Navigant Research Blog

Pending Blackouts Highlight Benefits of Energy Storage

— June 2, 2016

Production Plant - NightConsequences of the largest natural gas leak in U.S. history continue to be felt across Southern California. The leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch, California had a major impact on the local environment, forcing thousands of residents to abandon their homes and releasing the equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas pollution of 572,000 cars. While the leak has been stopped, the facility is now out of commission and the region faces a major shortage of natural gas, which could lead to 14 days of blackouts this summer and potentially 9 more in the coming winter unless action is taken.  The situation highlights the danger of relying too heavily on any one source of energy and is accelerating plans to transition to a system based on renewable energy.

What the Grid Needs

The potential blackouts this summer result in part from the shortage of gas supplies to fuel peaking power plants needed when demand spikes on hot summer days. In order to avoid widespread outages, the peak demand on the system needs to be reduced. Reducing the overall peak demand has been a focus of grid operators for year, and a number of solutions, including energy efficiency programs, demand response and energy storage systems, are being employed to meet this challenge. While these solutions all have their downsides (such as a low reliability or high upfront costs), the current situation in Southern California highlights the benefits of distributed energy storage systems in particular.

California is already a leader in the distributed storage market, and the threat of numerous blackouts may result in increased demand for these systems. As explored in Navigant Research’s Solar PV plus Energy Storage Nanogrids report, distributed storage systems can provide backup power during an outage (perhaps indefinitely when paired with solar PV) in addition to reducing electricity bills. While backup power is one of the main drivers of interest in distributed storage, these systems can provide much greater value to the grid as a whole. Storage systems aggregated into a virtual power plant can allow grid operators to reduce demand on the system at peak times, shifting energy usage to maximize the use of solar PV and limiting the need for gas-fired generation.

Central vs. Distributed?

As grid operators in California consider how storage can reduce the risk of blackouts, they are examining one of the key debates in the energy storage industry: Is it better to deploy centralized or distributed storage systems? While some of the issues facing the grid can be solved with centralized storage, distributed systems are being installed in increasing numbers without any action from utilities. Centralized storage systems won’t keep the lights on for customers in the event of a major outage and can take much longer to develop, an important consideration given the immediate need for new resources. Overall, it seems distributed storage systems are in the best interest of the California grid. While some customers get improved resilience, everyone benefits from the improved reliability that comes with these flexible assets on the grid.

 

Australia Leading Solar PV plus Storage Innovation

— May 23, 2016

Rooftop SolarImprovements in technology and cost have allowed solar PV plus storage systems to become an attractive investment in many parts of the world. However, what remains to be determined are the optimal business models to unlock the full value of these systems. Pairing solar PV directly with energy storage holds the potential to dramatically transform the electricity industry and provide customers with cleaner and more secure power at a predictable price. Despite the potential, there has been little consensus in the industry on the best way to deploy these systems on existing grids and on how to overcome the significant barriers that the required upfront investment presents. 

Although solar PV and energy storage systems (ESSs) have been paired up in microgrids and remote settings for decades, their integration into existing electrical grids presents new challenges. Innovative models for the ownership and operation of these systems are being explored around the world, driven in part by the increasing funding flowing into the distributed energy industry. Australia has been at the forefront in the development of distributed energy resources, and two recently announced projects in the country offer different paths forward.

Dueling Approaches

In early adopter markets around the world, two primary models for deploying solar PV plus storage systems are emerging. Many stakeholders in the industry believe the optimal way to deploy these systems is through incumbent utilities and electricity providers that can leverage technical experience and access to financing. The recently developed suburb of Alkimos Beach in Western Australia was seeking a community-scale solution to help manage an increasing number of distributed solar PV systems and limit the need for new infrastructure to serve its growing population. The neighborhood elected to work with local energy provider Synergy to deploy a 1.1 MWh lithium ion ESS that is being fed by over 100 solar PV systems located on rooftops throughout the area. In addition to reducing costs for customers, managing the intermittency of PV generation, and limiting the need for new infrastructure, the project provides Synergy an opportunity to use community engagement as a way of combating the threat of grid defection.

Alkimos Beach is not the only community in Western Australia exploring innovative ways to harness the power of the solar PV plus storage combination. The community of White Gum Valley has chosen a different path toward a sustainable, local energy system both in terms of ownership and technical design. Most homes in the community will have both solar PV and battery ESSs onsite that will be operated in concert. In addition to the physical distribution of energy storage in this model, systems in White Gum Valley will be owned by the company managing most of the community’s apartment buildings. The company will act as a utility by owning assets and retailing energy directly to customers, a rare situation in Australia’s regulated electricity markets.

The Path Ahead

These two projects may provide some unique insights into how solar PV plus storage solutions can be optimally developed. They provide clear examples of some of the major debates in the distributed energy storage industry, such as whether it is better for systems to be centrally located or distributed, or if they should be owned by utilities or by customers. While it may take several years for these projects to illuminate the merits of one approach versus the other, they may be a sign of things to come as the distributed energy industry takes shape.

