Energy Storage
California’s Power Grid Is Running on Batteries

When a natural gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, California sprung a leak in 2015, it was seen by most as an environmental disaster. After all, it released massive quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. But it was also calamitous to California’s energy security, and it prompted utilities in the state to contract companies—Tesla notable among them—to create a number of ad-hoc energy storage options. Now, as Bloomberg reports, those oversized battery packs are ready to go live:

Three massive battery storage plants—built by Tesla, AES Corp., and Altagas Ltd.—are all officially going live in southern California at about the same time. Any one of these projects would have been the largest battery storage facility ever built. Combined, they amount to 15 percent of the battery storage installed planet-wide last year.

These new facilities will help store electricity during times of the day when supply surges, and will release that power back to the grid when demand spikes. It’s an especially necessary complement to renewable technologies like wind and solar power, whose intermittent nature can wreak havoc on grid stability and make the task of matching supply with demand especially difficult. California’s reliance on solar farms for power makes these storage facilities especially important.

As much common sense as energy storage makes, it has thus far remained a niche technology thanks to its high cost. In California’s case, however, these batteries may in fact make economic sense when compared to the state’s limited alternatives. The New York Times reports:

[Battery storage’s] price can be comparable to that of the natural gas plants known as peakers, which can ramp up and down quickly to handle spikes in demand, utility executives say. Neither they nor Tesla executives would disclose the price of the project, but it was particularly appealing because Southern California is constrained by geography and strict environmental regulations in building power plants.

Given the cost of land and the air quality requirements that limit the number of hours plants can operate, Mr. Nichols of Southern California Edison said, building natural gas plants can be expensive.

We should note that these new storage facilities are not evidence that battery technology has progressed to the point where it is cost-effective to deploy it at a commercial scale. California’s questionable energy source curation—its shuttering of nuclear power plants and aggressive pursuit of unreliable renewables—has made it especially vulnerable to blackouts. The state’s regulatory environment and expensive real estate costs have made the list of potential solutions to these blackouts short and fraught with problems.

The Golden State is desperate, and in its desperation it is providing other polities with proof of concept that battery storage facilities can help grid operators, and more importantly that they can be deployed quickly. California is not proving that this can be done cheaply, though. Nonetheless, this is a milestone worth marking.

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