How Energy Storage Can Pave the Way for Renewable Energy Adoption
Renewable energy offers a hopeful promise to reduce the energy sector’s carbon footprint, but many challenges must be addressed before it can be more extensively integrated into our society. One of the greatest barriers to widespread adoption is quite simply that due to the nature of renewable energy – the fact that it is produced only when solar rays, wind, etc. are available – it cannot fully respond to customers’ energy demand in real time. Fossil fuels are easy to store, making it far easier to scale up or scale back the amount of energy that needs to be fed into the system. This is not the case for renewable energy. Customers, from businesses to home owners have fluctuating energy needs, and especially in times of peak energy demand, consumers cannot wait for the sun to shine to get the energy they need. Similarly, there are times where energy systems could capture power but offer little benefit to customers, such as if wind blows at night, when energy demand in typically low.
Energy storage systems – a means of capturing and holding energy for later use – are rising to meet the challenge of making renewable energy more reliable. Already, companies are pouring investments to developing storage systems with greater capacity, and government policies are creating incentives for the increased adoption of energy storage. A win for energy storage is also a win for renewable energy, so we need increased investments from the private sector and better government policies. With these important steps, energy storage can bring benefits to a range of stakeholders, demonstrating the potential of better reliability and financial gains.
Current Storage Landscape
The Private Sector
Energy storage is on the brink of widespread deployment, and already many stakeholders have shown their commitment to this possible future of more reliable and cleaner energy. With a handful of companies leading the charge, and more emerging, the private sector has played a particularly large role in expanding the use of storage systems. In fact, the market for energy storage is already estimated to be at $100 billion, and is projected to continue growing significantly. Especially since energy storage can be such a costly undertaking, the private sector’s involvement has become an important driver for the expansion of energy storage.
In some ways, economic benefits are perhaps the most compelling aspect of energy storage systems. While energy storage would unleash the potential of renewable energy – which would have a massive impact on reducing reliance on fossil fuels thereby reducing harmful carbon emissions – not everyone agrees that climate change should be a major focus in our society. However, proving that energy storage would improve the resilience of our electric grid and reduce costs for businesses and customers alike could allow renewables and storage systems to play a larger role.
Tesla – more often recognized for electric vehicles and self-driving cars – has expanded its involvement into energy storage, making it one of the most well-known names in energy storage. Tesla has developed lithium battery systems for residential and business use, the Powerwall and Powerpack batteries, respectively. While the Powerwall is more likely to be used in homes with solar panel installations, the Powerpack has the potential to be a more widely used system. Tesla explains the various uses and benefits of their Powerpack system, in general representing the potential of battery storage systems. Such areas include:
- Allowing for the integration of renewable energy sources;
- Discharging energy during times of peak demand;
- Allowing for load shifting during peak demand, that is a process of balancing energy supply by shifting energy use from one time period to another;
- Serving as a backup energy source in an emergency; and
- Having the ability to serve as a disconnected microgrid, improving the operability and resilience of the overall electric grid.
These benefits would result in reduced costs for consumers and businesses who take part in distributed energy resources – that is, those who install their own renewable energy systems to power their energy needs. Utilities also want to take advantage of energy storage, like the investor-owned utility Southern California Edison partnership with Tesla to help prevent blackouts. Energy storage developers see that consumers and utilities want these benefits, and will continue to start new projects. The increased prevalence of energy storage systems will help more groups enter the market to make it more competitive, and eventually reduce the costs of installing storage systems to make them more accessible.
Already, Tesla has found a foothold in several areas. In November of 2016, Tesla announced a major project after its acquisition of SolarCity: to power whole island of Ta’u in American Samoa with solar panels and battery storage. While a small project in the grand scheme of the world’s energy use, this undertaking is an important step towards the expansion of clean energy. This microgrid is expected to offset the island’s use of nearly 110,000 gallons of diesel per year, its capacity would be able to fully recharge in seven hours, and the island would be able to stay fully powered for up to three days without sun. No longer having to rely on importing costly fuel, this project could also have significant financial benefits for the island. If this project is successful, it would serve as a powerful indicator that the integration of renewable energy and storage systems would undeniably improve the carbon footprint of communities, businesses and more while also allowing them to achieve economic gains.
Again leading the charge on energy storage, Tesla partnered with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company to install a battery storage system. This project will have a capacity of 500 kilowatts and 1 megawatt hour and will support the brewery’s 10,000 panel solar array. Breweries are energy-intensive businesses, so this installation will help reduce energy demand during peak times (the batteries would be able to supply energy when demand is high, and store energy when demand is low), thereby reducing electric costs for the brewery and allowing them to be a more sustainable and independent operation.
Another notable company in the energy storage world is Green Charge Networks, founded in 2009 by entrepreneur Vic Shao with the goal of “helping businesses, municipalities, and schools of all sizes use power more efficiently, cut carbon emissions, and reduce costs.” Now mostly owned by the French multinational electric utility company Engie, Green Charge has over 48 megawatt hours of battery storage projects deployed or in progress, making it the largest provider of commercial energy storage in the United States. Founder and CEO Vic Shao explains that the private sector has a significant role to play in the expansion of energy storage, since so often governments and utilities don’t have the capital to install such large and costly projects.
Businesses can see a clear return on investment because customers want to see reduced energy costs. So, not only would energy storage allow for better grid resilience and for more sustainable energy use, but consumers and businesses would benefit as well. What remains now would be to spread this message that energy storage and renewable energy are not just for those who care about reducing climate impact, but that it is also for financially driven stakeholders.
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