Dispatches from San Diego, pt. 3

This is part three in a series on our trip to San Diego for the Energy Storage North America conference and expo. If you haven't yet, check out parts one and two.

Today was the last day of the Energy Storage North America conference. Today's themes were grid services, finance, and technologies. We heard from grid regulators, policymakers, and technical experts, including Dr. Imre Gyuk, Energy Storage Program Manager at the Department of Energy.

Distributed Storage at the Market Edge

A morning panel featuring California policymakers focused on how distributed storage can interface in electricity markets.

The panel noted that utilities were tasked with examining the value of energy storage on their grids. At the time, utilities came back saying that the technologies were mature, economical, or proven enough for widespread use. Five years later, we’re seeing thousands of megawatts of interconnection requests for distributed storage, reflecting the effectiveness of California’s subsidies and the growing value propositions of these technologies.

During the Q&A session, a representative from Trina Solar, asked how policies can help China manage the problem of having long distances and constrained transmission between renewable generation and load centers. The simple answer given was to build more power lines. But the panelists also stressed the importance of building a diversified renewable asset base.

In a later panel, two grid experts continued the conversation about the role distributed energy storage can play on the grid edge.

James Gallagher, executive director of the New York State Smart Grid Consortium, described how New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) program is trying to better align utility practices with the goal of integrating more grid edge resources. Because New York has the oldest electrical grid in the country, REV also aims to help deal with the challenges of using older grid assets.

To do this, he said, REV is helping utilities procure distributed assets to meet their operational needs. The plan intends to introduce further market mechanisms to incentivize deployment. For example, the cost of electricity distribution is averaged across a utility’s consumer base, but in reality, the actual cost of delivery may vary by a factor of a hundred. Clarifying the actual costs of running a distribution grid gives third parties an opportunity to make a profit by introducing distributed resources like storage to locations where it is needed most.

He also touched on the issue of financing. Because increasing ratepayer fees to finance upgrades can be hard for utilities, there is an opportunity for microgrid players, who can raise money from third party sources to build and operate assets which traditionally were owned and operated by utilities. He also noted that insurance companies are becoming aware that record storms and heat waves driven by climate change are going to put community resilience to the test. Insurance companies have access to big pools of money that can finance power system upgrades, including energy storage, that build resilience in the face of global warming.

Technologies and Standards

Dr. Imre Gyuk, Energy Storage Program Manager at the US Department of Energy, gave a presentation on new technological breakthroughs in energy storage and efforts to establish better codes, standards, and regulations affecting energy storage system safety.

He highlighted work being done in energy storage at several national laboratories. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has made breakthroughs in mixed acid vanadium redox flow batteries by developing electrolyte with 80% improved temperature stability and 70% better energy density. This technology has been licensed out to several big flow battery producers, including UniEnergy, Imergy, and WattJoule.

He foresees the system cost for vanadium redox flow batteries (RFB) to fall from $325/kWh in 2015 to $275 by 2017. He also shared projections that aqueous soluble organic flow batteries will become commercially viable in the medium term, with projected system costs falling to $150/kWh by 2021.

The Department of Energy is also working to resolve energy storage safety issues. The Department has published an inventory of codes and standards to help industry players better design, install, and operate their technology. The document also provides a list of best practices to respond to incidents involving energy storage technology.

The conference finished off with free beer at a reception at the San Diego Convention Center. It struck us how large this event is – a signal that the industry is really picking up speed, especially in the United States. This year, there were over 1800 attendees, 110 exhibitors, and over 150 speakers. We’re happy to have come – we’ll certainly be back next year.

Our fourth and final part in this series takes us to Borrego Springs, where SDG&E is pioneering microgrids and solar power to bring energy resilience to an isolated community in the desert.