Why Energy Storage May be Bigger than You Think

April 27, 2017
Three decades ago when the Energy Storage Association tried to galvanize support it drew 35 people to the room. Last week, at its annual conference in Denver, there were near 2,000. Here’s why energy storage is attracting so much attention.

Three decades ago when the Energy Storage Association tried to galvanize support it drew 35 people to the room. Last week, at its annual conference in Denver, there were near 2,000.

Photo by cybrain/Shutterstock.com

Sure, they came because battery prices are dropping and energy storage pairs nicely with oh-so-popular solar. But something bigger is afoot here, something the size of the power grid, as Matt Roberts, ESA executive director, conveyed in his opening remarks at the Colorado Convention Center.

Brace yourself for an “intimidating array of new disruptors” on the grid as more of the economy becomes electrified, said Roberts. Running the grid as we do now will get us into trouble. The solution he sees is 35 GW of energy storage by 2025.

Roberts begins his argument for ‘why energy storage’ with robots –– tiny disc-like robots rushing about on a factory floor. Automated and directed by bar codes, they are sorting 200,000 packages a day with little human help. They operate entirely on electricity with an energy charge pegged precisely to the volume and timing of incoming packages. So they never run short on power. Nor is any wasted.

Now scale the factory floor up to a city of the future, Denver for example, and you get a glimpse of why energy storage may be bigger than you think.

Denver’s a good setting for this futuristic city because it has a microgrid today, one tied to its transit system, which links to its airport, which of course links to the rest of the world.

So instead of robots on the canvas, imagine electric vehicles and trains. Departing from the microgrid at Denver’s Pena Station, a train ferries cargo and passengers to the airport, where they fly to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, signals are sent ahead so that 177 self-driving electric vehicles – exactly the number needed — are waiting at the LA airport when the passengers arrive. An equally calibrated fleet of trucks pick up the cargo. The vehicles run on batteries pre-charged with enough energy to reach their pre-arranged destinations.

“That is data, transportation, industry all linked together by the grid…interconnected across vast geographies while still balancing local energy needs,” Roberts said.

The merging of these networks will lead to 3,500 TWh of energy demand, he said, which creates an “imperative to transform our thinking.” Layer on top of that the new generation resources being added on the electric grid. Solar, wind and storage contributing more capacity than natural gas by 2021. All of this means “a really big shift for the industry.”

It’s exciting. But adding so many new pieces to the electric grid – cars, data, buildings, renewables — also paves the way for more disruption. Each network brings its shortcomings. And if something goes wrong with one piece, a kind of traffic jam can occur on the grid that brings all the pieces to a standstill.

Today’s grid was built for simpler times. Getting the grid ready for this new world using our traditional approach – building centralized power plants to meet peak demand — would cost about $5 trillion, according to Roberts.

“We can either rebuild the grid with today’s infrastructure and assets with incremental improvements, or we can invest in new technologies and strategies that can deliver better outcomes  at a lower cost,” he said.

Building a disruption proof grid

This is why energy storage is coming to the fore. Storage diminishes the need to undertake the expensive approach of building enough power plants for the few days in a year when electric demand reaches peak. To get a sense of how costly this is, Roberts said that in New York, alone, the 100 hours when the state uses the most power costs ratepayers $1.7 billion.

“That’s an immense amount of money to serve less than one percent of the need of that system,” he said.

Energy storage averts the need to build stationary peaking capacity that sits idle – “stranded” – except for a few days a year. Instead, the grid relies on energy storage systems that absorb energy when demand is low so that it can be released when demand is high.

In addition, battery systems are modular, so can be installed quickly where needed and removed when there no longer needed for use elsewhere.

“This is a stabilizng force and buffer that can react to dynamic changes on the system,” Roberts said. It makes the grid “disruption proof” by delivering power “exactly when and where you need it.” It does this with no combustion, so reduces emissions.

Using preliminary figures from research underway by Navigant, Roberts said adding 35 GW of storage to the grid in this way could save $4.5 billion (see below)

From “Nexus of Networks” by Matt Roberts, ESA

“We have a choice, our utility partners have a choice, we can either rebuild the grid with today’s infrastructure and assets, with incremental improvements, or we can invest in new technologies, new strategies that can deliver better outcomes at a lower cost,” Roberts said. “We need a grid that is prepared for this electrified future. We need a grid that is disruption proof.”

Why energy storage drew such a crowd

Here’s a few quotes that we picked up from conference goers on why energy storage drew such a crowd to Denver and what it heralds about the power industry.

David Chiesa, S&C Electric

Market consolidation ahead?

“I think the biggest thing to take away from this conference is the size and scale and scope. It has become huge. The competition is much more fierce…that’s great for the market. This market is poised for growth, but it’s also poised for some consolidation. Any time that you have this many players and this many people, combined with a market that hasn’t fully realized its size, you’ll have a lot of people fighting for the same small pie. But as that pie continues to expand, you are going to continue to see more entrants until you get saturation, then consolidation, then faster growth from there.” — David Chiesa, senior director of business development at S&C Electric

“…you get saturation, then consolidation, then faster growth from there.”

William Sproull, ESS

Microgrids are a big element

“A big part of why there are so many people here is that they are trying to understand the applications that storage fits into — the value propositions — and tie revenue streams with the cost of storage. I think a lot of the discussions are revolving around those applications, microgrids being one that I’m very focused on. Typically, a microgrid has a lot of different uses for an energy storage device, and that lends itself to longer-duration type storage requirements – which is what flow batteries and the iron flow battery from ESS is geared toward. So, a lot of the discussion I’m having is about how the iron flow battery can have applications in microgrids, in renewable applications, things like that. Even the utilities are taking note – whether it’s a threat or an opportunity for them – they are taking note that a microgrid is a big application for storage.” — William Sproull, vice president of business development & sales, ESS

Gregg Noble, Northern Reliability

Driven by consumers

“One reason we are seeing so many people move into the energy storage field is that this is a technology that can address not only the technological challenges that utilities and the renewable industry are facing, but it also assists in bridging that cultural shift that we are seeing…like the Stapleton project, where it is not driven by industry, but is driven by end users who are putting out their own generation assets. How does the utility respond to what is basically a culture shift?” — Gregg Noble, director of sales, Northern Reliability

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of EnergyChangemakers.com. She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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