How Do We Get to 100% Renewable Energy? Could be Storage, Storage, Storage

By Mike Jacobs with the Union of Concerned Scientists, 15 June 2017 

This post is a part of a series on Clean Energy Momentum

As communities, companies, and even entire Midwestern utility companies move to supply 100% of electricity needs from renewable energy, the question presents itself: is this even possible? The answer, it turns out, is yes—and it’s made possible by the technical capabilities of advanced energy technologies (and especially storage).

This is UCS, so let’s talk about how to get the hard stuff done. To replace conventional generation with renewables, eventually all the services from fossil-fuel power plants have to be supplied by adding wind, solar, smart consumer appliances and electric vehicles, and storage.  As renewable energy is added by businesses and utilities, here are 5 great building blocks for a future that is 100% renewable energy.

Hot water heated with solar energy is energy storage. credit: DIY Home Sweet Home

1. Solar is capable of so much more than energy

The utility industry has begun to recognize that new technologies available can provide the reliability functions they need. The adoption of digital controls on solar and wind systems, particularly the inverters, make reliability functions available and useful already, without storage.

The fastest changing parts of the power grid and thus the tool box of solutions are coming from solar—which has present deployments averaging over 10,000 MW per year—and the sudden return of interest and capital to utility-scale energy storage.

The California grid operator has taken the challenge posed by UCS to demonstrate that the solar farms being built today are capable of providing a range of “essential services.” See this summary of a field test where a solar farm demonstrated faster and more accurate performance than other generator types. Wind turbines have also demonstrated these capabilities.

2. Storage is becoming part of the power plant

New energy storage deployments demonstrate just how quickly we can overcome the limit that the sunset creates for solar. The trajectory of energy storage substituting for conventional generation can be traced from actual practices. Beyond the early or largest examples of non-battery energy storage recently illustrated in the New York Times, going forward, there is widespread and dramatic potential for the use of battery storage by businesses and hybrid power plants.

Battery storage added at a power plant, both conventional and renewables, can take on duties that were met by old generators. First seen in remote locations, battery storage paired with generation began in isolated grids in places like Hawaii and Chile where ancillary services from very small generator fleets were unavailable or constraining the grid operations. This helped establish the technical and commercial foundation for expansion to larger grids in the United States.

Recent energy storage deployments now demonstrate a turning point. Present state-of-the-art technology adoption includes manufacturer General Electric (GE) adding energy storage to improve the performance of its line of peaking plants.

With short duration storage now understood as providing ancillary and essential services, GE is delivering hybrid plants with storage and a gas turbine integrated in a system with a single set of controls. The GE hybrid system uses the storage to provide the reliability capabilities of the gas generator with instantaneous response, regardless of whether the unit is started and burning fuel when response is needed.

Switching to electric can include energy storage. credit: NRECA

3. Solar plus storage is getting cheap

Well before planning for large-scale grids that run on 100% renewable energy, long-duration storage is already being paired with variable renewable generation (solar now, look soon for wind), making it able to satisfy market, reliability, and regulatory requirements.

Last month, Tucson Electric Power announced a contract with major power plant company NextEra that should extend production from a large solar array for 4 hours, and operate with the technical capabilities of a conventional plant. The amazing power purchase agreement price, under $0.045/kWh over 20 years, should put everyone on notice that solar plus storage is a very serious competitor based on innovations and cost-reductions.

4. Storage can pay for itself

Batteries used at the customer’s home or business to supplement the grid can lower the need for utility plants. For example, customers with a demand charge can use energy storage (combined with solar or not) to reduce that charge.

This business model addresses the utility premise that a consumer demand charge reflects the need for utility plants. The regulators should note this charge has not been aligned to the utility’s system peaks, and more accurate matching of demand charges and system peaks will create a better regulatory outcome (i.e. lower costs for the utility and consumers) than current practice. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company advises battery storage changes the industry, and in more than a few ways.

5. The future is now

With the introduction of inverters and better energy storage, decision-makers are, for the first time, facing the reality that renewables and storage may be able to replace what’s currently used.

At present, grid operators are showing they can maintain reliability when renewable energy has reached 40-60% of electricity demand in particular hours. Competitive prices are driving more wind and solar every day. An energy future of 100% renewables can be seen as coming soon. With multiple business models for storage replacing conventional utility plant, we can see where this is headed.

