To understand the transformative potential of energy storage in helping achieve a clean and efficient power grid, it helps to conduct a thought experiment: imagining if our food system worked like our power grid. Instead of warehousing surpluses from our farms and keeping refrigerators and pantries stocked with what we need at home, a massively overbuilt food delivery system would be needed to provide the exact amount of food needed to serve every human being, at every single moment of every day.
Illogical as it seems, that is how our electric grid functions, requiring electricity generation to match fluctuating demand on a minute-by-minute basis, 365 days of the year. With intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar making up a greater portion of energy supply – essentially serving up local, cheap food at unpredictable times – the lack of storage has become untenable.
Advances in energy storage are needed to make our outdated grid more efficient, support the growth of renewable energy, and reduce consumer costs. Storage will allow us to preserve excess energy generated during periods of low demand (for example offshore wind produced at night) and use this energy to meet peak demand hours or days later. Drawing on stored energy will avoid the need to switch on the least efficient and most expensive fossil fuel-burning power plants, saving money for all electricity consumers. Energy storage can also reduce the need for more expensive upgrades to utility infrastructure, and improve resiliency by providing electricity in emergency situations. There is even greater promise in “stacking” all of these services – reducing peak power costs, avoiding infrastructure expenditures, providing backup power – and more, as described in a recent RMI paper.
The greatest impediment to achieving the benefits of energy storage has been high up-front costs, but this barrier is falling away. Costs for established technologies like the lithium-ion batteries in phones and electric vehicles are falling rapidly, and creative approaches have shown the viability of storing energy in compressed air, high-tech spinning tops called flywheels, and myriad new chemistries being cooked up in research labs and universities across the country.
Where it has been allowed to compete with conventional resources, storage is already excelling. In California, regulators determined that it would be cost-effective for utilities to bring 1300MW of storage online (about the size of New England’s largest, and soon-shuttering coal-fired Brayton Point power plant). As covered in UtilityDive, in an initial step toward that target, Southern California Edison (SCE) signed up 264MW diverse energy storage applications in 2013, far exceeding requirements for the first procurement. In a sign of the changing times, this energy storage even beat out natural gas power plants for the portion of the procurement meant to ensure adequate generating capacity.
In Massachusetts steps are being taken to unlock the potential for energy storage. The Baker Administration’s Energy Storage Initiative is providing $10 million in funding for storage deployments, and analyzing the market and economic development potential for energy storage. Energy storage will also likely feature in omnibus energy legislation, in the form of S1762, authored by Sen. Ben Downing, or a similar mechanism to enable the Department of Energy Resources to act on the findings of their studies. Opportunities for deploying energy storage in new ways – such as repowering Brayton Point with clean energy – are also helping to build support.
With more and more renewable energy coming online, and more clarity about the consumer and commercial benefits of developing energy storage, Massachusetts appears poised to take the next step in realizing the potential for energy storage. By cultivating and supporting innovative technologies and applications for energy storage we can make the electric grid more efficient and adaptable, allowing us to have our cake and eat it – whenever we want.
Peter Shattuck is Director of Acadia Center’s Massachusetts office and Clean Energy Initiative. Peter’s work at Acadia Center focuses on cleaning up the energy supply across all sectors of the economy. Driving market-based emissions reductions is at the core of this work, using cap and trade policies such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which Acadia Center has tracked since the program’s early development in the 2000s.