Storage Front and Center

Next Up in the Energy Revolution

Martin Rosenberg | Sep 22, 2013


The federal government has carefully targeted energy storage as a technological game-changer worthy of its support. We talked about those efforts with Mark A. Johnson, head of the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage program. His edited comments:

ENERGYBIZ: What are some of the most important accomplishments ARPA-E has promoted when it comes to energy storage technology?

Johnson: What we’re doing is really transformational. Where ARPA-E winds up sitting in terms of development is very use-inspired, problem-statement-driven R&D. We try and fund things that are really limited by technical risk at this point. If you can overcome that risk, it might provide a new pathway for developing a technology and the private sector can run with it. We’ve worked on everything from new battery chemistries to what is called the flow battery, a cross between a fuel cell and a battery, and a new way of compressing air called isothermal compression to do a compressed air storage technology. We’re also supporting things like storing energy in electromagnetic coils, so you get superconducting electromagnetic storage, and flywheel technology.

ENERGYBIZ: Where would you say we are right now with energy storage? How long before it really becomes a major player in the energy sector?

Johnson: I would say it is an area of extreme urgency for the department, but there is no one answer. It’s like asking when was the Internet ready for deployment? There were different things that wound up coming along. We have some early-stage battery technology, like lithium-ion batteries, and they’re coming down the cost curve. Using batteries in grid stabilization and in community energy storage applications, we’re right at a tipping point where if we really focus the next year or two, those technologies can go from grid-level demonstrations to actually being much more ubiquitous.

ENERGYBIZ: What will our grid look like in five or 10 years?

Johnson: You’ve got a change in the fuel mix that’s going on. There’s a great upturn in the amount of available natural gas in the United States that certainly is going to wind up affecting how the grid generates electricity. One-third of the new generating plants are wind. This is changing how the grid needs to be operated and managed. We’re looking at more two-way communications across the grid and much more deployment of storage in unique locations like down at the distribution grid, which provides stability close to the end customer. Where there are big transmission congestion issues is where you’ll also deploy storage. And then there are off-grid applications, where the value of storage is the greatest.

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Market mechanisms must be put in place for storage

I was pleased to see the word "urgent" in this discussion of energy storage technology.  It is, indeed, urgent and will require tens of $billions in R&D to achieve widespread deployment.

As far as I am concerned the biggest barrier to energy storage deployment is the way that it is treated in the electrical markets.  In most if not all jurisdictions, certainly in North America, an energy storage system is treated as an "end user" and is charged an access fee to take electricity from the grid.  The stored energy must then compete with heavily subsidized renewables or (just as bad) with base load thermal plants that have been sitting on the sidelines (because of renewables) and are desperate to earn some revenue so they bid quite low prices into the system.  There is no FIT for stored energy and the technology is immature and R&D intensive.  The result; very few companies building utility-scale storage systems can attract enough investment funding.

This has to change quickly.  Access fees must be banned and a siginficant FIT must be developed for storage systems.  Vastly increased R&D funding must also be made available.

If we do not develop affordable and scaleable energy storage systems in the next 5-10 years I predict that our transition to renewables will have to stop.  There is no way to iuncorporate renewables beyond 8-12% useful generation (not night-time generation by wind that is essentially useless) without energy storage systems deployed on a scale never before imagined. 

By way of comparison, pumped storage, the most economical and relatively "easy" way to store electricity has been deployed gradually over the past 100 years with about 100 GW total capacity worldwide.  If the target for renewables in the U.S. alone is 200+ GW (about 1/3 of peak demand) we would need storage able to output 200 GW for an extended period of time (i.e. the largest number of sequential calm late afternoon and evening hours that could be expected - probably something like 6-8 hours).  This is a truly formidable amont of storage and yet represents only a fraction of what the world would need.

The need is beyond urgent.

I have discussed in detail and with more context in a blog posting: