Opinion: energy storage


“Clichés.  Good ways to say what you mean.  Mean what you say.”

Jimmy Buffett, 1975

Four years ago I wrote about the cliché of energy storage being the Holy Grail of renewable energy and managed to work in a Jimmy Buffet reference.  Energy storage still is the Holy Grail, but California and Jerry Brown are doing something about it – not much but at least there is some action.  A year ago the California Public Utilities Commission mandated that the three investor-owned utilities to add 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage by 2020.  That sounds like a lot of energy until you look at the numbers.  In 2013, according to the California Energy Commission’s Energy Almanac, California-produced renewable energy accounted for 39,236 gigawatt hours of the 199,783 gigawatt hours produced in the state.  Therefore the 1.3 gigawatt energy storage mandate, called “huge” by some pundits, amounts to one-third of one percent of renewable energy produced (.000033133).  This is a token commitment and “mandates” may not be the best way to spur technological innovation, but this step highlights the importance of energy storage and is a good baby step.  More progress is needed, because without storage, system flexibility is lost and progress stalls.  Storage also relates to the Manhattan Project, but that comes later.

But what is energy storage?  Storage includes batteries large and small, compressed air, pumped water systems, fly wheels and a host of other ideas – both new and old.  All generally work, but the limiting criteria are cost and scale.  The cost question is whether it costs less to store a kilowatt than it does to generate it.  The scale issue relates to the application, but generally refers to the amount of energy needed to be stored.  For example, large lead-acid batteries might work fine for a home with a 4 kilowatt load, but not so well for a utility-sized wind project with a capacity of 25 megawatts.

To put the energy storage issue in perspective, think about its impact on remote communities in the Eastern Sierra.  Electricity could be stored locally and additional distribution lines — at a cost of millions — would be unnecessary.

Private sector companies, the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are making progress on energy storage cost and scale, but there are not yet any major breakthroughs and the need for more storage in renewable energy continues to grow.

The quest for this Holy Grail is critical for at least three compelling reasons.

First, two major forms of renewable energy – wind and solar — are intermittent and not necessarily generated at the same time there is electricity demand.  Often the actual capacities of wind and solar projects is less than 50% of stated capacity and the capacity needs to be backed up from conventional sources such as natural gas or coal.  If the energy generated could be stored economically for later use, the renewable projects would be more economically viable as they could always “sell” their capacity and might be able to reduce their invested capital with a more efficient operation     and the land use footprint for wind and solar might be lessened.

Second, if renewable energy is more efficient due to effective storage, there will be less need to ensure that conventional generation capacity is available as backup.  Fewer conventional power plants will need to be built and transmission capacity might be reduced if large electricity imports were not necessary to meet the demands of a high-renewable region — if renewable production were not producing at capacity.

Third, energy storage can be used to make the grid more efficient and optimize transmission and distribution capacity.  This gets complicated, but the easiest way to explain it is that if the inputs into the grid are predictable, it’s a lot easier and economic to manage.  In that way, the grid and storage becomes a lot like our own financial budget — when we know what’s coming in, it’s a lot easier to manage what goes out.

If energy storage is truly the Holy Grail, where are the speeches demanding that we triple our capacity by 2020 or that the United States will become the energy storage technology center for the world?  You don’t hear those speeches, because energy storage is pretty dull stuff and certainly neither sexy nor photogenic, but if we were to solve the problem, storage would indeed be the Holy Grail … which brings us back to the Manhattan Project.

To the baby boom generation the Manhattan Project is well known, but to those lucky enough to be younger, it’s a little more obscure and even ancient history.  The Manhattan Project had its start in 1939 when Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt warning him that the Germans were likely developing a nuclear weapon — with great destructive power — and the United States should counter the German effort with its own initiative.  President Roosevelt accepted this challenge and committed the government to this endeavor and by 1942 the Manhattan Project was well underway.  The Project culminated with the successful test of the first nuclear weapon in July 1945, and, following the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the end of World War II.  Over 125,000 scientists and staff at least 30 sites around the country had fathered this technology and spend $22 billion in today’s dollars.  Solutions were found to problems thought not solvable.

