Navigant Research Blog

A Comeback for Community Storage

— August 20, 2014

Two years ago, community energy storage (CES) was heralded as the most promising distributed storage market.  The market subsequently stalled when demonstrations failed to take off.  Originally, most utilities in the United States pared back on ambitious pilots due to high transaction cost.  Although the business-to-business model of community-level systems was appealing, North American utilities struggled to secure permission from homeowners to install systems and transaction costs skyrocketed.  System development for distribution transformers in North America was also costly, and this, combined with the high cost of customer engagement, killed all large-scale projects.

Now this model could be staging a comeback.  Toronto Hydro, along with eCAMION Inc., the University of Toronto, and Dow Kokam LLC, recently installed a CES system at the Roding Arena and Community Centre in Toronto, Canada.  The pilot project will allow Toronto Hydro to monitor the technology and will help validate its benefits to Toronto’s electrical grid.  This system uses 250 kWh/500 kW Dow Kokam lithium polymer nickel manganese cobalt cells, along with thermal management and controls from eCAMION.  The University of Toronto is managing the control, protection, and power management.

Small Is Beautiful

Situating storage near the customer provides several benefits.  First, it allows a utility to correct power quality where it matters most – near the customer.  Community storage can also help utilities maintain service during grid outages, at least for a few hours.  Finally, CES gives the utility information about what is happening at the edge of the grid, which is an important management tool.

More interest is developing in Europe, where distribution system operators are experiencing difficulty with behind-the-meter solar PV and instability from intermittent renewables upstream.  The United Kingdom is especially bullish, with several departments funding community storage.

Sharp Laboratories of Europe was awarded a grant of £396,541 ($661,858) from the United Kingdom’s Department of Energy & Climate Change to develop and scale up a new battery technology for residential energy storage and CES systems.  Electrovaya began delivering systems to Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution (SSEPD) in the second quarter of 2014 as part of an order for 25 distributed and independent energy storage systems.  The systems range in energy capacity from 12.5 kWh to over 80 kWh.  SSEPD has a separate community storage demonstration with S&C Electric that consists of three 25 kWh lithium ion units on the low-voltage network.

Europe is emerging as a leader in community storage by launching small pilots to test and prove the concept, instead of ambitious 80-unit projects.


Power-to-Gas Comes to North America

— August 14, 2014

Ontario has emerged as hub of clean energy innovation.  The province has rapidly changed its energy mix from coal to renewables in the past 10 years, and Ontario’s latest Long-Term Energy Plan, finalized in 2013, calls for 50 MW of energy storage to be procured in 2014.  Ontario is also home to several innovative storage companies, including Electrovaya, Temporal Power, Hydrostor, and Hydrogenics.

In addition to the 50 MW storage plan – split between 35 MW announced earlier this year and 15 MW slated for the second half of 2014 – Ontario also has a number of storage demonstrations underway.  A 250 kWh/500 kW lithium ion community storage system is being tested by Toronto Hydro, and Temporal Power has two projects: one for wind integration with Hydro One and one for frequency regulation developed by NRStor.  Hydrostor is testing a 4 MWh/1 MW demonstration facility to showcase the firm’s underwater compressed air system, 80 meters underwater.

First the Old World

In addition to batteries, compressed air energy storage, and flywheels, Ontario is adding hydrogen energy storage.  Hydrogenics has announced a 2 MW power-to-gas project in Ontario as a part of the 35 MW procurement.  Power-to-gas systems use surplus electricity and an electrolyzer to generate hydrogen for direct injection into the natural gas grid, or to generate hydrogen and then syngas for direct injection into the natural gas grid.  Ancillary benefits include using the electrolyzer for demand response (including frequency regulation).

In Navigant Research’s recent white paper, The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Industries: 10 Trends to Watch, one of the trends examined is power-to-gas.  Specifically, the white paper suggests that the power-to-gas concept will be proven in Europe.  In the near term, Navigant Research estimates a $100 million market for power-to-gas in Europe in 2015.  The European power-to-gas market is expected to grow to as much as 665 MW in 2018, representing $850 million in revenue, according to Navigant Research estimates.  This base scenario equates to 4% of the wind capacity to be installed in Europe that same year, with a total installed capacity by 2018 equivalent to 1.9% of the installed capacity of wind from 2014 to 2018.

Although North America has a smaller grid system and the advantage of cheap natural gas – which makes it difficult to make a business case for any alternative technology to gas turbines – there is clearly room for power-to-gas.  Hydrogenics intends to find out how much.


For Microgrids, It’s Not All About Size

— August 6, 2014

The University of Texas (UT) at Austin claims to have the largest microgrid in the world, with a peak load of 62 MW of capacity, serving 150 buildings.  The combined heat and power (CHP) plant that serves as the anchor is rated at 135 MW.

Leave it to Texas to make such a claim.  It’s not really accurate, but more importantly, it doesn’t really matter.  Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to microgrids.

