Energy storage is here to stay

Authored by: Mauricio Leon, October 3, 2017

In the last few years, the conversation about clean energy has moved away from illusions, to realistic alternatives that can be economically and socially sound. There has been tremendous progress in energy efficiency and renewable technologies. Today, there is another “game changer” that has immense potential and that is growing faster than expected: energy storage.

Some examples of energy storage technologies include chemical (i.e. batteries), thermal (i.e. freezing water to ice when energy is cheap), mechanical (i.e. compressing a gas when electricity is cheap) and electrical (i.e. energy stored in electromagnetic fields). On September 15th, I had the opportunity to attend the 2017 Energy Storage Summit organized by the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab. An overview and highlights follow.

Why energy storage?
Energy storage could solve one of the biggest challenges for the electric grid which is that, at any given moment, the supply of electricity needs to match the demand. A lot of resources go into predicting when energy is going to be needed and preparing for peak demand. What happens when more power is needed than usual? Electricity providers rely on expensive “peaking” plants that are built just in case, to support the existing power plants if they do not have enough capacity. This creates a significant hidden cost to consumers. Likewise, when less energy is demanded than supplied, in many cases electricity is just wasted. An inefficient model!

Image from Wikimedia Commons. A vanadium flow battery owned by Avista Utilities in Pullman, WA. More information about this particular project can be found here.

What are other benefits of implementing storage?
The benefits of storage go beyond simply allowing to save energy for when it is needed.

  • Energy storage can provide ancillary services, which increases the reliability of the electric grid. These ancillary services are not visible to consumers, but electric suppliers invest millions in ensuring the reliability and uniformity of the electric supply. Finding ways to lower the cost of ancillary services could translate in savings for both utilities and consumers. Energy storage helps to control the peaks and troughs that occur normally in the grid. Some examples of ancillary services are load following, voltage, and frequency regulation.
  •  Energy storage facilitates renewable integration. An exciting application of energy storage is when combined with photovoltaic or wind generation. Imagine a solar array on a sunny day during the summer that generates more kilowatts than what is needed. If most of that energy could be stored and deployed when needed, the solar array could contribute to the grid even when the sun isn’t shining and it could enhance the economic benefits of solar energy.
  •  Another exciting feature of energy storage is that it helps to create and maintain microgrids. The current electric grid expands across and beyond the state boundaries and thus is vulnerable to large scale failures and even terrorist attacks. A failure of the grid at one location could affect another location hundreds of miles away. Having microgrids, localized grids that can operate independently of the larger grid, can substantially improve energy resiliency which is important as the climate changes and natural disasters become more frequent.

Highlights from the Midwest Energy Storage Summit

  1. Energy storage is not about one technology, instead is a whole emerging field that is going to challenge the traditional regulated utility model and revolutionize the whole energy landscape. Hence it is important for all sectors of the economy that involve energy planning; including but not limited to buildings, to prepare for a change. Similar to the decrease in the cost of wind and solar power, we are observing a very fast decline in the cost of storage systems. In some cases, energy storage is already cost-effective when environmental impacts and tax incentives are taken into consideration.
  2. Creative policy, technology, and logistical solutions are emerging to help integrate energy storage. As an example, one of the ideas discussed at the summit was “aggregation” when a group of consumers aggregate their electricity demand and then buy from the utility. By aggregating the demand, it could be more cost-effective to implement solutions such as energy storage. Ingenious ideas like aggregation can really speed up technology implementation.
  3. The energy storage revolution is already in Minnesota and it is sparking debates about policy related to energy planning. Connexus Energy (a retail electric cooperative) is about to finalize the largest energy storage project in the Midwest. Clair Moeller, the Executive Vice President of MISO (Mid-Continent Independent System Operator) mentioned during the summit that energy planning requires a lot of advanced planning. Moeller claimed that it is now that we need to start thinking about what the year 2033 is going be for the energy landscape of the region.

What does it mean to LHB?
One of the important questions to ask is whether energy storage is at a point where it makes sense to bring it to our clients. The short answer is probably not for most. Although there are many exciting advancements in this field and it is becoming cost effective at certain scales, it would be hard for a commercial or industrial project to justify making a significant investment in energy storage. Right now, there are projects that are piloting storage implementation at different scales, but stay tuned for further energy storage advancements!

I can imagine two types of clients for whom energy storage might make sense to integrate right now. First is a facility with large IT operations such as a data center. IT operations are sensitive to peaks in energy, and a resilient system could prevent harm to the hardware through ancillary services of energy storage. Another is a client who is interested in an on-site renewable energy system, for them energy storage could be integrated for better utilization of the system.

Prepare for storage!
Architects and engineers, as designers of buildings that last beyond the immediate future, need to think about where and how this technology can be integrated in the long-term future. They are going to have to prepare for a more distributed energy system in general. And as the cost of implementing storage goes down and the enthusiasm for this field increases, it will become more common on projects, just like with solar energy (or solar ready buildings).

There are clear benefits for both the electric grid operators and consumers. Energy storage helps to supplement renewable energy generation and to make the overall system much more efficient. However, there is a lot of testing yet to be done at different scales and with different technologies to learn how this could become cost-effective and a great asset for all clients. Both the policies and the technologies, are in the process of adaptation to make storage more widely used.

Image from Shows a forecast of energy storage deployment in the next five years. Energy storage is going to become more prevalent soon, so start thinking about it now!



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