 

Considering the Costs and Benefits of Grid Alternatives

— April 29, 2016

AnalyticsDespite significant media attention, distributed energy resources (DER) are only beginning to make an impact on the grid in certain areas. While DER have the potential to transform the electrical grid and provide significant value to multiple stakeholders, they are not properly understood and valued. This is partially due to the diverse array of technologies included in the DER classification. Solar PV, conventional generators, fuel cells, energy storage systems (ESSs), and load management devices all have distinct operating characteristics as well as costs and benefits. Both utilities and industry regulators are working to address these issues using differing approaches. New York is one of the leading states to tackle this issue through the state government’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative.

Costs vs. Benefits

A recent REV program development is helping shape the future of DER in the state. In February, the New York Public Service Commission introduced the Benefit Cost Analysis Order. The order includes a methodology for how electric utilities should evaluate the costs and benefits of proposed grid investments and calculate the net benefits of traditional infrastructure investments compared to portfolios of DER. This is an important development because under the REV initiative, utilities are prohibited from owning DER in most circumstances. The utilities will have to determine where on their systems DER can provide the most value and identify the best way to work with customers and third-party providers to deploy those assets.

A key feature of this order is that the environmental benefits of DER, such as reduced emissions, must be taken into consideration and should help determine the value of DER and compensation paid to system owners. For example, a network of aggregated solar PV plus storage systems can provide the same grid capacity constraint relief as upgrading an existing power plant, only with no added emissions. Although there may be some issues with the proposed valuation methods (such as how to properly compare upfront versus lifetime costs of certain investments), this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Utilities in New York have already been looking into DER alternatives as they are faced with growing populations and rising electricity demand necessitating significant new investments. A notable example of this is Consolidated Edison’s Brooklyn Queens Demand Management Program. The program seeks to defer the construction of a new substation and other investments that would be expected to cost around $1 billion. As an alternative, the utility is making smaller equipment upgrades and investing around $200 million in new demand-side management programs and DER incentives that are expected to reduce grid demand in the area sufficiently to defer the new substation until at least 2024. This includes increased payments for demand response programs and incentives for the installation of distributed ESSs.

Advantages of Flexibility

As a result of this new order, it is likely that utilities may be supportive of and incentivize most flexible DER, particularly ESSs. Unlike other forms of DER, customer-sited ESSs of all sizes can provide a highly reliable form of load reduction for grid operators, as they can be called upon to reduce a customer’s demand without affecting their comfort or operations. Additionally, ESSs provide significant flexibility—when not needed to reduce demand, they can be used to help integrate distributed solar PV and improve reliability for customers. Navigant Research’s recent report, Market Data: Commercial & Industrial Energy Storage, explores the benefits and business models for customer-sited energy storage. While New York’s efforts will help bring clarity to the value and benefits of DER, there remains much uncertainty over the most effective business models to realize the full potential of these technologies.

 

Smaller Utilities Explore Energy Storage-Enabled Solutions

— April 20, 2016

GeneratorWhile California’s investor-owned utilities have received the most media attention for their high-profile energy storage procurements, smaller municipal and cooperative utilities around the country are beginning to recognize the value that energy storage can provide. The services that energy storage systems (ESSs) can provide these smaller utilities may differ from larger organizations, as will their procurement processes.

One notable difference is that municipal and cooperative utilities are generally able to make much quicker decisions regarding investments, as they are not as burdened by regulatory oversight and financial commitments to shareholders. Many of these organizations have been exploring the diverse benefits that energy storage and microgrids can provide, particularly as renewable energy developments become more common for smaller utilities. It is estimated that member-owned electric cooperatives in the United States have nearly 240 MW of solar PV capacity online or in development, which may bring about the need for energy storage to effectively integrate these resources and ensure grid stability.

Problems to Solve

Much of the interest from publicly owned utilities in energy storage and microgrids stems from the generally large geographic area that these entities control. In addition, many customers are located at the end of long feeder lines in relatively remote areas. As utilities see load growing at the end of these isolated circuits, issues around relatability and the need for significant new investments will arise. This challenge is magnified by the fact that many public utilities do not own generation assets, making it different to control frequency and voltage on their system when the generators feeding power are potentially hundreds of miles away. Increasingly cost-effective energy storage is emerging as an ideal solution to these problems by allowing utilities to defer investments in new infrastructure, enabling greater control over their networks and improving reliability for remote customers.

Emerging Solutions

Municipal utilities are able to solve challenges using energy storage either distributed throughout their service territory or at a single facility. For example, the Eugene Water & Electric Board in Eugene, Oregon is developing a solar PV and energy storage microgrid utilizing a 500 kW lithium ion battery from developer Powin Energy. The system will ensure the operability of critical facilities in the event of an outage as well as reduce the expensive peak demand energy the utility buys on wholesale markets. Eventually the utility may look to sell excess capacity into energy markets themselves. An alternative model is being tested by the Glasgow Electric Plant Board in Kentucky, which will deploy distributed ESSs at the homes of 165 customers in partnership with Sunverge. The systems will charge at night when costs are low and discharge during the day or during peak demand, reducing the need to supply additional power and lowering overall costs. This network of ESSs will also provide detailed, real-time insights about the local grid’s performance and ensure customers have power in the event of an outage.

These programs demonstrate the various ways that smaller utilities can enjoy the benefits of energy storage while improving service for their customers and integrating local renewable resources. As energy storage costs continue to fall, there will be numerous opportunities for the nearly 3,000 publicly owned and cooperative utilities in the United States to benefit from the technology.

 

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