The Untapped Potential of Community Energy Storage

Sept. 19, 2016
Robin Roy, an NRDC consultant, explains why community energy storage often falls between the gaps in federal energy policy and what can be done about the problem.

Robin Roy, NRDC

Robin Roy, an NRDC consultant, explains why community energy storage often falls between the gaps in federal energy policy and what can be done about the problem.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) hosted a well-attended Capitol Hill briefing last week on the Community Storage Initiative, aimed at making tomorrow’s electricity grid cleaner and cheaper. I had the pleasure of participating, representing both NRDC and the Community Storage Initiative (CSI), where I serve on the advisory council.

Energy storage holds enormous prospect for a more flexible, cleaner and cheaper electricity grid (see, e.g., this report released for a White House Summit on Scaling Renewable Energy and Storage with Smart Markets” in June, and my previous blogs here and here). Energy storage makes it possible to take advantage of solar energy even when the sun isn’t shining and wind power when the wind isn’t blowing. And if more is generated during periods when energy service needs are low, these emissions-free sources have to be curtailed from coming into the electric system.

Importantly, there is a growing recognition that many homes and businesses already have energy storage devices, and that it takes only a relatively low cost effort of adding smart communication and controls to make these helpful to the grid, as well. Electric vehicles are an excellent example. Adding smart charging comes at low cost, and done properly doesn’t interfere with mobility. Another great example that I’ve written about before is grid-connected operation of the tens of millions of “hidden batteries” already in our homes in the form of water heaters. Water heaters with advanced communication and controls can even offer the prospect of providing the grid with “ancillary services” like frequency regulation and load following, reducing the costly need for power plants to quickly ramp up and down as total energy consumption changes during the day. Another rapidly emerging example of a customer-located energy storage technology is integrated ice-making air conditioners, although this involves installing equipment specifically to provide storage.

Unfortunately, while there’s great consumer and environmental potential in harnessing these community-located storage devices, the opportunity often falls between the gaps in federal energy policy. For example, DOE’s Building Technologies Office (BTO) focuses on tapping the enormous opportunity for more energy efficient appliances, devices, and buildings, and not on the benefits of shifting demand from high cost, high emissions times to times when, say, wind or solar energy is available. Notably, while there is R&D funding for grid-connected equipment where that may make individual devices or appliances more energy efficient, none of the over $200 million in this year’s DOE buildings R&D budget is aimed at the enormously promising, near-term opportunities of grid-connected electric resistance water heaters (which use more energy but have more flexibility than heat pumps). And DOE’s Office of Electricity is focused on the challenging issues of grid modernization and ensuring security, reliability and economy of the grid upstream of consumers’ premises, and not necessarily on devices on the customers’ side of the electricity meter. There’s a similar gap at EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, which, like BTO, focuses primarily on energy efficiency, and doesn’t seem to have a path for highly promising community-located storage opportunities like grid-connected water heaters.

This policy gap for a clean energy future is one of the reasons that NRDC joined with the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association (NRECA), the Peak Load Management Alliance, the Edison Electric Institute and the American Public Power Association to create the Community Storage Initiative earlier this year. The response has been outstanding, with more than forty utilities, equipment manufacturers, technology developers and efficiency promoters joining in.

The Capitol Hill briefing was a great opportunity to raise awareness of the opportunity. Joined by my CSI advisory council colleagues from Great River Energy and NRECA, our aim was to raise awareness rather than make a specific policy request, laying the groundwork for when legislative and regulatory opportunities arise. Turnout was great, with about fifty attendees from House and Senate offices (including the Senate Majority and Minority Leader’s offices and the Energy Committee), DOE, US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service, utilities, environmental and efficiency advocates, and manufacturers. The many thoughtful questions and discussion during and after the briefing indicate a solid start for future policy efforts.

What’s next?

It’s early days for delivering on the potential for energy storage at homes and businesses. CSI will be doing what we can to promote the exchange of ideas and experience in the full range or key areas, from technology to marketing to consumer incentives and pricing to whatever is needed.

If you’d like to join us, please visit the CSI website and get in touch.

This blog originated on the website of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Author Robin Roy is a consultant to NRDC and a Community Storage Initiative Advisory Council member.

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