The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy recently convened a hearing titled Powering America: The Role of Energy Storage in the Nation’s Electricity System. The day’s hearing focused on the current state of energy storage systems operating across the country as well as challenges facing the further deployment of technologies designed to reduce strain on the electrical grid while meeting consumer demands for energy.
The opening statement of Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee, noted that this hearing was the 11th in a series of hearings held by the subcommittee over the past year focused on the nation’s electrical system. Upton noted that large-scale energy storage projects can help manage peak electricity leads and provide additional services like frequency control and black start capability for restarting grids after shutdown. Upton and others also discussed the critical role energy storage systems can play in areas affected by natural weather disasters, especially Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and areas of Texas which were heavily affected during the 2017 hurricane season.
Last year’s hurricane season did showcase some of the benefits of energy storage systems in heavily affected areas. Panel witness Kiran Kumaraswamy, market applications director for energy storage firm Fluence, noted that two energy storage projects installed by Fluence in the Dominican Republic operated as intended to help keep electrical grids operational during Hurricanes Irma and Maria. “Both of these energy storage arrays that we deployed responded as intended and helped to keep the grid operating through the storm, even with nearly 40 to 45 percent of the Dominican Republic’s generation assets that were forced to shut down during Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria,” Kumaraswamy said.
Although this hearing took place in DC, it was pretty clear throughout that state-level policies were having the greatest effect on the adoption of energy storage technologies across the United States. Dr. Keith Casey, vice president of market and infrastructure development for California ISO, cited California’s aggressive goal to decarbonize its electrical grid as a main reason why the state had pulled ahead of others in terms of energy storage capabilities. “I think this is very much a matter of state policy,” Casey said. “If you have a state policy where you’re focused on decarbonizing the grid and incorporating the cost, when it comes to planning, of the environmental cost of emissions, then when you look at it from that scope, adding battery storage to replace an existing power plant can make sense from an economic standpoint.” This was a viewpoint, however, that was met skeptically by Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX), vice chairman of the full House Energy Committee. “I’m not against battery storage, don’t misunderstand,” Barton said. “But I’m a little bit skeptical if we’re doing this simply because we don’t like natural gas power, we don’t like coal power, and we don’t like nuclear power, because that would be an added cost that somebody’s got to bear, is that correct? It may be socially, politically viable, but it’s not economically the best decision.”
At the federal level, a couple of rule orders issued in recent months by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) were discussed by panelists and subcommittee members alike as supporting increased adoption of energy storage and battery technologies. This includes FERC Order 841, which orders regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs) to facilitate the participation of energy storage applications in their markets by establishing a minimum size requirement for such resources and giving those resource providers the ability to set wholesale prices as both a buyer and a seller. Although Order 841 had yet to be finalized by FERC, the order was lauded during the hearing as a big step towards enabling market participating for energy storage technologies. FERC Order 845, which amends formal procedures and agreements for large generator interconnections for more widespread incorporation of energy storage in electrical grids, was another recent federal regulatory action which was seen as positive for electrical storage adoption.
The day’s hearing also looked at ways that electrical energy storage can improve the reliability of the grid, especially in regards to addressing the energy needs of rural American communities. Responding to a question on rural electric reliability posed by Congressman Billy Long (R-MO), Dr. Zachary Kuznar, director of CHP microgrid and energy storage development for Duke Energy Corporation, discussed a recently approved project in rural Indiana as a perfect example of how energy storage can improve the reliability of rural electrical systems. “What we’re actually doing is we’re going to put a battery storage device out there which, during a grid outage, will provide backup power to that community, give the crews enough time to fix the major outage and get them back up,” Kuznar said. Mark Frigo, the vice president and head of energy storage at E.ON North America, noted that reliability in rural electrical grids is a big concern as these communities often sit at the end of large radial distribution lines. “If you put energy storage towards the end of that radial line, it helps stabilize the grid so when you have extreme weather events, it improves the reliability so that it lowers the probability of the grid actually collapsing in those areas,” Frigo said.
Electrical grid reliability is not an issue that only faces rural communities, however, a point which was made pretty clear by Congressman Pete Olson (R-TX). He noted that extreme energy demands created by a long string of 100°F days in his home state of Texas had been setting records for peak electricity demand in July, topping 70 gigawatts of peak demand from the state’s electrical grid operator. “Every air conditioner in Texas is cranking right now hard,” Olson said. “Reliability might be a hypothetical at times but right now at home, it’s as real as it gets. If the power goes out, that affects people on the extremes: the extreme young, the extremely old, and the extremely sick. It is life-threatening to them if the power goes out.”
The potential for energy storage technologies to improve the reliability of renewable energy sources such as wind or solar was also a topic of much discussion during the subcommittee hearing. “The one knock on renewables has always been, ‘What happens when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? What’s going to happen to that power?” Upton said. He noted that his home state of Michigan had passed bipartisan legislation to create a 15 percent standard for renewable energy use. By the 2040 or 2045 time range, however, Upton said that there were indicates that the state’s renewable energy standard could increase to as much as 45 percent of electricity used by state residents. “To get to that point, obviously we need storage,” he said.
Interestingly, developments in battery technologies for electric vehicles (EVs) were cited as an area of innovation which was helping to drive down the overall costs of energy storage manufacturing. This was a point brought up by Frigo during questioning. “In fact, the batteries that we’re currently using for grid solutions are actually being manufactured in the same facilities as electric vehicles,” he said. “So as electric vehicles go forward and expanded manufacturing capacity is made for them, we’ll see lower costs on the electric side as well.”