Energy storage is often touted as integral for promoting renewable power generation and thus saving the planet from climate change. But energy storage, particularly at the utility level, can also significantly strengthen the electric grid’s reliability.
Advocates for energy storage typically focus on how this emerging, likely soon-to-be-booming technology will make it more economical for intermittent renewable power sources to be widely used.
By its very nature energy storage enhances electric grid security by reserving power for difficult or crisis situations. And the grid has become more vulnerable, with no indication of changing anytime soon.
Year after year Americans watch news coverage of hurricanes and natural disasters taking out chunks of the grid, often leaving people without power for weeks. For years, national security officials have issued strident warnings about the ability of foreign governments to bring down the U.S. grid through cyberattacks.
At its core, storage is a simple and compelling idea. When power is abundant and at low cost, it can be bought cheaply and stored in lithium-ion batteries and other forms. Replacement power is then readily available for when demand spikes, such as during heat waves, or when disruptions occur, such as a plant going off-line. Energy storage is the electron equivalent of saving for a rainy day.
Homeowners, particularly those with residential solar power, are embracing energy storage. A 2019 McKinsey & Company report found, “Household batteries could contribute to make the grid more cost effective, reliable, resilient, and safe – if retail battery providers, utilities, and regulators can resolve delicate commercial, operational, and policy issues.”
Large business operators like factories and hospitals also have a compelling need for storage power and are in the early stages of using commercial batteries. It is at the utility level, though, where storage holds the promise for the broadest societal benefits.
According to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), 89 percent of utility storage today involves hydro-electric generation, where water is set aside until it is needed to generate power. This is done through traditional dams and pumped storage, a process where water is transported from a lower level to a higher level when electricity prices are low. It is released through turbines when the power demand and prices are high.
Utilities are moving into battery storage, albeit at a measured pace. EEI reports that in 2019 electric companies accounted for about half of battery storage capacity deployments, 251 megawatts out of 523 megawatts.
In San Diego, the world’s largest battery back-up facility came on-line in August. It can store 230 megawatts of power with plans to expand to 250 megawatts.
On September 21, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced it was installing its “first owned and operated, grid-scale, battery energy storage system.” The system, which is outside of Knoxville and expected to be completed in 2022, will be able to store 40 megawatt-hours of energy, enough electricity to power over 10,600 homes for three hours.
For utility-level storage to dramatically expand, it is important to have continued federal government research and development, combined with ongoing research in the private sector and academic community.
There is also a world-wide race to develop economically efficient energy storage technology. This is a race America can and should win.
The economic and grid reliability benefits that will come from energy storage should always be front and center when discussing the future of energy storage. It should drive our determination to be the world’s leader in providing this technology.
About the Author: Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think based in Arlington, Virginia.
Find Archived Articles: