New forms of electricity storage are making the grid more renewable and more reliable—and may change the politics of climate change.
At the annual National Republican Congressional Committee dinner in Washington this month, President Donald Trump made news with some curious remarks about wind power. What went viral was his untrue suggestion that the noise from wind turbines causes cancer, but his warning that home values instantly plunge 75 percent when a windmill is built nearby was equally false. He also claimed wind power is inordinately expensive, when in fact in much of America it is now the cheapest source of electricity. The president then play-acted a scene of a woman complaining to her husband about wind power’s supposed unreliability: “I can’t watch television, darling. Darling, please tell the wind to blow!”
That was baseless, too, yet at the same time it actually did refer to a serious challenge for the clean energy revolution: the “intermittency” of wind and solar electricity. As more renewable power replaces Trump’s preferred coal plants, and more states aim to eliminate fossil fuels from their electric grids, utilities are grappling with how to make sure they can ensure uninterrupted service when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Some states are already starting to get major portions of their electricity from renewables, and while the president’s exaggerated scenario of weather-dependent TV reflects his general disdain for climate-friendly technologies, reliability could become an increasingly formidable problem as the grid gets increasingly green.
But now another technology revolution is underway that could help solve that problem: an electricity storage boom. The cost of lithium-ion batteries has plunged 85 percent in a decade, and 30 percent in just the past year, so utilities across the U.S. have started attaching containers full of them to the grid—and they’re planning to install far more of them in the coming years. Electricity has always been the toughest commodity to manage, because unlike water, grain, fuel or steel, it has been largely impossible to store for later use. But that is changing fast, and even though the dramatic growth of batteries on the grid will be invisible to most Americans, it has the potential to transform how we produce and consume power, creating more flexible and resilient electricity systems with less waste, lower costs and fewer emissions. “This will be like the change from analog to digital, or landlines to cell phones,” says Advanced Microgrid Systems CEO Susan Kennedy, whose firm’s software helps utilities optimize their power choices every instant of every day. “The energy industry will never be the same.”
Electricity storage will reshape the grid in many ways, but the most important is its potential to accelerate the already explosive growth of renewable energy—and that will have political implications. Of the 21 states with the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita, Trump won 20 of them, and the lone exception, New Mexico, just passed a law committing to 100 percent clean power by 2045. By contrast, Hillary Clinton won the eight states with the lowest emissions per capita. But that carbon divide is not necessarily permanent. Eighty percent of the wind power installed during Trump’s presidency has been built in states he won, and the five most wind-dependent states were all Trump states. And while the storage boom started in blue states like California and Hawaii, it is taking off in Texas, Florida, and the rest of Red America as well. Polls suggest “clean energy” is now popular throughout the country, even though “climate action” is not, and there are now more than 3 million clean energy jobs in America, versus only 50,000 coal-mining jobs. The president’s fossil-fueled rhetoric no longer reflects the reality on the ground. And the politics of energy might become less partisan in a world in which renewable power becomes much more common.
The energy world really is changing at the speed of light. Wind and solar generation has almost quintupled in the past decade, providing 9 percent of U.S. electricity last year without emitting any greenhouse gases. This has further complicated the already daunting task of balancing supply and demand on the grid every instant, forcing utilities to respond to every passing cloud and lull in the wind. The rise of Big Data has helped to identify where more electrons are needed in real time, while new transmission lines have helped move electrons longer distances to meet those needs. But lithium-ion batteries were too expensive to use to capture power on the grid before yet another technology transformation—the growth of electric vehicles, from zero a decade ago to more than 1 million on American roads today—drove down their costs through mass production.
Now grid storage is poised to grow at a faster pace than the electric cars that made it cost-effective, and even faster than the renewables it will help to accommodate on the grid. Last year, Florida Power & Light completed a 10-megawatt grid battery hailed as the largest of its kind in the world; last month, FPL announced a battery project more than 40 times larger. Republican regulators in Arizona recently approved more than twice as much power storage in their state as the entire country installed last year; Hawaii is building more than three times as much, and California nearly five times as much. Tom Buttgenbach, the CEO of 8minutenergy Renewables, says his firm alone has signed contracts to build nearly a gigawatt of grid storage in the U.S., more than two thirds of the current nationwide total, in just the past four months.
Overall, the consultancy Wood Mackenzie expects U.S. storage additions to double in 2019, triple in 2020 and increase 13-fold over the next five years, which would store enough electricity to power more than 5 million homes. The forecasters at Bloomberg New Energy Finance expect more than $600 billion in global investment in battery storage by 2040. The storage boom, like so many green trends in America, first took hold in California, but Ravi Manghani, the head of energy storage research at Wood Mackenzie, says it is spreading much faster than anyone expected, ending the era when power had to be distributed and used the instant it was generated.
“Every time we do a new forecast, we have to revise it up for deployment and down for cost,” says Ravi Manghani, head of energy storage research at Wood Mackenzie. “We’ve been proven wrong again and again.”
Thanks to the dizzying cost declines, utilities are now building new wind and solar farms accompanied by new battery storage for less than they would pay to build new fossil-fuel plants—and in some cases less than they would pay to run existing fossil-fuel plants. Pairing renewables with storage lets grid operators fill in gaps when the weather isn’t cooperating and dispatch power in more predictable ways when it’s needed most. The batteries can hold excess solar power early in the day, for example, to use during the late afternoon peak, reducing the need for costly natural gas “peaker plants” that have to be powered up whenever demand spikes. Manghani of Wood Mackenzie says utilities might substitute battery storage for up to 80 percent of the gas peakers they had planned to build by 2026. Jigar Shah, the founder of the pioneering solar company Sun Edison and now the president of the clean energy finance firm Generate Capital, believes hundreds of billions of dollars worth of fossil-fueled peaker plants that often run just a few hundred hours a year might soon be mothballed for good. Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO of the Energy Storage Association that represents the industry, worked for Sun Edison at the dawn of the solar boom, and she’s feeling déjà vu. She remembers that one week she would hear about the largest solar project in the country, only to hear about a new largest project the next week. The idea of converting sunshine into power was starting to capture imaginations then; now the idea of holding onto that power so it can be dispatched where it’s needed is generating the same kind of excitement among energy wonks.
“It’s funny, people have always talked about how it would be awesome if storage happened someday,” Speakes-Backman says. “It’s happening now.”
Shah says the spectacular growth in storage built by utilities alongside solar plants might eventually be dwarfed by homes and businesses installing “behind-the-meter” battery units to store solar power from their rooftops; last year, 15,000 individual battery storage units like the Tesla PowerWall were installed in the U.S., still a tiny slice of the market but a fivefold increase over the previous year. Utilities are also building batteries alongside wind farms, storing excess nighttime generation for use during morning peaks when families are getting ready for work and school. The Southwest Power Pool, which runs the grid serving 14 states in the windy and predominantly Republican middle of the country, now has 5 gigawatts worth of storage projects in its queue, nearly four times the current U.S. total.
“It gives you an idea of the magnitude of interest,” says Bruce Rew, vice president for operations. “We’ve got lots of wind, and storage will help us manage it.”
Rew says grid operators used to fret that they wouldn’t be able to guarantee reliability once renewables constituted 25 percent of their loads, but the Southwest Power Pool now routinely handles 50 percent and even 60 percent generation from wind while keeping the lights on without interruption. There was one afternoon last month when California’s grid was receiving more than two-thirds of its power from solar with no reliability problems at all.
So far, the lithium-ion battery projects coming online are providing only a few hours of short-term storage that can shift power to times of high demand or plug brief gaps from cloud cover, calm winds or other generation glitches. Advanced battery technologies using vanadium and other chemistries could someday store power for days or even months but are not yet cost-effective. For now, wind and solar farms with batteries are not yet the equivalent of “baseload” coal, gas or nuclear plants that can generate power 24 hours a day.
The Trump administration has used this theoretical reliability gap to argue that retiring dirty and uneconomical coal plants (as well as zero-emission but uneconomical nuclear plants) could threaten the stability of the grid and has pushed, so far unsuccessfully, for some kind of bailout to keep them online. At a recent Senate hearing, Energy Secretary Rick Perry raised the specter of blackouts caused by excessive reliance on renewables: “Maybe it’s time for us to have a conversation in this country: Do we need to have a stable baseload of energy?”
But utilities are still relentlessly replacing coal-fired power plants with cleaner and cheaper options. Meanwhile, more than 20 states have changed laws or regulations to make storage more feasible in the past two years, and even deep-red states like Texas, Indiana and Arkansas have begun adding batteries to their grid. A recent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission order is also helping to clarify market rules and encourage grid operators to incorporate storage into their long-term planning. And Representative Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) introduced legislation this month that would extend a 30 percent tax credit for battery projects, with support from the entire renewable energy industry.
Political debates over energy tend to be intensely partisan, with Democrats attacking Republicans as head-in-the-sand climate deniers addicted to fossil-fuel money and Republicans attacking Democrats as socialist tree-huggers who want to ban air travel for a “Green New Deal.” But battery storage has not yet degenerated into a shirts-and-skins issue, even though it’s clearly a green technology that has been embraced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other Green New Deal fans. That’s partly because influential utilities of all political stripes have embraced storage as a tool to save money and improve reliability, and partly because even the reddest states are trying to integrate low-cost renewables into their grids. Even the latest Trump budget, which proposed severe cuts in renewable energy, included a new “Launchpad” initiative designed to promote research in longer-term power storage, which Perry has called “the holy grail” for the grid. And while the White House has proposed to eliminate ARPA-E, a decade-old federal agency for advanced energy research, Congress has kept it alive, and the agency’s leaders have created a new funding competition for cutting-edge storage projects.
