A big problem with renewable energy sources today is that there’s no good way to store power for when you actually need it. It is no secret that there are days that the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, or worse, you have sunless and windless nights. So, how do we effectively tackle the need to collect energy when we can for use when we want? There are endless opinions on the issue and technologies being developed. Too much in fact, to make heads or tails of whether we have a real crisis on our hands, or, if this is an opportunity for businesses developing technologies to become the hero in solving the issue.
To help us weed through some of the clutter and narrow in on the heart of the issue, we spoke with Peter Kelly-Detwiler, an expert with over 20 years experience in new energy technologies and sustainable solutions. As former VP of Technology Services for Constellation Energy, Detwiler has helped companies of all shapes and sizes become more energy efficient, and also led the team that developed and patented an industry-leading, real-time energy use and automated load control platform.
Q: Why is renewable energy storage important?
A: Energy storage is important because renewables are intermittent and in many cases unpredictable. Winds blow at different times of the day; solar is generally a good peaking resource, but still in no way represents firm and reliable capacity. Storage can help even out the peaks and valleys, and increase the overall reliability and value of renewables to the power grid.
Q: Why is energy storage so important for the sustainability movement?
A: Since storage can help improve reliability of renewable resources, it will be critical to have sufficient storage to support the rapid growth of renewable power resources on the grid. Too many renewables – in the absence of storage technologies – can cause the grid to be inherently unstable. So at some point, the lack of cost-effective storage is likely to pose a limiting factor.
Q: Why is it important for commercial buildings and manufacturing facilities?
A: Storage is important for certain types of commercial and manufacturing facilities, in particular those, which have a need for high levels of reliability and power quality. This is not an issue directly related to renewables, but it does serve as another market for storage, which helps increase scale and brings prices down. Types of industries relying on such a high power quality are often high tech such as server farms or chip manufacturers.
Q: What are some of the energy storage technologies that exist and what is your take on them?
A: It’s important to think about this issue broadly. Storage is, in essence, any location or facility where energy can be stored or dispatched, often taking pricing differentiation into account. So, for example, water behind a dam can be conceived of as storage, particularly hydro pump storage. Compressed air is another form. Originally it involved compressing air in caverns during off peak periods. Now it involves a variety of new technologies, with many start-ups working with smaller systems.
One company is working on storing energy through a rail system, whereby they bring mass to altitude during off peak periods, and harvest the energy during pricier hours. And then of course you have a multitude of emerging and competing battery technologies, with no clear winner yet emerging. My sense though, is that we will eventually see winners. There is a potent combination of money, smart people, a market need, and the computation capability to learn more quickly than ever before. That is likely to yield success.
Q: What do companies need to know about energy storage and how it impacts their business?
A: Companies don’t need to focus too much on the storage issue just yet, unless they live in a very volatile priced market. But they need to stay aware of developments and understand how they may benefit in the future.
Q: How far away are we from grid parity for renewable resources?
A: We are moving towards grid parity for solar and wind. In one sense, we are there, in that the kWh may be cheaper than grid power at certain times. But we are not there, in that these resources cannot stand independently. Combined with storage technologies, they have a way to go to be considered on par with generation, if one does not take externalities such as pollution into account. We are getting close here, and it is something companies concerned with sustainability need to keep an eye on.