Why should I care about energy storage?

At this point you have probably heard the buzz, read an article, or heard someone at the office talking about batteries…energy storage is the new clean-tech cool. And there is good reason for all of this attention – energy storage has re-invigorated the distributed generation marketplace and created an unprecedented opportunity for consumers, business owners, developers, utilities, municipalities and grid operators. Finally there are effective energy storage solutions which can counter the high costs of satisfying “Peak Demand” from the end-user to the utility.

Demand charges ($/kW) at a commercial or industrial facility can be as high as $40 per kilowatt and can make up more than 50% of your Utility Bill, so managing those charges can mean tens of thousands of dollars in savings. Most utilities charge their customer for the single highest 15 minute period of power (kW) usage over the course of a month.  The California IOU’s charge their commercial customers for the monthly maximum demand, regardless of when it occurs, in addition to the highest demand draw during ‘On-peak’ period and the highest demand during partial-peak hours. Why do they do this?….In a grid level critical peak demand event, when all of the consumers on the grid are needing power (“demanding power”) simultaneously, the Utilities must rely on natural gas fired “peaker-plants” to supply the grid with enormous amounts of power as rapidly as possible. These “peaker-plants” are incredibly expensive to build and maintain and are only utilized during these episodes, which represents only a fraction of their total capacity. The Utilities have had little other choice than to use these ‘peakers’ to meet our society’s growing energy needs, but it is the ratepayers, through excessive and escalating demand charges, who ultimately pay the price for these inefficient plants.

Distributed Energy Storage changes all of this. It is now possible to capture excess energy produced during solar peak generation at midday and store it for use to alleviate later afternoon grid peak events. There are now solutions available at the commercial facility level , which can store energy at night when energy is least expensive, and then dispatch it back into the facility during a ‘peak-demand’ event when power is most expensive. Advances and cost reductions in battery technology, along with intelligent software have finally made energy storage accessible and economic to all of us who utilize the grid. There have been incredible breakthroughs in battery electrochemistry, allowing for smaller and less toxic energy storage – even fully biodegradable water based batteries are now a reality. Additionally, our ability to store and analyze enormous amounts of data in microseconds, has enabled developers to create software which can monitor and “predictively-react” to localized facility energy events as well as interface with the grid in order to help “tone and align” the impact of a utility’s distributed generation resources. Through sophisticated software and controls, it is now even possible for consumers to store energy and power (capacity) and get paid to deploy it back into the grid when Utilities need it most.

With the emergence of a whole new breed of energy storage providers and technologies, coupled with utility mandates and encouraging policy, projects once thought unviable are now being reimagined, installed and commissioned. Solar and Wind are both fantastic renewable and clean energy resources, but consistently delivering the generated energy during periods of highest demand was, until now, simply impractical. These 2 solutions simply do not work on their own in many situations – their intermittency does not allow for reliable demand charge reduction, they cannot necessarily serve critical loads during a grid-loss event, their peak production does not align with grid peak demand and certain physical constraints limit effectiveness and efficiency. Solar and Wind can generate plenty of energy, kilowatt hours (kWhs), but do not have the reliable power (kW) capacity to offset a grid scale peak demand event.

While the concept of ‘storage’ itself is as old as early civilization, the ability to store large quantities of energy efficiently and cost effectively has long been a challenge. We store fruits and vegetables, refrigerated foods, materials and supplies, gases and liquids, but storing massive quantities of electrons, has been amongst our modern society’s most difficult puzzles to solve. Until recently, huge water reservoirs were the best medium for storing energy. We have built elaborate energy storage systems in which we pump water into a massive holding area, at night when energy is cheap, and then create energy by releasing the water downhill through turbines during the day when it is more valuable and in high demand. Simple and effective yes, but impractical at both ends of the scale and in most locations.

Interestingly enough, current technologies work for positions both on or off the grid, can be deployed in urban environments, industrial locations, as well as remotely off-grid, and their modularity can scale rather quickly, thus the name, “Distributed Energy Resource”. Depending on where it is located, storage can help alleviate peak power demand at the consumer level, it can provide access to energy where it was previously unavailable, and can provide needed support and controls  all the way through to the grid operator.  With careful planning and siting, today’s intelligent energy storage solutions can shave significant costs from your business operations, create new revenue streams, modulate energy transmission issues, provide for uninterruptible power supply, and facilitate the deployment of cleaner generation.  Energy storage is truly a key to unlocking the doorway into building a more sustainable, more efficient global energy infrastructure with universal access to cleaner energy.

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