Utility Dive

Report: Utility-scale solar prices drop below $1/watt for first time

By Robert Walton, 12 June 2017

  • Solar capacity additions are continuing to amass while the installed price-per-watt falls, according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) latest U.S. Solar Market Insight Report. According to the report, utility-scale solar systems were priced at an average of $.99 to $1.08/watt, a first in the industry.
  • According to the report, solar was the second largest source of new generating capacity additions brought on-line in the first quarter of this year, totaling 30%.
  • It was the sixth consecutive quarter in which more than 2 GW was installed—including more than 1 GW of utility-scale capacity.
 The future for solar energy remains strong, according to solar advocates, as costs decline and the resources make more economic sense.

The solar market clearly remains on a strong upward trajectory,” Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA’s president and CEO, said in a statement. She said the resource is “adding jobs 17 times faster than the U.S. economy and creating tens of billions of dollars in investment. With its cost-competitiveness, we know solar will continue to play a growing role in America’s energy portfolio.”

Source: Solar Market Insight Report 2017 Q2

Solar energy made up 30% of new capacity additions to come online in the first quarter—natural gas accounted for 41%, and wind was 27%.

In 2016, solar was the largest source of new capacity additions, largely due to a wave of installations amid uncertainty whether the federal investment tax credit would be extended. But rooftop solar will not witness the same explosive growth as seen in previous years. 

According to the SEIA report, this year “distributed solar is on track for a slowdown in growth across both residential and non-residential PV.” On the residential side, large national solar companies are slowing down signups to “pursue profitable sales channels at the expense of growth.”

The report also noted that “segment-wide customer acquisition challenges” are holding back growth, and California is expected to see a decline in added solar capacity this year, ending a decade of continuous growth.

12 states and Puerto Rico have become members of the U.S. Climate Alliance and remain committed to achieving existing CO2emission reduction goals. Officials from 10 states and the District of Columbia pledged to follow the Paris Agreement but have not formally joined the alliance. Across the country, 274 cities and counting have signed on to the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, which asserts their commitment to lowering emissions at the local level.

National Geographic by Michael Greshko, 8 June 2017
As the aftershocks of the Trump administration’s June 1 rejection of the Paris Agreement continue to rumble, groups across the United States have rebelled against the decision to withdraw from the the international climate pact.

States, cities, businesses, philanthropies, and universities have vowed to fill the void that the U.S. federal government makes if it departs from the accord or ignores its voluntary targets: a 26 to 28-percent reduction in the country’s carbon emissions by 2025, relative to 2005 levels, and further cuts thereafter.

Already, billionaire philanthropist and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to donate $15 million to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, in order to help fill any funding gaps created by the Trump administration’s departure.

The same day as Trump’s announcement, the states of New York, California, and Washington announced the formation of the United States Climate Alliance. The coalition aims to uphold U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement, and it also says it wants to meet or exceed the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era EPA rule on power plant emissions.

As of June 7, the U.S. Climate Alliance has amassed 12 states and Puerto Rico, collectively representing more than a hundred million Americans and a third of the U.S. GDP. One member state, Hawaii, passed a law on June 6 formally committing the state to the Paris Agreement. Jerry Brown, the governor of member state California, has positioned himself as the U.S.’s de facto climate leader, attending meetings on climate change with leading Chinese officials at a recent clean-energy conference.

Separately, U.S. states, state attorneys general, cities, businesses, and universities have banded together into a coalition called We Are Still In. The group, spearheaded by Bloomberg, has signatories from 125 cities, nine states, 183 colleges and universities, and 902 businesses. The group says that it represents 120 million Americans and $6.2 trillion in contributions to the U.S. economy.

In addition, 274 U.S. mayors representing 58 million Americans have signed onto a statement prepared by the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda (MNCAA) network to uphold the Paris Agreement, as of the evening of June 7, 2017.

If the U.S. follows through with its pledge to formally withdraw from the pact, which cannot happen formally until November 4, 2020, the country would join just two others—Syria and Nicaragua—as non-parties to the agreement. (Find out how withdrawing from Paris could isolate the U.S. from the world.)

Among the three countries, the U.S. would stand alone in withdrawing from the accord. The other two countries never joined: Nicaragua didn’t feel as though the Paris Agreement was ambitious enough, and a vicious civil war and international sanctions left Syria unable to attend the negotiations.

Michael Greshko writes online science news stories on everything from animal behavior to space and the environment.