“Plenty of Republicans who don’t want a Green New Deal do want to see that kind of investment in innovation,” says Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a group supporting conservative policies to fight climate change.
Innovation could produce breakthroughs that would make intermittent wind and solar plants function more like green versions of 24-hour fossil-fuel plants. The holy grail of long-term storage is currently available only with older niche technologies like “pumped hydro,” which works only around hydroelectric dams that happen to have upper and lower reservoirs. But short-term storage is already useful, which is why so much of it is being built in red states like Florida.
It’s almost noon at Babcock Ranch, America’s first fully solar-powered town, and electricity is coursing through a sea of 330,000 photovoltaic panels on the outskirts of this year-old southwest Florida community. Babcock’s developer, Syd Kitson, had a crazy vision of a sustainable oasis in a region choked by sprawl, a dream of native vegetation, bike paths, rain gardens, hiking trails, farm-to-table restaurants, a walkable downtown and self-driving electric buses, all powered by the Sunshine State’s most abundant natural resource. Now it’s actually happening. The first 200 families have moved in, pioneering a green new way of suburban life. FPL’s 74.5-megawatt solar array generates enough clean power to provide the bulk of the town’s juice even after it reaches its expected build-out of 50,000 residents.
“Traditional planners always want that formulaic subdivision. They kept asking: ‘You don’t really mean that, do you?’” Kitson recalls. “I meant it!”
When FPL built the Babcock plant in 2016, it hoped that someday, it would be able to add storage. Batteries got so cheap so fast that someday arrived last year. In the substation next to the plant, 10 gray containers packed with Samsung batteries now capture sunshine in the middle of the day to help meet the region’s peak demand a few hours later. Residents don’t notice these algorithm-controlled machinations that help keep their lights on and their rates low, but they like being part of a forward-thinking experiment in a fast-growing region where sustainability has historically been a dirty word.
Last March, FPL hailed its 10-megawatt Babcock battery as the largest storage project ever built alongside a solar farm in the U.S. But the utility recently announced a 409-megawatt battery project alongside a solar farm in Manatee County, four times larger than the largest on earth today. And Matt Valle, FPL vice president for development, says he’s sure there will be larger ones in the works when it comes online in 2021, though maybe not 40 times larger. Utilities are scrambling to shed dirty and costly assets; FPL will shut down its last coal plant this year, and its new megabattery will allow it to retire its two least-efficient gas plants. The company liked its Babcock solar plant so much that it has built 15 identical ones in Florida, and has more than 100 additional ones in the pipeline as it tries to install 30 million panels by 2030. Low-cost storage will help it manage its peaks and match supply to demand as its grid gets greener.
“It’s inevitable that you’re going to see a lot more of this,” Valle says.
Ultimately, the real power of the battery revolution might not just be the way it accelerates the renewable revolution, but the way it also interacts with the digital revolution. Susan Kennedy launched Advanced Microgrid Systems after serving as chief of staff to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California because she had a vision of a future where power could be stored and dispatched with extraordinary efficiency and profitability. Her vision could not have become reality without cheap batteries, but she sees them as “dumb pieces of Tupperware.” The real transformation comes through sensors and smart appliances and software driven by artificial intelligence that is starting to merge the Internet with the grid, taking advantage of wild price swings in wholesale energy markets to move electrons where they’re most valuable every microsecond of every day. Her software is turning batteries into virtual power plants, storing electricity when it’s cheap so that entire office buildings can stop buying from the grid at peak times. In his rant about wind power, Trump did recognize a vulnerability of renewables, even though he exaggerated it: They do make the instantaneous balancing act of the grid harder. But algorithms that analyze terabytes worth of data every second are making it much easier.
Kennedy sees a future where algorithms will adjust your smart refrigerator or smart thermostat a half-degree when your utility needs to suck up or spit out a bit of extra juice. Electric vehicles will become car-shaped battery storage devices when they’re not in use, lending power to the grid during peak hours and charging when the grid has power to spare. “The smart grid can’t be managed by human beings with Excel spreadsheets,” Kennedy says. “But it’s way more efficient than the old grid.”
There is an intense debate raging in the energy world about whether this new world of digitally optimized batteries will make it possible for the U.S. to achieve 100 percent renewable (or at least emissions-free) electricity. The Green New Deal suggests it should happen as soon as 2030, while California, Hawaii, Washington and now New Mexico have set targets of 2045. Even bullish battery experts acknowledge that the current short-term storage technologies won’t create an all-renewable grid, and some doubt it will ever materialize in areas with poor wind, solar and hydro resources without huge investments in transmission lines.
The soaring ambition of the Green New Deal has amplified this controversy over what percentage of renewables would be realistic and reliable. But so far, the grid has handled the rise of renewables without much drama, and whether or not it’s ready for 100 percent renewables, everyone agrees that the growth of battery storage will allow the grid to handle significantly more.
“You can turn on your TV,” says Speakes-Backman, the Energy Storage Association CEO. “It’s all good!”