Advances in Renewable Energy Storage Can Help Secure Grid Reliability

The 25x’25 Alliance has long promoted the role of technological innovation in the pursuit of a clean energy future. With advances coming so quickly in the development of wind turbines, solar panels, biofuel efficiency and other renewable energy technologies, the sector is also beginning to see some big movement forward in the development of energy storage.

It has long been understood that with the intermittent nature of wind and solar, it is critical to find ways to store the power generated by turbines and panels during peak times. A renewable energy transmission development group says there is enough wind to meet 10 times the power currently used in the United States. Solar power capacity in this country has grown more than 50-fold over the decade alone. Given the vast potential of these resources in meeting the nation’s power needs, it’s not hard to understand the value of developing clean, high-capacity and inexpensive storage options that can make energy available on demand.

A principal focus of storage research is on batteries. Their value was never made more apparent than during the massive March 2011 earthquake in Japan, where several thermal power stations owned by Tohoku Electric Power and located along the Pacific coast were damaged by the earthquake. With power from the thermal stations unreliable, the company made the decision to install 40 megawatts (MW) of sodium-sulfur batteries as one measure to provide reliable power when needed. The batteries, which will charge when demand is low and discharge when demand is high, is expected to reduce peak demand and balance supply in the Tohoku service area.

In a demonstration of the evidence of growth of battery technology, Southern California Edison, a utility that serves about 14 million people, has placed more than 600,000 lithium-ion battery cells at a substation in Tehachapi, CA, on the edge of the Mojave desert. They represent a $54-million, two-year test project that aims to collect power generated from the area’s 5,000 wind turbines and store it for future use.

One of the most promising technologies for large-scale energy storage is the sodium-beta battery, which is an electrochemical device that stores energy via sodium transport through conductive solid-oxide membranes, or electrolytes. However, current sodium-beta batteries are limited by reliability issues and excessive cost. The next generation of the sodium-beta battery, being developed by the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the private firm of EaglePicher Technologies, incorporates a unique, two-dimensional design that aims to simplify manufacturing and enable production of more reliable, scalable modular batteries at half the cost of today’s tubular sodium-beta batteries. PNNL researchers estimate that the development of reliable and affordable renewable energy storage using the improved sodium-beta battery could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 150 million tons per year in the United States.

An effective large-scale energy storage solution may also enable intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar to become base-load generators, a concept not lost on UBS AG and Citigroup Inc. Analysts with the investment banking firms say that while batteries are currently too expensive for large-scale use, technology is improving and cutting costs. Eventually, the analysts say, storage systems could actually replace some plants and avoid the need for new ones, as well as cut demand for oil.

Large-scale battery storage is an infant technology. Nonetheless, it’s important enough for the Clean Energy Group, an international advocacy and study group, to call for the creation of both national and international networks of industry, policy makers and non-government operations to advance new and effective policies for distributed energy storage technologies.

In a study released this week, the CEG is calling for more collaboration on policies to promote emerging distributed energy storage technologies. These storage systems, the group says, “are advancing quickly and show great promise for a wide variety of applications and markets. But the markets are at an early stage, and policy makers have only begun to develop programs to help advance the technologies.”

The 25x’25 Alliance encourages federal and state policy makers to provide energy storage investment incentives and adopt legislation that would establish a technology-neutral investment tax credit. Developing technology to store renewable electrical energy so it can be available to meet demand whenever needed would not only represent a major breakthrough in electricity distribution, but would also help secure the reliability of our nation’s electricity grid and optimize the use of existing transmission assets.

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