JERRY BROWN, THE HOLY GRAIL AND THE MANHATTAN PROJECT by Rick Phelps
“Clichés. Good ways to say what you mean. Mean what you say.”
Jimmy Buffett, 1975
Four years ago I wrote about the cliché of energy storage being the Holy Grail of renewable energy and managed to work in a Jimmy Buffet reference. Energy storage still is the Holy Grail, but California and Jerry Brown are doing something about it – not much but at least there is some action. A year ago the California Public Utilities Commission mandated that the three investor-owned utilities to add 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage by 2020. That sounds like a lot of energy until you look at the numbers. In 2013, according to the California Energy Commission’s Energy Almanac, California-produced renewable energy accounted for 39,236 gigawatt hours of the 199,783 gigawatt hours produced in the state. Therefore the 1.3 gigawatt energy storage mandate, called “huge” by some pundits, amounts to one-third of one percent of renewable energy produced (.000033133). This is a token commitment and “mandates” may not be the best way to spur technological innovation, but this step highlights the importance of energy storage and is a good baby step. More progress is needed, because without storage, system flexibility is lost and progress stalls. Storage also relates to the Manhattan Project, but that comes later.
But what is energy storage? Storage includes batteries large and small, compressed air, pumped water systems, fly wheels and a host of other ideas – both new and old. All generally work, but the limiting criteria are cost and scale. The cost question is whether it costs less to store a kilowatt than it does to generate it. The scale issue relates to the application, but generally refers to the amount of energy needed to be stored. For example, large lead-acid batteries might work fine for a home with a 4 kilowatt load, but not so well for a utility-sized wind project with a capacity of 25 megawatts.
To put the energy storage issue in perspective, think about its impact on remote communities in the Eastern Sierra. Electricity could be stored locally and additional distribution lines — at a cost of millions — would be unnecessary.
Private sector companies, the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are making progress on energy storage cost and scale, but there are not yet any major breakthroughs and the need for more storage in renewable energy continues to grow.
The quest for this Holy Grail is critical for at least three compelling reasons.
First, two major forms of renewable energy – wind and solar — are intermittent and not necessarily generated at the same time there is electricity demand. Often the actual capacities of wind and solar projects is less than 50% of stated capacity and the capacity needs to be backed up from conventional sources such as natural gas or coal. If the energy generated could be stored economically for later use, the renewable projects would be more economically viable as they could always “sell” their capacity and might be able to reduce their invested capital with a more efficient operation … and the land use footprint for wind and solar might be lessened.
Second, if renewable energy is more efficient due to effective storage, there will be less need to ensure that conventional generation capacity is available as backup. Fewer conventional power plants will need to be built and transmission capacity might be reduced if large electricity imports were not necessary to meet the demands of a high-renewable region — if renewable production were not producing at capacity.
Third, energy storage can be used to make the grid more efficient and optimize transmission and distribution capacity. This gets complicated, but the easiest way to explain it is that if the inputs into the grid are predictable, it’s a lot easier and economic to manage. In that way, the grid and storage becomes a lot like our own financial budget — when we know what’s coming in, it’s a lot easier to manage what goes out.
If energy storage is truly the Holy Grail, where are the speeches demanding that we triple our capacity by 2020 or that the United States will become the energy storage technology center for the world? You don’t hear those speeches, because energy storage is pretty dull stuff and certainly neither sexy nor photogenic, but if we were to solve the problem, storage would indeed be the Holy Grail … which brings us back to the Manhattan Project.
To the baby boom generation the Manhattan Project is well known, but to those lucky enough to be younger, it’s a little more obscure and even ancient history. The Manhattan Project had its start in 1939 when Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt warning him that the Germans were likely developing a nuclear weapon — with great destructive power — and the United States should counter the German effort with its own initiative. President Roosevelt accepted this challenge and committed the government to this endeavor and by 1942 the Manhattan Project was well underway. The Project culminated with the successful test of the first nuclear weapon in July 1945, and, following the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the end of World War II. Over 125,000 scientists and staff at least 30 sites around the country had fathered this technology and spend $22 billion in today’s dollars. Solutions were found to problems thought not solvable.
Consequently, The Manhattan Project is symbolic of what can be accomplished with an all-out effort and many, including Bill Gates, have called for a “Manhattan Project” in renewable energy, regardless of the cost or risk. This seems a worthy idea, but wouldn’t it make more sense to first solve the “critical-path” issue of energy storage? Otherwise, what are we going to do with all that renewable energy?
Rick Phelps is Executive Director of the High Sierra Energy Foundation. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of his employer.
Rick Phelps Page PAGE 1 of NUMPAGES 1 DATE \@ “M/d/yy” 10/15/14