Iowa, already a leader on wind, looks to take the next steps on storage

By Karen Uhlenhuth for Energy News Network

A $200,000 state grant will finance research into two solar-plus-storage projects aimed at better understanding the state’s energy storage potential.

As one of the nation’s leading producers of wind energy, Iowa has abundant — but also sporadic — energy resources.

State officials see huge potential for batteries to help make the most of its wind and solar generation, and they hope to test it with a new grant-funded project.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority has awarded a $200,000 grant to support research into the workings of two large solar-plus-storage projects by Fairfield-based Ideal Energy. Ideal will gather information about how the systems work and share it with a team of researchers at Iowa State University who will analyze it.

“We think there is much potential in this state for storage applications,” said Brian Sellinger, the team leader for Iowa’s energy office, a division of the Iowa Economic Development Authority. “Like a lot of states, Iowa doesn’t have much in the way of storage pilots. This is one of the first ones that came to our attention.”

In another effort to advance storage in Iowa, Sellinger’s office also recently convened what it’s calling the Iowa Energy Storage Committee, with 18 people representing a raft of academic institutions, utilities, environmental organizations and government agencies including the state’s utility regulator.

“We know that storage provides a whole host of opportunities for Iowa with wind and solar,” Sellinger said, “but what does it look like? Are there legislative needs, financial support it needs? What are the next steps the state should take?”

The committee, which will hold its third meeting in October, has been instructed to devise an “action plan” sometime in 2019.

Ideal Energy has been an energy storage pioneer in Iowa, having installed a 30kw/60 kwh battery at a large consignment store in Coralville. It now is working on two projects it claims are the largest solar-plus-storage projects in the state. At the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Ideal is installing a 1.1-megawatt solar array along with a 1350-kw, 1050-kwh megawatt battery. And at Agri-Industrial Plastics, also in Fairfield, Ideal will install 517 kilowatts of solar panels and a 210-kilowatt, 430-kwh storage system.

The installations employ two types of batteries and provide energy for two different usage patterns, and so will provide information on a variety of scenarios. The plastics company, which has demand spikes throughout the day, is using a fairly conventional lithium ion battery. Maharishi University, which has a smoother bell curve to its energy demand, opted for a vanadium flow battery, which uses more of a liquid mixture, according to Aurelien Windenberger, Ideal’s director of design and finance.

“A key difference,” he explained, “is that lithium ion’s ability to store energy degrades over time. Vanadium flow, as long as you do annual maintenance they can maintain a full charge for 30-plus years.”

While that may be the case in other locations, Windenberger said no one really knows if it’s true in the Midwest because there’s been almost no research into the question in this region. Because batteries are vulnerable to climate, with cold diminishing performance and heat leading to long-term degradation, Windenberger said its critical to research battery technology in the Midwest as well as across the country.

Economic factors, like the cost of electricity, also can vary hugely, Sellinger said. The only way to assess how long it takes to pay off a battery in Iowa is to factor in the price for power there. Batteries have made faster headway in regions like the East and West coasts where power is pricier, he pointed out.

One aspect of power pricing in Iowa — particularly in the territory served by Alliant Energy — actually could put some momentum behind battery storage, and that is the practice of charging demand fees. Alliant charges some of the highest demand fees in the nation, according to a study published a year ago by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Their ability to reduce high peaks in electricity use make batteries potentially powerful in reducing bills for perhaps as many as 20,000 customers in the Alliant territory, according to the study.

Ideal Energy will have an important partner in this research endeavor. As the executive director at Iowa State’s Electric Power Research Center, Anne Kimber is part of a research team that is trying to better understand how renewable generation impacts distribution systems. The researchers have created a model of a distribution system and are excited to have data from an actual storage operation against which they can test their model.

The central question, Kimber said, is, “How do you invest in the future grid for the least, optimizing the grid for the lowest cost for utilities and customer? California is way ahead of us in this. If you overinvest in storage, the cost-benefit ratio is in the wrong direction and you’ve made a bad mistake. If you operate it badly, you can shorten the life of your storage system. How do you properly invest in each piece so that lifetime use makes sense?”

The battery-storage pieces seem to be coming together in Iowa, where storage was identified as a priority in the energy plan developed in Iowa in 2016. Between the research getting underway and the battery committee’s coming strategy, Sellinger said, “I think we are going to an uptick soon.”

 

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