure competition.  A consortium would have to absorb into itself, the utility and transmission models. Don't freak out.  The utilities will make money.  Call it a form of pseudo public private dollar cost averaging, or the first cousin thereto. Really it's not half a car pulled by a horse.  It's what the design parameters call for.  In this way utilities would keep their identity as reasonable long term investments in infrastructure: even all the while the systems evolve from centralized grid power operations, to other than that, and in addition to that.  

I would like to think that my pioneer efforts to solve the underlying structural issues of a fossil to green genre shift would be recognized. What's important is that we need storage, but we all need systems just as much to have energy transportability, universal availabilty subject to comodity prices, and adaptability through conversion systems. These answers are not in the common forms we're quite familiar with.  What we need and what we want are two different things. We want the solutions to be electrical grid based. This ventures, to my thinking, into the emotional or religious realm, as a rough analogy. This is where we're stuck.  But we don't actually need solutions to be electrical grid based. We just need solutions that are practical functional usable and financially achievable. Here's what our real challenge should be, but it isn't.  Our real challenge SHOULD be to identify and allow for many storage and shipment systems, of both an electrical nature, and as well with other horsepower forms. Our channel to this would be prototype systems, within regions such as my Rhode Island and Southeast Massachusetts model.  In order to think clearly about these hybrid prototype systems they must have an economic base worthy of the future. They must have an all in participation to cover the exigencies of our shift. The consortium way represents a relaxation of the common utility model, in our time of dire need.  Infrastructure designs must have their foundations in economic modeling structures that are practical.  Storage AND shipment AND capital reformation planning are the three keys to our green and profitable future. 

Fossil fuels married to electric power have imprinted upon our brains the importance of themselves. We are old friends.  But we have to recognize how tightly they are tied to our new carbon enemy:  steam plants fueled by a carbon based system that has evolved into our undoing.  Our new systems of my design are nonesuch, but dovetail with the old to favor our transition, ie: CAES and coal hybrids etc. Our problem in thinking is a reliance upon the old, in an effort to design the new. It's such a problem that people can not even begin to think about full scale redesigns for our systems. The rules will change.  And the new rules that go hand in hand with those changes, don't have to cause chaos and market collapses and breakdowns. Quite the opposite:  Bounty for the world with new green systems will be the wave of our future. 



Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Feb 17, 2013
Sir, I strongly urge you to investigate the most recent breakthroughs in this area. Science (specifically chemistry and materials science on the nanoscale) is much closer to a solution than I believe you realize. 
While it is good and fine to rollout current technologies, it is also important to realize that artificial photosynthesis represents a seismic, paradigm shift in the way that we think about energy storage. No current energy storage technology can even come close to the efficiency and cleanliness of this approach.
You quote Robert Oppenheimer, and I agree with that quote. But it's important to realize that the breakthrough has already occurred. It happened when Dr. James Barber, biochemist at the Imperial College of London, unlocked the secrets of photosystem II - a discovery which will win him the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Just as the science performed by Oppenheimer followed from breakthroughs made by Einstein, Curie, and Bohr so too does the science of artificial photosynthesis follow from the discovery made by Dr. Barber and his predecessors. But this is not 1942, and research protocols are far more nimble now than they were in that time period.

As with the Manhattan Project, the nano materials science behind artificial photosynthesis merely needs a concerted push to take us to a place where we can unleash an energy storage solution that is far and away, stronger, more efficient, and far more clean than any solution that currently exists.

I wish you well.

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