Opinion: energy storage

image001JERRY BROWN, THE HOLY GRAIL AND THE MANHATTAN PROJECT by Rick Phelps

“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

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Trouble
Trouble
7 years ago

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

John Barton
John Barton
7 years ago

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
Ken Warner
7 years ago
Reply to  John Barton

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… Read more »

david
david
7 years ago

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… Read more »

ronald higgins
ronald higgins
7 years ago

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
RLM
7 years ago
Reply to  ronald higgins

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… Read more »

Ken Warner
Ken Warner
7 years ago
Reply to  RLM

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
Desert Tortoise
7 years ago
Reply to  RLM

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… Read more »

Mark
Mark
7 years ago

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… Read more »

Mark
Mark
7 years ago
Reply to  Mark

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
Desert Tortoise
7 years ago
Reply to  Mark

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
Ken Warner
7 years ago

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… Read more »

Desert Tortoise
Desert Tortoise
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Warner

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
Ken Warner
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Warner

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
Electrician
7 years ago

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
Desert Tortoise
7 years ago
Reply to  Electrician

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… Read more »

Philip Anaya
Philip Anaya
7 years ago

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… Read more »

Ken Warner
Ken Warner
7 years ago
Reply to  Philip Anaya

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.… Read more »

Philip Anaya
Philip Anaya
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Warner

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) http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2013/12/f5/Grid%20Energy%20Storage%20December%202013.pdf Page 11, figure 1, “Rated… Read more »

Ken Warner
Ken Warner
7 years ago

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… Read more »

upthecreek
upthecreek
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken Warner

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