Smart grid essentials: Keeping up with energy storage

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By: SGN Staff

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By Doug Peeples

SGN News Editor

 

You can't swing a dead battery without hitting a news story about the latest advances in EV or grid-related energy storage. And while venture capital investment in clean tech generally slowed down in 2012, it certainly hasn't stopped – and that means R&D hasn't either.

 

For smart grid companies and other true believers, efficient and cost-effective energy storage is critical if EVs are to eventually get more than a toehold in the car market. And it's no secret that the secret sauce for successfully and efficiently taking advantage of renewables like wind and solar is grid-scale storage.

 

In that light, we wanted to look at some of the storage-related predictions that have been circulating and how storage technologies are developing and being used. If we don't mention your favorite storage technology, it's only because there's too much going on to include it all.

 

Those pesky predictions

 

"Your theory is crazy, but it's not crazy enough to be true." — Danish physicist Niels Bohr

 

Some observers have said EVs made their debut prematurely, and that manufacturers should have waited until they had a relatively cheap battery that could compete with gasoline engines for range. And there are some pretty bold predictions out there that the world will be powered by 100% renewables in from a few years to a few decades.

The wizards at DNV KEMA take energy storage seriously, too. The high-powered consulting, testing and certification company developed a tool called the ES-Select decision support tool that lets users find the best energy storage solution that meets their needs. The company also says energy storage has gone from the R&D Stage to "early adopter on a commercial basis" in one year. We don't think they would say it if it ain't so.

 

DNV KEMA certainly isn't alone. NBC News predicted "Energy storage breakthroughs on the horizon." It's not exactly breaking news; the story is a little more than a year old. But it sounds as accurate as it would today. Among its revelations: lithium-ion battery technology is getting a boost from the EV market that is cutting costs. And while many technologies such as redox-flow batteries and hydrogen storage are part of the quest, they don't have a track record to speak of and cost and practicality remain stubborn challenges.

 

And incidentally,  DNV KEMA recently reported that the Norwegian shipping industry is taking on developing hybrid ships that are expected to sail sometime this year or next, and that will be followed in 2015 with the world's largest all-electric ferry. While the hybrid ship concept is similar to hybrid cars in some ways, there is at least one possibly surprising major difference: the payback time for the needed additional investments should be 2-4 years for ships compared to upwards of 10 years for cars.

 

And there are plenty of smart grid storage projects like this one: NEC Europe subsidiary NEC Italia and Acea Spa, an Italian utility serving metropolitan Rome are working on grid-scale lithium-ion battery storage systems in the utility's primary and secondary substations as part of its smart grid upgrade, according to an article in Clean Technica. A 100 kWh system will provide emergency power backup if outages occur, and a 50 kWh system will be linked with the mid-voltage electricity grid and solar plant for better service quality and to even out intermittent fluctuations in power.

 

We should also mention pumped hydropower, where water is pumped into a high elevation reservoir from a lower one during times of plenty and released and run through turbines at the lower level when power demand is high. About 80% of the power used to pump the water up is reclaimed when it is released, which is pretty efficient.

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But costs, finding the right topography and concerns regarding environmental damage have given it a fairly low profile in the U.S. despite parts of the country being ideally suited for it.

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But the European Union has a different opinion: officials there say pumped hydro is the only large-scale source for renewable energy storage – and some very big names in the industry are actively involved. ABB has been doing pumped hydro projects for more than a century, in addition to its more recent work in battery and non-battery (like capacitors and flywheels) storage systems. There has even been talk about taking it underground although the cost would be much higher than surface systems.

 

Click the links below for more news on smart grid energy storage projects and thinking. And feel free to use the Talk Back form below to share your thoughts on what we should expect from energy storage technologies.

 

Additional reading ...

·         Mitsubishi's storage and PV mix

·         Pike Research on emerging storage technologies and energy density issues

·         What's up with supercapacitors?

·         Using gas distribution networks for energy storage

·         USC's stronger lithium-ion battery

·         Solving the compressed air storage dilemma

·         Growth forecast for molten salt storage