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Renewables Won’t Succeed Without Energy Storage–But Storage Is Finally Catching Up

From advanced batteries to blocks of melting ice, states are investing in new ways to store excess electricity from solar and wind farms.

Renewables Won’t Succeed Without Energy Storage–But Storage Is Finally Catching Up
[Top Illustration: tomertu via Shutterstock]

Solar and wind power will never reach full potential unless there’s an easy way to store the energy that gets created when supply is abundant–like when the wind is blowing in the middle of the night–in order to use it the next day, on a hot summer afternoon, when everyone turns on their AC.

Storing power in higher volumes also opens up opportunities for new types of services and consumer benefits. Buildings can become giant backup resources for the electricity grid, generating extra income for their owners (as is already happening in Southern California). Utilities can close their dirtiest, most expensive “peaker plants,” which turn on only at times of high demand. And with products like Tesla’s new Powerwall, consumers can save money and go further off-the-grid.

“Energy storage is perhaps the most significant enabling technology, providing the ability to both smooth and shift renewable generation to match [electricity] demand profiles,” says a comprehensive new report looking at the present and future of energy storage.

The report, prepared by the AECOM consultancy for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, explores the technologies of energy storage, including lithium-ion batteries (the standard today), new types of flow batteries and mechanical methods like compressed air storage and pumped hydroelectric storage.

It also looks at 10 energy storage markets, including California, Hawaii, Texas, New York, China, Japan, and Germany. California is furthest along in terms of regulation. The state has mandated utilities to build 1.3 GW of storage by 2020. Southern California Edison, for example, is working with several innovative companies, including Ice Energy, which adds batteries to AC systems, effectively storing energy as ice.

Meanwhile, the Hawaiian Electric Company is procuring up to 200 MW of energy storage systems as that state looks to increase use of renewables to 65% by 2030. And Texas has even bigger plans. Oncor, a utility, wants to spend $5.2 billion on batteries, creating 5 GW of storage. That would be enough to increase or decrease electricity generation by more than 7%, a huge amount for a state the size of Texas.

“The rapid growth in intermittent renewable energy, namely solar PV and wind, is catalyzing efforts to modernize the electricity system,” the report says.

AECOM says the adoption of energy storage will bring about a “mega-shift rather than incremental impact.” That’s because of the multiple benefits of greater storage for utilities and consumers and because it enables other fast-developing technologies like solar panels. It expects storage to follow solar in dropping significantly in price–by as much as 60% by 2020 for some types.

“Energy storage technology has developed tremendously in recent years and is expected to continue to grow,” the report says. “While the costs are still prohibitively high for mass deployment, the trend of reducing costs for battery technologies such as lithium-ion and flow battery technologies suggests that there will be a dramatic shift towards these technologies in the next one to two decades.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Co.Exist. He edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels.

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