Consequently, The Manhattan Project is symbolic of what can be accomplished with an all-out effort and many, including Bill Gates, have called for a “Manhattan Project” in renewable energy, regardless of the cost or risk.  This seems a worthy idea, but wouldn’t it make more sense to first solve the “critical-path” issue of energy storage?  Otherwise, what are we going to do with all that renewable energy?

Rick Phelps is Executive Director of the High Sierra Energy Foundation.  The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of his employer.

Rick Phelps Page  PAGE 1 of  NUMPAGES 1 DATE \@ “M/d/yy” 10/15/14

21 Responses to Opinion: energy storage

  1. Trouble October 18, 2014 at 7:07 am #

    I would like to suggest we us all our present and future politicians as fuel .

  2. John Barton October 16, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

    Check out the news regarding the breakthrough Lockheed Martin made in fusion. This is a complete energy game changer that will help the world without creating waste for future generations to clean-up.

    • Ken Warner October 16, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

      John Barton: Lockheed/Martin have developed an interesting and promising concept. They haven’t made a full scale prototype. They project 10 years for that. Usually things take longer especially if they are feeding off the government.

      Nobody has made a fusion reactor that produces more energy than it consumes and works 24/7. That’s the goal and the dream. The reality is some decades away I suspect. Till then, we are still transitioning slowly from fossil fuels into wind, solar and geothermal plus a few odds and ends like trash to energy.

  3. david October 16, 2014 at 4:16 am #

    I believe the statistics are slightly misleading. The 39,000 gigawatts of renewable energy is likely an annual number and energy only needs to be stored for 4-6 hours in most cases in cali. The 39,000 should be divided by 365 at a minimum and this brings the mandated storage to approx 1%. Not saying the need isn’t huge, especially as renewable penetration increases.

  4. ronald higgins October 15, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

    How to get going?this really is something that we have the space,resources,and the long need to keep our best and brightest minds in Inyo county

    • RLM October 16, 2014 at 7:43 am #

      Aside from the issue as to where energy storage technology should be developed, or constructed, Mr. Phelps, clearly identifies another major flaw in current solar (PV and wind) policies. As more solar production comes on line, the economic model is not sustainable on a large scale. Regardless of the amount of solar energy being produced during favorable periods, the utilities must have the reserve capacity (or storage) on standby to bridge periods of darkness and calm wind. This problem is exacerbated by the federal policies, led by the president, to eliminate coal fired power plants, thus reducing non-solar production capacity, standby or otherwise.
      Then to make things worse, the incentive for investment in gas powered, or any other fuel more favorable than coal, becomes marginal. If, for example, someone wants to invest in a 200 megawatt power plant and calculates the return on investment based on the continuous sale of 200 megawatts only to find out the utility will by law only buy power from the new plant when power is otherwise unavailable from solar producers, the favorable return on investment goes out the window.
      The fact is I installed PV solar for my home, but only because in my case the return on investment was favorable This only because of tax incentives, and the incentive provided by net metering. Every residential PV solar system installed relies on net metering and government incentives, to be economically viable. I store my over production of solar power on the books, but in reality I do not store real power in any manner and simply depend on the utility to satisfy my power needs at night or cloudy weather. Everyone with PV solar on their roof does the same thing.

      • Ken Warner October 16, 2014 at 10:37 am #

        RLM: You make a good argument for energy storage and a national — or maybe a continental — grid. The rest are simply problems that can be worked out.

      • Desert Tortoise October 16, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

        Eh, not necessarily. Home PV arrays often have battery back up for night. You can also integrate home wind power. Many of my neighbors are off the grid completely this way. Power companies should be scared. They have had monopoly power for far too long. It is long past time for them to be looking over their shoulders worried about some competition.

