Solar and wind companies must embrace energy storage solutions

November 18 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2016   Rating: 3

What happened?
Minnesota Public Radio has featured a story of Xcel Energy’s efforts to build out the state’s first utility-sized electricity storage facility based on batteries that can store enough electricity to supply 500 homes for seven hours. This push to integrate energy storage systems with wind and solar farms could emerge as a major growth area over the next twenty years.

Why is this important to the future of energy
Today‚Äôs energy industry is dominated by two ideas: producing energy and consuming energy. As a result most leaders and consumers focus only on trying to find new ways to produce energy (‘build more plants’) or highlighting ways of being more efficient in energy consumption. But we overlook one of the most disruptive ideas in the future – energy storage.

Energy storage can help lower the cost of producing energy for utilities, accelerate adoption of renewables and electric vehicles, and bring power to billions of people who do not have reliable access to grid-based energy.

Understanding Intermittent Power Sources
Solar and wind are known as intermittent power sources since they only produce power when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining. They are clean, but not reliable. Outside of production costs, this is the primary reason why utilities avoid making major investments to expand their renewable portfolio. They are not ‘anti’ renewable, they are ‘pro’ reliability.

Until solar and wind can overcome this problem of intermittency with energy storage systems, major utility companies will not be able to significantly expand their renewable portfolios.

Why utilities avoid solar and wind power

Utility companies operate under two very simple ideas: normal base load power generation and scaling up for periods of peak demand. Utilities turn to coal, natural gas and nuclear energy resources because they can provide steady streams of power and ramp up when needed. Solar and wind are only producing energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

Now imagine you are a utility company with five large power plants that supply energy to a medium sized city. Your challenge is keeping a steady stream of electrons flowing from your power plant to wall socket, and making your money back on building these multi-million dollar facilities.

On a normal summer day you keep four of your power plants operating at 90% capacity. The final plant sits idling at 40% because you don’t need it’s full utilization. You lose potential revenue on 10% of four plants, and 60% from that fifth plant while it’s not operating at its full capacity. Yet you need that fifth plant to ‘ramp up’ to 80% capacity between 4pm – 9pm when everyone comes home and turns on their air conditioning.

Here is the problem. If one of those power plants is a wind or solar farm you better pray that the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. If not, you must buy your electricity from another provider at a higher cost than what you could produce on your own.

Watch to watch with energy storage

The keys to utility energy storage solutions are scalability, reliability, low maintenance and cost. Now energy analysts and energy futurists are monitoring the quiet race to deliver solutions to utilities around the world.

Their options?

There is no shortage of ideas ranging from novel forms of running water up hill and compressed air, to more plausible (and scalable) solutions based on batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and capacitors.

We’ll feature a more in depth look at these energy storage solutions in the weeks ahead! Until then we’ve linked to recent posts on Smart Grid and energy storage below.

Image credit VaxoMatic Flickr CC Attribution Generic 2.0

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