On the one hand, economies of scale tend to reduce cost.  But microgrids turn that assumption on its head, since onsite distributed energy resources (DER) reduce the line losses associated with the centralized power plant model.  I tend to agree with Steve Pullins of Green Energy Corporation, who says that the sweet spot for microgrids that incorporate new state-of-the-art technologies such as solar PV, lithium ion batteries, and CHP is between 2 MW and 40 MW.

Define “Big”

About every 6 months or so, I get an email from Craig Harrison, developer of the Niobrara Data Center Energy Park, asking me, “Am I still the largest microgrid in the world?”  The Niobrara proposal, which has increased in size from 200 MW to 600 MW over time (with both a grid-tied and an off-grid configuration now part of the single project), is still in the conceptual phase (you can see elegant renderings of the project provided by CH2M Hill).  In this case, a unique confluence of natural gas supplies and regulatory quirks (which in essence render the project as its own utility) conspire to set the stage for what will probably be (and remain) the world’s largest microgrid.  It’s only a matter of time.

Navigant Research’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker 2Q14 shows that the largest operating microgrid, if measured by peak demand (and not generation capacity), could be Denmark’s Island of Bornholm, which is interconnected to the Nordic Power Pool.  With peak demand of around 67 MW, the advanced pilot project incorporates plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) and residential heat pumps, along with wind and CHP.

Like Military Intelligence

The microgrid at UT Austin is impressive, given that its origins date back to 1929 and it can provide 100% of the campus’ energy needs.  But it’s really an old school microgrid since it relies upon one source of electricity and thermal energy.  Robbins Air Force base in Georgia claims to have 163 MW of capacity, but it’s powered by large diesel generators, which are less desirable than CHP.  Much more interesting are microgrids that draw upon multiple distributed generation sources, incorporate advanced energy storage, and can sell energy services back to the utility.  The UT microgrid does none of these things.

In my view, a large microgrid is a contradiction in terms.  It’s much better to create multiple microgrids and then operate them at an enterprise level, creating redundancy via diversity of resources and scale, perhaps even mixing in AC and DC subsystems.  To me, a microgrid such as the Santa Rita Jail, which is only 3.6 MW in size but incorporates solar, wind, fuel cells, battery storage, and a host of state-of-the-art energy efficiency measures, is more interesting than the one in Austin.  When it comes to distributed energy, diversity trumps scale.


Unknowns Narrow for Tesla’s Gigafactory

— July 31, 2014

Tesla Motors announced today that it has started civil engineering work at a site in Nevada for the eventual construction of its Gigafactory – a battery-manufacturing plant that will produce 50 GWh of batteries a year.  Broadcast in a shareholder letter that accompanied Tesla’s quarterly earnings results, the announcement confirmed some rumors but was still extremely short on specifics.   A lot of uncertainties remain about how, where, and by when the Gigafactory will be built.

The first issue is site location.  Tesla has said in the past that it will build the factory in one of five states: California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas.  It has also said that it will begin development work on more than one site, choosing the eventual location from multiple contenders upon which initial civil engineering work has already been done.  Now we know that the Nevada site outside of Reno is one of those finalists.  Where is/are the other/s?  No word from Tesla on that, but it is pretty easy to identify the five top contenders.  That’s because the Gigafactory will need to be on a main rail line that connects with the company’s Fremont, California automobile factory.  It will also need to be near a large population center in one of those five states.  That leaves the following contenders:

  • Central Valley, California
  • Tucson, Arizona
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • El Paso, Texas
  • Austin/San Antonio, Texas

You can expect the second site to be in one of those areas.  There is still one potential curveball that might come  from Tesla – the possibility that the Gigafactory will be composed of multiple sites: maybe a separator factory in one state, an electrolyte factory in another locale, and a final assembly plant in another.

More to Come

The other piece of interesting information still to be determined is exactly how the Gigafactory will be structured.  No blueprint exists for how to design a factory that is owned by multiple parties: it’s a unique concept that has never been tried before.  One day earlier, Tesla said that Panasonic will definitely be the manufacturing partner for the Gigafactory.  Now the questions are how will the ownership of the site and its equipment be divided, and who will be the other component manufacturing partners? Expect a number of announcements on that end to come out over the next several months.  Among the potential other manufacturing partners that Navigant Research expects to be chosen are a cathode material supplier (such as Nippon Denko or Umicore), a graphite supplier (Northern Graphite, Alabama Graphite), an electrolyte manufacturer (Ube, Sumitomo, or Nichia), and a separator manufacturer (Celgard, Ube, or Toray).  Other materials needed for the batteries, such as lithium carbonate, copper foil, and aluminum casings, will probably be made offsite and delivered by rail.

The final questions are when the Gigafactory will go online and when it will reach full capacity.  Tesla has already said that it hopes that those dates will be 2017 and 2020, respectively, but exactly how the ramp rate works will be interesting to see.  Panasonic has clearly stated that it will invest in the equipment for the factory in a staggered, conservative fashion.  That could lead to a much slower build-up to full capacity than the 3 years that Tesla is claiming.  Regardless of the details of the how, when, and where of the facility, Navigant Research believes strongly that the Gigafactory will be built and will be a successful, potentially revolutionary, manufacturing venture.


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