Giant power storage ‘batteries’ show promise

The systems could reduce the impact of power outages, whether they’re caused by storms or hackers.

Traditionally, most people’s interest in electric power has been limited to flipping a switch — or telling your robot to do it — and expecting the lights to come on. Until recently, issues surrounding the grid, reliability and energy storage were left to engineers, planners and a few crisis managers. It was not a matter for the general public’s concern.

Now, though, Americans are more and more dependent not just on electric power but uninterrupted electric power. Individuals and businesses alike cannot really function in today’s economy or society without electricity. Most people have experienced at least one power interruption while they were at a retail outlet and found out that cashiers could not take their money for items they wanted to purchase.

In a purely free market, the reliability problem would be solved by throwing money at the problem — adding generators or whatever capital investment was required — financed by ratepayers. For most consumers, though, their electric power is delivered by a public utility. And while that has the advantage of curbing the natural monopoly power of electric power systems, it also separates the direct link of the two key elements of a demand curve: price and quantity.

The price of electricity for most consumers is not related directly to the quantity demanded but is instead determined by an indirect link by which an elected body sets rates that reflect the demands of the community.

There are many good aspects to this system, but because it separates price and quantity on the demand side it adds a level of complexity to the economics of electric power systems.

That complexity is possibly a major factor in shaping the energy storage picture, and it is one of two major forces explaining why so-called “alternate power sources” — principally wind and solar power at this time — took the lead in installing storage facilities.

The other force, of course, is that both wind and solar power have a built-in continuity problem. In the case of solar power, the power generation shuts down when the sun goes down each day. Wind power interruptions aren’t generally as predictable as solar, but wind-powered systems are equally in need of backup.

Backing up small-scale solar or wind-powered generation facilities that, for example, a homeowner might install, do not present a major technological or economic problem. The equipment needed is readily available and even sold by Amazon.

Playing in the electric power big leagues, though, is a different story. In addition to economic and engineering considerations, public utilities have a responsibility to the public, and that tends to make them more conservative, even stodgy, when it comes to adopting new, unproven technologies.

That is all changing today. Larger-scale generating plants are finding that energy storage technology is a better match for their growing need for backup power for reliability than adding traditional, surplus generating capability.

We are witnessing a major change in public utilities’ thinking about large scale energy storage. Batteries and capacitors are replacing smokestacks. The words “reliable” and “uninterrupted” are driving large scale energy storage projects in the US and around the globe. And the success of these projects has encouraged others to consider similar installations.

The recent experience in Australia gave a tremendous boost to the idea of energy storage facilities to provide backup to grid-scale power generation plants.

Called the Hornsdale Power Reserve, its core is a 100-megawatt energy storage facility, designed and installed by Tesla and is, for now, the largest of its type in the world. It reportedly incorporates both battery and capacitor storage technologies, but the actual design characteristics are closely guarded by Tesla.

One of the advantages of this type of energy storage is its response time. Recently there was a power outage on the grid served by the utility, and the energy storage system kicked in in four seconds — hardly enough time for “12:00” to start flashing on appliances.

There are other large energy storage facilities installed and operating on large, wind-power projects on Maui and Kauai in Hawaii. And there are other major installations under way on the U.S. mainland, Europe and elsewhere around the world.

The technology is still, in a sense, unproven, because the installations, while enjoying early successes, have not been installed long enough to determine their long-term economic value. There are also unanswered questions about its scalability that would affect this form of energy storage’s ability to fit into larger scale grids.

Still, if this energy storage system can be made to fit into power grids at the local, substation distribution level, it would help contain the impact of power outages not only from equipment failures but also from storm damage and even hackers. That’s a good thing.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

The Boeing factory at Paine Field in Everett. (Boeing Co.)
Could Everett become Boeing’s next jetliner headquarters?

The company is considering selling the Commercial Airplanes division offices at Longacres in Renton.

FILE - An American Airlines Boeing 737-823 lands at Miami International Airport, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Miami.American Airlines said Tuesday, Aug. 25 that it will furlough or lay off 19,000 employees in October as it struggles with a sharp downturn in travel because of the pandemic. Flight attendants will bear the heaviest cuts, with 8,100 losing their jobs.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
American plans flights with Boeing 737 Max by year-end

Customers can see on American’s website the type of plane for any flight if they know where to click.

Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Aviation Safety Agency, in Amsterdam on Nov. 27, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Yuriko Nakao.
Boeing Max judged safe to fly by Europe’s aviation regulator

A synthetic sensor to aid pilots when the mechanical angle-of-attack sensors fail is still two years out.

Cop turned pinup model in Gold Bar charged with $67K fraud

Brenda Cavoretto was injured when a dead body fell on her in 2012. She’s accused of overselling its lasting impact.

Washington unemployment rate drops to 7.8%

Most job growth occurred in leisure and hospitality, construction and other services.

Premera Blue Cross will eliminate hundreds of jobs as it seeks to cut costs sparked by the current economic downturn. (Submitted photo)
Mountlake Terrace-based health insurer Premera cuts 285 jobs

The layoff at Premera Blue Cross, prompted by the economic downturn, represents about 8.3% of its workforce.

FILE - In this Feb. 8, 2018, file photo, the logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  Twitter is imposing new rules, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020,  ahead of the U.S. presidential election, prohibiting people,  including candidates, from claiming an election win before it is called by either state election officials or two authoritative, national news outlets. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Twitter to pay $100,000 over Washington campaign violations

The company failed to maintain records related to ads that ran from 2012 through 2019.

FILE  - In this Sept. 30, 2020, file photo, a Boeing 737 MAX jet, piloted by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson, prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle. Boeing says the pandemic will reduce demand for new planes for the next decade, long after experts expect a vaccine for COVID-19. The company updated its forecast of the airplane market on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. It remains upbeat about long-term prospects driven by increasing air travel in Asia. Boeing, which along with Europe’s Airbus dominates the aircraft-building industry, has seen orders and deliveries of new planes crumble this year. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Boeing’s struggles continue: No jetliner sales in September

The company has suffered 448 cancellations for the Max and dropped another 602 orders from its backlog.

Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice-President of the EU Commission, speaks at a press conference in Berlin, Germany, following the informal talks of the EU Trade Ministers on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.  (Bernd von Jutrczenka/Pool via AP)
Rule: EU can impose $4 billion in tariffs over Boeing support

Tax breaks for Boeing from Washington state were deemed to have unfairly harmed certain Airbus jets.

Kellie Shanahan loads Jacob McGovern's vehicle with his class tool bag at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood on October 1, 2020.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
How do you teach auto shop remotely? Edmonds class finds out

For some local high school students, auto shop is the thing that keeps them from dropping out.

Newly certified teacher Shana Brown assists a student with a Zoom meeting, while overseeing a class of seven students, in the former warehouse space at Malicious Women Candles on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 in Snohomish, Washington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
For some Snohomish County kids, a warehouse is a schoolhouse

Employers made space for students to attend virtual classes on-site. But at least one learning pod had to shut down.

FILE - In this  July 8, 2009, file photo, a worker dries a car at Seattle's famous Elephant car wash, near the Space Needle in Seattle. Seattle's iconic pink elephant sign soon will have a new home. The Seattle Times reports the Elephant Car Wash on Battery Street near Denny Way will close permanently, the company announced in a news release Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Seattle’s Elephant Car Wash to shutter, pink sign to be saved

Rumors have swirled surrounding a demolition permit for the site was filed Oct. 7.