We Don’t Need New Energy Storage Innovations

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about energy storage being a "holy grail" for solving the problems of deeper renewables saturation in the U.S. power grid. It seems inevitable that someone will officially launch "Holy Grail Storage, Inc.," the term keeps getting thrown about so much.

I’m a big fan of energy storage innovation, and I do believe it’s an important solution with big market potential.

But it’s time to start pushing back on the rhetoric (from both proponents and, importantly, opponents of renewables) that often slips toward implying that energy storage is the only solution that matters for balancing the grid and renewables. That without such breakthrough innovations, renewables are inherently limited in the near term. Such rhetoric has gone way too far. It’s an overstated vision being pushed right now for a variety of self-serving reasons (by utilities, innovators and investors, and then dutifully parroted by various journalists). [Editor’s note: We banned the use of the term "holy grail" in energy storage articles at GTM several years ago.]

While it’s true that cost-effective power storage is going to be a big boon when it does come to market, we simply do not need such innovations to achieve much more renewables penetration than we currently have in the U.S. 

The facts are 1) the problem of intermittent renewables is overstated, at least at current generation-mix levels; and 2) there are a wide range of already-available solutions that greatly alleviate this problem anyway, without requiring additional storage innovations.

There are people out there with a motivation to paint renewables as being some kind of wildly variable power generation source that the grid cannot handle. These people would gladly have you believe that storage is a "holy grail," thus implying that we need to wait for it to be widely and cheaply available. And it’s true, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow when you need it. But let’s remember that wind and solar (the dreaded "intermittents") together made up less than 5 percent of U.S. power generation as recently as 2013. Outside of a few specific geographies with high solar and/or wind penetration, this simply is not a big problem today. And there’s plenty of headroom. An NREL study (note: link opens a big PDF file) calculated that, with better use of existing dispatchable power and storage technologies, the U.S. could go up to 50 percent penetration of wind and solar and keep the grid balanced.

One canard that these "intermittents" critics throw out there is the variability of a single solar or wind power generation facility. But while there’s often correlation across generation sites (my roof is likely sunny when my neighbor’s is, true), if you coordinate across a wide-enough range of generation facilities this variability smooths out a great deal. Germany has seen this, with an ability to manage a very deep penetration level of renewables already, somehow keeping the lights on in the process. So all these critics are really pointing out is that our grid in the U.S. is horribly balkanized and uncoordinated, on the whole. New storage tech is seen as a way of simply avoiding having to address this deeper problem, but that’s not really the best long-term strategy, is it?

An underappreciated mitigating factor is that solar and wind, together, tend to smooth each other out. Wind profiles often show "shoulders" around dawn and dusk. Meanwhile, solar fills in the middle of the day. There are some great graphs in this Citi report (note: link opens a big PDF file), on pages 21 and 22 in particular, illustrating how this typically works out.

So the idea that renewables need a "holy grail" technology breakthrough to keep growing much beyond current levels is simply not true. There’s lots of room for significant additional generation-mix penetration of solar and wind, for a long time, before any innovations to smooth out their intermittency will truly be necessary in the vast majority of geographies.

Plus, where intermittent renewables do cause problems, we’re a long way from efficiently leveraging already-available solutions to alleviate them. Everyone seems to have forgotten that new battery techs are just one solution for addressing temporary imbalances between supply and demand. 

First of all, we can simply better manage demand. Solar and wind conditions, while variable, are quite predictable. A truly smart grid can react to these variable conditions by automatically implementing demand response and ancillary services solutions that already exist, triggering them in response to near-term forecasts or just real-time conditions.

As Powerit Solutions found in an analysis (note: link opens a big PDF file) at a couple of industrial customer sites where solar was being installed, simply shifting loads around to eliminate spikes in net utility demand (as the sun shines or not, for example) could free up hundreds of kilowatts’ worth of capacity at single facilities, without impacting productivity of their core business. Imagine rolling that type of solution across an entire utility territory and having such responses automatically triggered when it’s a partly cloudy day or the wind isn’t blowing quite when needed. Rooftop solar then dramatically shifts from being a threat to the stability of the grid, to being part of a stabilizing microgrid. Similar solutions exist for office buildings and homes, mostly around air conditioning/heating. [Rob Day is a partner at Black Coral Capital, an investor in Powerit.]

Doing this effectively would require much broader implementation and better coordination of these solutions than currently exists — but these solutions already exist and could be easily implemented (and would also, by the way, save people money on their power bill). We do still need to see the ecosystem come together — these solutions currently mostly exist in parts, rather than a holistic, single, standardized approach. But these industry partnerships are now starting to come together.

Second, natural gas has always played a "peaker" role in U.S. power generation and will continue to do so. This can happen as hybrid solutions at the individual power plant level, it can happen on the demand side of the grid, or we can just continue the current trend of adding traditional natural gas generation to the grid. Again, we see that we do not need new energy storage innovations to enable adding significant intermittent renewable power capacity to the grid; we can just leverage existing solutions to backfill for a long time to come. Natural gas and energy storage are natural competitors — and natgas has a decades-long head start.

And third, let us not forget, we do have existing battery technologies that can be deployed today. Not at the price/performance levels needed for wide-scale unsubsidized standalone adoption, perhaps. But lithium-ion, lead-acid and other decades-old products, especially when matched with smart controls to optimize use of smaller batteries for more impact, are proven approaches with great potential for growth, even while newer tech is commercialized.

We need to stop the rhetoric around energy storage innovations being a "holy grail" right now for a couple of basic reasons. First, as can be seen from the above existing alternatives, it’s simply not accurate to imply that the wait for major technological innovation is a significant roadblock to much, much more use of solar and wind than current levels. But secondly, as anyone who’s observed the energy industry over the years can attest, it’s simply not healthy to put so much weight on the emergence and broad-scale implementation of any single technology innovation happening anytime soon. It’s bound to disappoint, as innovation and especially adoption always take longer than hoped. And why would we set ourselves up, as an industry, to appeared to have failed to deliver on such promises (again)? Remember when the solar industry was a "big failure"? We’re still smarting from that one, even while solar power is one of the fastest-growing markets in the U.S.

Look, to reiterate, this is not an anti-storage innovation screed. Cost-effective storage fits into the smart grid story with really powerful benefits to the above solutions, or just as a standalone offering. Whether grid-scale storage (which the utilities like because it’s centralized, controllable, and often can be added to their rate base for additional economic benefits for them), or demand-side storage for microgrids (which, if paired with rooftop solar and load control, can be a powerful "resiliency" solution for homes and businesses), this is an exciting area of innovation right now, both in terms of core storage hardware and the software/controls/services necessary to optimize the fully integrated solutions. Storage innovation is coming quickly and will be really valuable. There are quite a few really cool startups in this space right now, and some of them are going to be big winners.

But let’s stop implying that we need breakthrough storage innovation or else solar and wind penetration must start slowing down anytime soon. We don’t need to search for a holy grail to unlock the potential of renewables; that’s already happening — just look at the massive growth underway in the solar industry right now. We’re reinventing the grid even before tomorrow’s new batteries are ready, and we should be excited about that.

And by the way — how did the search for the original Holy Grail end up?

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