        • Mark October 16, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

          So how many and what kind of batteries does it take to run a home for the 16 hours out of every day solar isn’t going to provide power?

          Your off gird neighbors would also have to have enough solar to run the home and charge the batteries in eight hours of daylight before having to rely on the batteries again for 16 hours. It sounds expensive to me.

          • Mark October 17, 2014 at 8:19 am #

            Just wondering if a bank of double A would work or would I have to use D batteries or would I need a couple car batteries for some really serious power storage. Come on DT you seem to know it all.

          • Desert Tortoise October 17, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

            The battery bank and electronic controls fit into a six foot tall storage cabinet on your patio. KV Solar sell such systems. I have a number of co-workers who live off Walker Pass who have such systems and live completely normal lives with all the usual amenites in their homes.

        • Ken Warner October 16, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

          DT: Living off grid sounds like a good idea — if you own your property and don’t intend to ever move and have a lot of money to invest and are willing to put up with outages in your own system. You also have to have property that actually gets a fair share of Sun even in the Winter

          For some, off grid living is a good thing. For most people it’s not practical. I’m on the grid for life.

          • Desert Tortoise October 17, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

            No Ken, all you need is a residential roof with enough of a southerly exposure to support the number of PV cells your home needs to generate enough power to handle your electrical needs. No land is required at all. 12 to 14 panels on a roof is usually sufficient.

          • Ken Warner October 17, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

            DT: When I said property, I meant house with roof. All the things you describe as necessary are exactly what I don’t have. Plus I don’t have the money.

        • Electrician October 16, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

          To Desert T.
          For your information ” Most” residential solar arrays do not have batteries. Those Most systems are grid tie , what ever you don’t use goes onto the grid. The Power Company does not want you to store what generate. That is why they give you the rebates.

          • Desert Tortoise October 17, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

            I am aware of that, but having said that it is not necessary to tie a solar system to a grid. For the sake of your argument favoring carbon fuels you make it sound as if it is a necessity to tie a solar generating capability to a grid and that is misleading. Your argument falls flat on it’s face when you consider there are proven battery back us systems on the market and in use today. Most use AGM batteries which require no maintenance and last up to ten years. For my home nine or ten batteries is sufficient.

  5. Philip Anaya October 15, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

    KW, Saving the Planet via the creation of a Energy Storage Owens Valley Project is not a choice or vision that should ever be considered. The Owens Valley is already self sufficient in Renewable Energy for our local needs. Any additional energy needs for our locales can be addressed through distributed generation of PV and thoughtful development with all included . The DWP nearly 50 years ago with an eye towards energy storage in the nuclear age established a energy storage system, the Castaic Power Plant .


    Although this plant is not utilizing, as planned initialy to store Atomic Energy Generation to and service the City’s daily energy needs, the plan now is to utilize the Wind and PV Renewable Energy from mainly the Mojave RE Fields to pump water from Castaic Lake 24/7 back up to Pyramid Lake to then be released in a 30 foot diameter tube to power the Castaic Power Plant. DWP should be proud and feel lucky how of this initial investment and how the transition from Atomic Energy to Renewable Energy has all worked out . The storage of this energy is within the broad locale of the City and that benefits the whole idea of Renewable Energy and Saving the Planet.
    Places on the Earth like the Owens Valley have the attribute and fulfill the need of the natural earth laboratory. If there is a desire for an expansion of the Owens Valley economic/ heritage/growth lets consider the development of Institutions of Higher Education enhance this special place.. Lets invest into our own Cerro Coso College and have a plan for 4 year BA/BS programs, not to mention a Post Graduate Studies in the areas of Sciences , Public and Private Administration et all, that will allow the growth and sensible development of the great ideas that come with education. Mr. McCoy got the Cerro Coso and the Chair 1 going and we have seen the value and vision of his ideas.
    Speaking of vision, ideas and knowledge thanks to the High Sierra Energy Foundation, Mr Phelps and of course the Wave for this op to share and rant .

