Planets Align to Nurture Solar (And Wind) Grid Storage

Original Post: Solar Power World

America’s grid is the largest and oldest grid in the world, requiring the most attention, improvement and money.  Mark Johnson of the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E agency program commented at a conference that the grid is the “world’s largest supply chain without a warehouse” — a simple statement with resounding implications.

And now using grid storage as part of the solution is no longer a pipe dream or the fevered imaginings of a few insightful inventors.  The planets are beginning to align to build complete energy storage solutions to support not only renewable energy but also the much larger demand of our aging grid.

Two phrases that have become common place are “smart grid” and “microgrid,” and the key to both is storage. The smart grid is all about improving the efficiency of the generation, distribution and use of energy, while microgrids are the creation of off-grid generation and distribution of energy using renewable sources such as wind and solar.  Neither is efficient unless you have the ability to store the excess electricity being generated so that it can be used later, when needed.

“A combination of wind and solar power and sophisticated energy storage systems could keep a power grid fully supplied between 90% and 99.9% of the time, at costs comparable with today’s fossil fuel and nuclear mix,” according to a new study by researchers from the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College.  In a March 2013 report to be published in the Journal of Power Sources, these researchers tested an astounding 28 billion combinations of renewable energy systems and storage to come to that conclusion.

And now, American political leaders are declaring a clean energy call to arms. With Superstorm Sandy being the final straw, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a $1 billion Green Bank to develop the state’s clean energy economy, which will help lower capital costs and bring cleaner energy solutions to scale.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who oversees the second largest market in the United States for solar energy, recently signed legislation colloquially referred to as the “resurrection bill” for solar energy. Governor Christie recognizes that a smart grid will integrate renewable energy with distributed resources into utility grids and improve grid energy use to help his state address energy and environmental priorities.

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval supports all efforts to make Nevada the renewable energy capital of the country and has been actively recruiting green companies to come to his state. “We know there are long-term training and job opportunities in the energy retrofit industry, manufacturing jobs in the solar panel industry, science and research jobs in lithium extraction and technology development, academic and drilling opportunities for the geothermal industries, and many other opportunities that Nevada will explore,” said Governor Sandoval in a gubernatorial press release.

Every story about a wind or solar company going bankrupt is countered two-fold with companies that are successfully producing 50 MW of wind or solar power.  Smart grid technology is needed to effectively store and harness the variable nature of wind and solar energy.

A study by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory looked at the potential effect of high penetrations of plug-in hybrid vehicles on the U.S. Power Grid and found that “the idle capacity of today’s U.S. grid could supply 73% of the energy needs of today’s cars, SUVs, pickup trucks and vans without adding generation or transmission if vehicles are managed to charge off peak.” America seeks to reduce its dependency on foreign oil, and by simply managing the idle capacity of our grids we could dramatically reduce imports from geopolitically unfriendly regions.

The solar energy sector is getting hotter by the day.  The U.S. Solar Market Insight: Third Quarter 2012 report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) said  that the “U.S. solar photovoltaics market installed 684 MW in the third quarter of 2012, representing 44% growth over the same period last year. This quarter marked the third largest on record for the U.S. PV industry and raised the total installed capacity through the first three quarters of the year to 1,992 MW — already surpassing 2011’s annual total of 1,885 MW.”

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar continue to emerge and are meeting an increasing percentage of today’s electricity demands. But yesterday’s grid was never designed to handle the intermittent power supplies these clean energies represent; simply put, we can’t expect the wind to blow or the sun to shine based on when or how much electricity we need. The easiest and most cost-effective solution is to store whatever renewable energy is created and then release it to the grid at the optimum time to avoid both shortfalls and overloads.

Brian Warshay of Lux Research reported that he expects the market size of a variety of grid storage solutions will reach $113.5 billion by 2017. While lithium batteries currently represent 80% of mass storage revenue, their participation is expected to decrease to 13% by 2017.  In that same timeframe vanadium flow batteries, which are just establishing their beachhead in the market, are expected to become the leading battery technology with a 30% share.

Let’s promote America’s ability to develop new energy sources in an environmentally responsible way with an educated and resourceful talent pool combined with a committed government policy that ensures ongoing development.  Focusing on building an energy storage sector in America will assure there are career opportunities and a stable future for thousands of hard-working Americans.

Bill Radvak is president & CEO of American Vanadium Corp., which is developing a domestic source of vanadium electrolyte.