Disruptive is a Buzzword…but it’s true for Batteries

batteryFor more than 100 years, the U.S. power system relied on fossil-fueled power plants to meet our growing energy demand. Now, clean energy resources like renewables are quickly changing our energy mix. But what happens when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing? What about when power demand momentarily outpaces supply? That’s where batteries and energy storage come in, offering a fundamental, even disruptive change to the U.S. electricity system as we know it.

Batteries are energy game-changers

Today’s electricity system not only overproduces to be prepared for unforeseen problems, it also deploys dirty “peaker” plants that fire up during those few times per year when electricity demand is high (like during a heat wave) and the electric grid is stressed. With batteries, there’s no need for either overproduction or inefficient backup reserves, ultimately saving both utilities and customers money.

Batteries can provide bursts of electricity incredibly fast, often in milliseconds, and with far quicker reaction times than traditional power plants. As a result, energy storage helps the electric grid absorb and regulate power fluctuations, providing electricity fast, when and where it’s needed. Since the supply and demand of power must be carefully balanced, this ability helps prevent the grid from experiencing brownouts or blackouts.

Batteries are also uniquely equipped to integrate the unpredictability of renewable energy by storing the unused energy produced by wind and solar. When the wind stops blowing or the sun goes behind a cloud, batteries are able to provide backup power until those resources are back online. This is good for the environment because batteries can displace the conventional generators typically used to regulate power flows, and good for customers’ electricity bills since it enables them to continue operating on self-generated power. Since intermittency is one of the strongest arguments against integrating more renewables onto our electric grid, affordable, reliable energy storage has been called the missing link to making this clean energy resource a staple in our electricity mix.

Prices are falling

Some research suggests batteries may already be competitive with conventional electricity generation. Only five years ago, they cost $1200 to $1500 per kilowatt-hour and now conventional systems sell for less than half that at $500 to $700 per kilowatt-hour. Furthermore, Navigant researcher Sam Jaffe said today’s high-quality lithium-ion batteries that can last ten years under frequent cycling are “pretty comparable” in cost to a natural-gas-fired peaker plant capable of providing four hours of energy duration.

None the less, battery prices continue to fall – and that’s a good thing if energy storage is to become truly competitive with traditional fossil fuels.[Tweet “Soon Northern Illinois will be home to North America’s largest battery project #energystorage http://ow.ly/DpAu6 “]

Tesla Motors, maker of electric vehicles and a huge proponent of energy storage, recently made headlines by paying Panasonic a mere $180 per kilowatt-hour. And, with the company’s recent announcement to build the world’s largest battery factory, this Gigafactory is expected to manufacture more lithium-ion batteries than the entire industry produces now, reducing the cost of batteries by almost one-third.

Even more auspicious news comes from Navigant Research, which predicts prices in the broader market will likely fall to $100 per kilowatt-hour within the next two to three years and global energy storage will rise from 538 megawatts to 20,800 megawatts – or nearly 40 times as much – in a decade.

While most analysts expect lithium ion to remain the market leader for the next decade, companies and researchers are currently exploring additional channels for energy storage, a sign that further innovation is sure to come. In a recent report on batteries, UBS noted that although the ideal battery technology is still not clear, “In the end, lower prices are coming.”

Glidepath’s ambitious battery project

Soon Northern Illinois will be home to North America’s largest battery project. Glidepath Power, a Chicago-based energy development firm, obtained financing and signed contracts for three $20-million battery facilities that will provide 60 megawatts of storage. Glidepath’s initial financing came from the Energy Foundry, an equity firm established by Illinois’ Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, landmark 2011 legislation for which EDF advocated.

Each Glidepath facility – to be built in Joliet, McHenry, and West Chicago by spring 2015 – will consist of nine containers, which will house 80,000 lithium-based batteries. This battery development will increase the power grid’s efficiency and encourage the use of wind and solar energy.

As might be expected, the disruptive quality of batteries is causing some traditional power companies, to fight back. Commonwealth Edison, one of Illinois’ largest utilities, for instance, recently filed a tariff with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that would impose a monthly fee on battery installations, possibly setting a precedent for hindering battery projects like Glidepath’s.

As our electric grid becomes smarter, batteries and energy storage will continue to play an increasingly disruptive role in our power supply system. Someday – perhaps not too far off – projects like Glidepath’s battery facilities will be commonplace and a grid powered entirely by a combination of renewable sources and batteries will be a reality.

Photo source: Flickr/Andy Armstrong

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