By 2021, electricity use in the west Los Angeles area may be in for a climate change-fighting evolution.
The politics for this to happen are now in place because California’s Public Utilities Commission set a target requiring utilities to build their capacity to store energy, to use more renewable energy and to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. The economics are there, too, because the local utility, Southern California Edison Co., picked the designer of the battery, AES Corp., an Arlington, Va., company, against 1,800 other offers to replace the peaker.
It was the first time an energy storage device had won a competition against a conventional power plant.
And the technology seems mature. AES has spent nine years working with manufacturers of electric-car batteries. It has learned how to assemble and control ever-bigger constellations of these lithium-ion batteries. The Long Beach facility, when it is completed, will have 18,000 battery modules, each the size of the power plant of the Nissan Leaf.
The mega-battery won’t be up and running for five years, and Southern California needs more energy storage capacity yesterday. Officials warn that this summer, the region could face as many as 14 days of scheduled blackouts because of a huge leak earlier this year at the Porter Ranch natural gas storage facility. While the leak has stopped, the facility—which feeds fuel to 17 Los Angeles-area power plants—may not be fully recovered and tested for months.
Meanwhile, other utilities are suddenly feeling the need to store substantial quantities of electricity. The United Kingdom is shopping for energy storage systems to be installed around London, and New York state, Hawaii and Chile are looking at energy storage as an alternative to building more expensive power plants.
What’s driving this scenario is a growing abundance of cheap solar and wind power and entrepreneurs looking for ways to store and sell more of it. Meanwhile, power projections of older coal- and gas-fired power plants are leading owners to shut more down, leaving more gaps in electricity distribution systems because they will no longer be able to compete with cheaper solar and wind power.
Car companies such as Tesla Motors Inc. are also offering big home batteries, close cousins of their car batteries, to store more renewable energy in homes. There are also “smart” appliances, such as dishwashers, water heaters, thermostats and refrigerators, coming into the market that are equipped to communicate with utilities to minimize electricity use during peak periods when electricity is most expensive.
Noting that the current power grid is not designed to handle big two-way power and communication flows, he suggests that more renewable energy will be beneficial and politically unstoppable.
So far, most utilities have finessed the issue of accumulating solar power by allowing homeowners with solar arrays to sell some of their power back to the grid, a practice called net metering.
Big, grid-sized batteries can run into the millions of dollars, but the damages from blackouts and power surges caused by wildly fluctuating voltages can easily run into the billions.
At the moment, utilities are just beginning to use pilot projects to explore how bigger batteries might help them use the nation’s increasingly congested electric highway.
Fittingly, most of these pilots explore the storage uses of lithium-ion batteries. They were invented in the United States and languished for years until Sony Corp., the Japanese electronics company, commercialized them to power tiny machines like video cameras and cassette players.
Soon, they were bringing more power and longer life to cellphones, power tools and model airplanes. And these led to more ambitious commercial experiments. In 2006, Tesla put 6,800 lithium-ion model airplane batteries under the hood of a kit-built roadster. That led to Tesla’s first car, the sporty Tzero, and a small but accelerating movement in the auto industry toward the plug-in electric vehicle.
AES, the Arlington, Va., company that is designing the 100 MW battery to store power for the western region of Los Angeles, was the first to take the next and probably the most ambitious and expensive leap by bringing lithium-ion car batteries to power one of the world’s biggest machines: the North American power grid.
For reference, the output of 100 MW is roughly a tenth of the power delivered by a modern nuclear power plant.
The parent company owns and operates power plants in 17 countries around the world. It has the money, the expertise and the ambition to create new businesses. One of the partners in this project was A123 Systems LLC, a Waltham, Mass., developer and manufacturer of advanced lithium-ion car and bus batteries.
In 2010, a caravan of AES trucks hauled a line of 53-foot shipping containers up Laurel Mountain in West Virginia. Blazoned with labels saying “Smart. Power. Delivered,” the containers carried 320 A123 electric vehicle batteries. They were parked in parallel rows near a wind farm, whose 61 turbines were generating electricity near the windy hilltop.
More trucks arrived, pulling shorter shipping containers. They contained the transformers, inverters and other control equipment needed to connect the batteries to power lines leading from the wind farm. Other containers had the air conditioning equipment to keep the growing maze of big batteries from overheating. Finally, a master control system was added.
What looked like a wire-strewn commercial parking lot was connected to a substation of what was then Allegheny Power, one of the utilities involved in the massive PJM Interconnection LLC, a regional transmission organization whose lines feed wholesale electricity to 13 states in the eastern United States.
Before 2011, when this giant, outdoor battery was turned on, PJM had run out of pump storage to control the growth of wind power, which accumulates most quickly at night. In some areas, PJM was forced to pay utilities to take wind power to keep its frequency of power delivery balanced. On that point, the grid is very demanding. The frequency of oscillations in its alternating current must be pegged at a measure defined as 60 hertz.
If the current goes above that, the switches protecting expensive power equipment from overloads begin to shut down the system. “If it goes too low, you can start to cause systematic failures that lead to brownouts and other things,” said Zahurancik.
What the Laurel Mountain project was designed to do is called “frequency regulation.” The wind power stored in the batteries feeds more juice onto the grid when power demands increase. When there is too much electricity coming into the system, its batteries suck more into storage. It can make these adjustments in a second, thus saving the excess power to sell at higher prices the next day. It was good for the grid, good for expanding markets for renewable energy and good for the innovator. It led to bigger jobs for AES, including the Los Angeles project.