By Thomas Content of the Journal Sentinel
Combining solar panels with batteries to keep electricity flowing when the sun isn’t shining has long been the target for companies dabbling in the emerging technologies of the power grid.
This year is seeing more development in that space than ever before, thanks to falling battery and solar prices, the marketing prowess of super-entrepreneur Elon Musk, and national and international clean-energy and climate-change policies.
And companies with ties to Milwaukee are at the forefront of some of the biggest projects. In Minster, Ohio, a small town between Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, the largest combination solar and energy storage project built by a municipal power utility in the United States has taken shape.
It features more than 13,500 solar panels as well as tens of thousands of lithium-ion battery cells working together for the local utility. The $18 million project includes technology from at least three companies with Milwaukee ties:
– Ingeteam, a maker of inverters that has its factory in the Menomonee Valley.
– Half Moon Ventures, a Chicago project developer whose CEO, Michael Hastings, lives in Milwaukee and has a Third Ward office.
– S&C Electric Co., which is based in Chicago but has centered its work in the energy storage market in Franklin.
Half Moon got its start in wind energy projects, then shifted to solar and now is aggressively deploying storage projects in Ohio, Hawaii and elsewhere.
“It’s a really, really exciting space to be involved in right now,” Hastings said in an interview. “We’re really optimistic that this is an unstoppable thing because it’s actually profitable now.”
S&C has been working with utilities on power equipment for generations, but its power management office in Franklin has become the go-to place for its emerging role as an energy storage systems integrator.
“We’ve been doing it since 2006, which is a very long time in the energy storage space,” said Troy Miller, who leads the energy storage business for S&C. “It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but nobody was doing it then.”
The energy storage market’s rapid evolution over the past year is due in part to Musk, co-founder and CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Motors, and his bold move to build a “giga-factory” for batteries and his related announcement relating to home energy storage systems. It was last year that he announced that he was developing the Powerwall, a home energy storage product that would combine Tesla’s experience in energy storage with the solar panel offerings of Musk’s solar company Solar City.
“At that point, it went from sort of an esoteric type of conversation with PhD chemists and battery geeks to something that more people are understanding,” Miller said. “He really helped raise awareness of how you could re-imagine the electrical grid with a number of batteries as well as distributed generation on it.”
Since Tesla’s announcement, Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc. has entered the distributed energy storage space, starting with a project at the Merchandise Mart building in Chicago. And Menomonee Falls-based EnSync Energy Systems has expanded its number of energy storage-with-solar projects, with several projects now on line in Hawaii and Tahiti, and more to come in Hawaii and another in the works in the Cayman Islands.
“Now this market’s become real in the last year, and by real I mean actual utilities deploying projects that are making money for the customers,” said Eric Apfelbach, former CEO of EnSync. “And we’re doing the same thing in Hawaii. We go into buildings and do a whole integrated system, we save that customer $1 million a year in electricity costs in Hawaii by putting in storage and a microgrid with solar.
The Minster, Ohio, project in particular is worth a closer look.
At 4.2 megawatts, the solar power-generating system is twice the size of Wisconsin’s largest solar project, which was built by Epic Systems at the medical software firm’s corporate campus in Verona. The Ohio project’s 13,600 panels are enough to power about 680 typical homes.
The scale of the project’s battery system isn’t small, either. Imagine a battery pack that’s the size of a laptop. Now imagine stuffing as many of those as you can fit into tall metal enclosures that would stand on the inside of an 18-wheeler trailer. Now add two more trailers. That’s pretty charged up.
Alongside that are two more trailers filled with controls and power management equipment, also supplied by S&C in Franklin.
Sitting just 23 miles east of the Indiana border, Minster is perhaps best known for being home to Dannon and the largest yogurt plant in the nation. Tens of thousands visit the village each fall for its Oktoberfest celebration.
But the solar panels and batteries are putting the town of 2,850 on the map, said Don Harrod, village administrator.
Harrod is fielding calls from other communities contemplating energy storage for themselves. The project is helping the town add equipment at its electric substation that it would have needed to replace, and the savings could really start adding up on hot summer days when power prices spike, he said.
“It’s a new technology and we never thought this was even something that was doable five years ago for us,” he said.
The bottom line for the Minster municipal utility is a better bottom line, Harrod said. It gets to add a cleaner fuel source with no carbon emissions. And it saves on its energy costs in multiple ways, even apart from generating power when the sun stops shining.
The storage system helps the city of Minster avoid special surcharges that it faces from its power supplier on the 10 or 12 days a year when summer heat grips Ohio and electricity demand spikes, Miller said.
In addition, Hastings said, the batteries are helping maintain the stability on the ever-changing regional power grid through something known in the industry as frequency regulation. Similar to what Johnson Controls’ system is providing at the Merchandise Mart building in Chicago, the batteries in Minster are called on, in essence, to maintain the grid at a stable, high-quality level. In part, that helps utilities avert power surges that can be disruptive to home electronics or business equipment.
S&C is working on systems that combine battery technologies and power management, both for utility-scale wind and solar projects as well as for energy storage systems.
‘An Energy Revolution’
Standing in the company’s Franklin factory last week, Miller pointed to a trailer bound for a Scotland wind farm, and another bound for an Ontario solar project. The company invested in a giant crane meant for yachts to help hoist the heavy trailers onto trucks to ship them out.
Across the room stand more trailers, not unlike the ones S&C deployed to Ohio in recent months. S&C saw the market opportunity coming and expanded its factory in 2012. It now employs 90 people here, and is hiring.
The market has really grown in the past 18 months, Miller said.
“The world’s undergoing an energy revolution,” said Alan Perlstein, chief executive of the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium, a Milwaukee-based industry and academic group focused on energy, power and controls. “There’s a shift from fossil fuels and increased use of renewables and sustainable sources that drive the adoption of distributed energy and microgrid technologies.
“We as the state of Wisconsin are uniquely positioned” with companies that provide power controls and automation technologies as well as energy storage systems, he said.
An even bigger economic impact for Midwestern companies that export products in this field should come from the international climate accord negotiated in December in Paris, according to M-WERC. With nearly 200 countries agreeing to cut carbon emissions, that should drive demand for products that save energy and help cut emissions at the same time.
That could open up more markets for more exports for companies like S&C, Johnson Controls and EnSync. An industry market outlook prepared for local companies last year projects that the global market for energy storage systems will grow by nearly $20 billion, from $5.9 billion in 2013 to more than $25 billion in 2025.
As a result, Perlstein and others at the local energy consortium are examining the need to take another stab at assessing the size of the potential global market for storage and related products.
Clean-energy policies are pushing development more quickly in some places than others.
In Hawaii, where electricity prices are three times what they are on the mainland, the state’s Legislature has set a goal to convert its electricity system to become 100% renewable within decades.
That market opportunity has led EnSync to work aggressively on the Hawaiian Islands to secure contracts that combine solar and storage systems for universities, condo buildings and others.
And it’s led Hastings and S&C to an even bigger project than Minster, on a small Hawaiian island that currently gets 20% of its energy from solar panels.
“We have a sister project to this in the final stage of development in Hawaii right now. We’re developing a micogrid for the island of Molokai, with 6 megawatts of solar and a 10-megawatt-hour battery system,” Hastings said. “Essentially we’re going to enable that island to achieve 75% solar by the middle of next year — the entire island.”