    • Ken Warner October 15, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

      Philip: The link to wikipedia for the Castaic plant is just an empty outline when I bring it up.

      You seem to think that you have the right to determine the destiny of the East Side. You are wrong. Pointing at distant energy generation efforts is not productive or relevant. I’m not talking about developing renewable energy for local use. I’m talking about developing the science necessary to make wind and solar generated energy more practical and able to displace fossil fuel generation. Which you should support given your commitment to “Save the Earth”

      Your ideas about higher education are valid and echo what I’ve been saying for years. And Energy Storage could be the core of the curriculum.

      Energy Storage is an idea that needs to be developed and the East Side — in particular the Owens Valley — has the space and the resources necessary. With 8 billion people on the planet all wanting to live like we do, your notion of a pristine paradise all for your own idyllic enjoyment is really unrealistic and not considerate of the other 7.999999999 billion people.

      • Philip Anaya October 16, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

        I have been grinding on RE Storage all day while working. Carpenters measure twice cut hopefully once but I did not have a clue. Found this web site, once I got home, from the US Department of Energy on US Grid Storage Projects (2013)


        Page 11, figure 1, “Rated power of US Grid Storage Projects” ( including announced Projects) is a graph showing that 95 % of the Projects are Pumped Hydro (23.4 GW) The remaining 5% (1.2 GW) is divided into: Thermal Storage 36% (431 GW), Battery 26% (304 GW), Flywheel 3% (40 GW), and Compressed Air 35% (423 GW)

        Initial thoughts regarding the Pumped Hydro include the thought that Hydro Electric Generation ,when the environmental impacts are considered and mitigated is the best storage currently available. The environmental issues are well and historically known and understood . The risks of new technologies are new risks. The promise of solutions from New Technologies these days must prove to be sustainable. The idea of the battery development if proven environmentally safe maybe needs to be a component of distributed generation of RE and maybe this could be a good idea to develop and test especially if we could acquire the funding through Grants especially in rural areas with great open spaces like the Eastern Sierra. I would certainly like to be off the Grid, especially if my home was distant and isolated from Grid.

        Don’t expect KW that I and others who have found a way to exist in the Eastern Sierra will ever choose development of Industrial Scale commodities or schemes in the Owens Valley. “This Land is your Land, this Land is my Land , from California to the ………” and since you have advanced this issue here just know it will be preserved, into the future, for it’s mountains, it’s valleys, the clouds , the snows, even the lack of snow , the plants, the animals, the sands, the dust , the timeless evolution of the landscapes and most important , the ancestors of the people who live here first, and then second ,third, fourth, etc. and the future inhabitants who have concerns for the future for all who follow to come here, to learn and eventually know of our home, to learn to protect our home and our heritage, this majestic Eastern Sierra .
        Further, each of us not only has a right to speak, we each can take responsibility to learn, to think, to debate, exchange ideas and to speak of the future and sustainability of this Earth and it starts for some of us where we call the Eastern Sierra , home.

  6. Ken Warner October 15, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    You suggest that energy storage is dull. Not to me. While I don’t have the education to think creatively in that area, I find the ideas that I see from time to time kind of exciting. Things like large molten salt domes or big flywheels or giant batteries constructed in vast underground caves hollowed out by small nuclear bombs. Those kinds of ideas show imagenation. And the best is yet to come. Maybe from the nano materials area.

    The East Side — particularly the Owens Valley — is a great laboratory for such endeavors. An Energy Storage Owens Valley Project would be historic. It would attract the “Best and Brightest” and maybe reorient the Owens Valley from tourism to science. It would be fun to watch.

    • upthecreek October 18, 2014 at 8:11 am #

      In steps Tesla and their Giga battery factory.
      Their batteries will by common place for future energy storage.


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