Huge battery will help deliver clean electricity, PUD says

EVERETT — Snohomish County Public Utility District is getting ready to start using a massive battery that will make it easier for it to use clean, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

The PUD’s new energy storage system, which includes a battery as big as a shipping container, is at the head of an effort to bring open-source design and standards to the industry. And that, say advocates, will let utilities and vendors deliver cheaper, cleaner electricity to consumers.

“We’re trying to move the dial nationally,” PUD general manager Steve Klein said.

One problem with clean energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro is that they don’t produce an even, steady supply. The wind blows when the wind blows.

And sometimes the sources are generating a lot of power when consumers don’t need much electricity, such as in the middle of the night.

Utility companies don’t have cheap, efficient ways to store that excess energy for when people need it. Energy storage systems are expensive, and each vendor uses its own proprietary designs and standards. That means utilities have to buy the entire system, rather than assembling their own using components from different vendors.

The PUD’s new system, though, is made using existing technology and open design and standards.

That makes it much easier for companies to enter the market by offering one piece, rather than having to offer a whole system, said David Kaplan, president of 1Energy Systems. It provided the control software for the PUD’s new energy storage unit.

It “allows battery companies, power conversion equipment companies and software companies like us to focus on what we do best,” he said.

Snohomish PUD and 1Energy Systems started working on the project in 2013. Their partnership attracted interest from others in the industry, and last year, several utilities and companies joined to create the MESA Standards Alliance to develop open standards for utility-scale energy storage.

Last fall, MESA and another industry group jointly released the first open-source specifications for a plug-and-play energy storage system.

Darcy Wheeles of the MESA Standards Alliance compares it to blue-tooth communication technology, which is open source. Consumers looking for a headset for their cellphone have countless options. If it weren’t open source, they might have to simply buy the headset made by the same company that made their cellphone.

Conversely, cellphone chargers are not open-source design. An Apple iPhone can’t use the charger for a Samsung Galaxy.

“If a utility would like to buy a battery from one company and their software from another, they shouldn’t have to pay a third party to stitch the two together,” Wheeles said.

The PUD plans to add two more energy storage units as part of the project. An overall cost was not immediately available, but it will largely be covered by a $7.3 million grant from the state’s Department of Commerce, according to the PUD’s website.

Gov. Jay Inslee came by the PUD’s operation center near Paine Field on Thursday to celebrate the project.

“Basically, it can revolutionize” the energy grid, making it cleaner and more reliable, he said.

Inslee included $60 million for clean energy projects in his proposed capital budget this week.

“I look at this as just another way for Washington to lead the world,” he said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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