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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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  • CaliforniaStark

    What the article failed to mention was the small size of the Tesla project: From the New York Times article:

    “The installation, capable of powering roughly 15,000 homes over four hours, is part of an emergency response to projected energy shortages stemming from a huge leak at a natural gas storage facility.”

    The San Onofre nuclear plant powered 1.4 million homes, 24/7; Tesla batteries will power 15,000 homes for four hours? Also is there a reason the cost of the Tesla plant is not being made public? The AES plant is stated to be only 1/3 larger than the Tesla battery plant, and will not be built until 2021. There is no information on the third plan, but assume it is about the same. So we are looking at three battery plants, working for a limited period of time, that may power 50,000-60,000 homes (compared to 1.4 million homes that were powered by San Onofre).

    By the way, solar usually produces electricity for about an eight hour window (if there is no cloud cover). According to the article, the batteries last for four hours. What powers the remaining 12 hours? Looks like the choice is a natural gas peaker plant or candles.

    • CaliforniaStark

      Here is what life would be like in California without nuclear power and natural gas:

    • Disappeared4x

      The point of the NYT article was to further demonize methane? No more funny commercials with (methane-emitting) cows from California? Perhaps the battery-storage is meant to, at minimum, keep cell towers, emergency responders working.

      California Candles? Zero paraffin from hydrocarbons, candles must be made from GMO-free plant-based wax. Candles must be smoke-free.

      Residents encouraged to do yoga by the moonlight.

      One wonders how this turns out…

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The above journalists apparently aren’t aware that energy is fungible (interchangeable) between water, power and fuel. Fuel (hydropower impounded behind a dam, underground natural gas storage reservoirs, nuclear material undergoing fission in a reactor) can be stored much cheaper and have greater capacity than an infinitesimal few electrons that are wasting in an inefficient and enormously costly battery. You can store fuel “in front of the meter” or electrons in inefficient batteries “behind the meter”, to use the parlance of the energy industry.

    The Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Reservoir is a battery of sorts, just as is a pump-back hydropower system. The fuel is just stored very close to the urban end users before it is used to produce electricity.

    As pointed out below by Gail Tverberg, a mathematician, financial actuary and energy analyst, California would need to double or triple the amount of natural gas production to store electricity in batteries in any significant way. It is suggested the writers consult non-partisan energy consultants not in the renewable energy business before attempting to write such delusional nonsense that California’s substitution of massive battery plants with a tiny, tiny output for a short moment in time, is somehow a milestone to be marked and that a shift to “renewable energy” and battery storage is somehow on the right side of history.

    “THE ‘WIND AND SOLAR’ WILL SAVE US’ DELUSION” by Gail Tverberg (mathematical actuary and energy analyst)


    “If we want heat in the winter, and we are trying to use solar and wind, we need to somehow figure out a way to store electricity from summer to winter. Otherwise, we need to operate a double system at high cost.

    “Energy storage for electricity is often discussed, but this is generally with the idea of storing relatively small amounts of electricity, for relatively short periods, such as a few hours or few days. If our real need is to store electricity from summer to winter, this will not be nearly long enough.

    In theory, it would be possible to GREATLY OVERBUILD the wind and solar system relative to summer electricity needs, and then build a huge amount of batteries in order to store electricity created during the summer for use in the winter. This approach would no doubt be very expensive. There would likely be CONSIDERABLE ENERGY LOSS IN THE STORED BATTERIES, besides the cost of the batteries themselves. We would also run the risk of exhausting resources needed for solar panels, wind turbines, and/or batteries….

    …In my opinion, the time has come to move away from believing that everything that is called “renewable” is helpful to the system. We now have real information on how expensive wind and solar are, when indirect costs are included. Unfortunately, in the real world, high-cost is ultimately a deal killer, because wages don’t rise at the same time. We need to understand where we really are, not live in a fairy tale world produced by politicians who would like us to believe that the situation is under control.”

    Note: The commenter was involved in the 2001 California Energy Crisis on a task force for one of the state’s largest water utilities.

    • Fat_Man

      Thanks for that.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        You’re welcome.

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