Navigant Research Blog

Pending Blackouts Highlight Benefits of Energy Storage

Alex Eller — 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.

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