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Green-Energy Storage: 'The Next Big Thing'

For California to reach its ambitious climate-change goals, it must figure out how to deliver electricity when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.

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Skinner, for her part, was encouraged by the CPUC's opening volley. "I've been very, very pleased that Commissioner Peterman has proposed targets," she said in an interview. "Part of the purpose of my bill was to send that market signal, and then as the market responds, to then have appropriate targets so that we can as a state, help ensure the reliability of our grid. ... We often have to get ... a little ahead of the curve to make sure that we properly incentivize the technologies."

Her support for storage isn't all about renewables, either. She said she'd like to see utility-scale storage displace the need for new natural gas "peaker plants," which are expensive to operate, as well as dirtier and less efficient than traditional gas plants. Most are designed to operate just a few times per year, and are used only to generate emergency power when demand spikes during summer heat waves.

Peterman shares Skinner's view on storage, and has made no secret of her support for government intervention in renewable-energy markets; her research at Cal addresses the impact of public policy on reducing photovoltaic costs. "There's been a growing appreciation that as you introduce renewables, you have to introduce other technologies that can keep energy at a constant flow," she said. "Storing energy allows us to use it at higher-value times without creating the other air emissions you would have from burning fossil fuels. The technologies are emerging, so they are high-cost. But they are also high-benefit."


East Bay startup Primus Power is banking on energy storage — and batteries in particular — being the way of the future, mandate or no. The 25-employee company, established in Alameda in 2009, is now fine-tuning its first generation of commercial batteries and has secured contracts to ship its very first units up and down the West Coast starting next year. To date the company has received $17 million in grants from the California Energy Commission and the US Department of Energy, in addition to at least $15 million in private financing.

At Primus' 16,000-square-foot lab in Hayward (where the company moved from Alameda in 2010), director of product management Andrew Marshall showed off the company's key product, an "EnergyPod" that includes a group of twenty-kilowatt batteries arranged inside a standard twenty-foot shipping container in two rows of seven, with a narrow aisle down the middle. This container-based system, designed for portability and easy scalability, is popular among other utility-scale battery manufacturers.

What's different is the batteries themselves — though it's still early enough in the storage game that many applications remain technology-agnostic. Primus Power's batteries, which contain thirteen patented technologies (Marshall says the company has filed for another sixteen patents), can store energy for up to four hours using a "flow battery" system in which an electrolyte solution (in this case zinc bromide) is passed through an electrochemical cell to charge and discharge electricity.

In standard configuration, eight 250-kilowatt EnergyPods will be paired with one "power box" — a set of inverters, connections, and other components required for grid integration — producing a single unit with a total storage capacity of 2 megawatts of energy.

Starting next year, 112 of Primus' pods are headed to the Modesto Irrigation District to store and regulate the energy output of the small utility's new 25-megawatt solar-panel system, which was completed late last year. Two pods are also going to Puget Sound Energy, a utility serving a large swath of the Pacific Northwest, as part of a project to evaluate the role of storage in balancing the output of various large wind farms in the region. And one pod will ship to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, which is building a small, independent, storage-dependent "microgrid" to ensure energy stability on the base, which experienced a disruptive blackout in September 2011.

"It's all around making the grid cheaper, cleaner, and more flexible," said Primus Power CEO Tom Stepien. "All the macro trends are pointing to storage. It's a question of when, not if, for sure. ... As the cost of these units come down, we'll find more and more ways to use them.

"It's early," he allowed, "but everything is pointed in the right direction."


In California, momentum is building fast for green-energy storage. This week, San Jose welcomes the Energy Storage North America 2013 conference (September 10-12) and it's expected to host as many as five hundred attendees and seventy speakers from countries including Italy, Africa, and Japan, said Berkeley resident Janice Lin, executive director of the California Energy Storage Alliance, which will co-organizing the conference. Commissioner Peterman will be a keynote speaker.

Then, in mid-October, San Diego will host the Electrical Energy Storage Applications and Technologies 2013 conference, organized by the Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Electricity Storage Association, a trade association founded in 1991 to promote energy storage systems worldwide.

San Diego is pursuing storage more aggressively than perhaps any other city in the state. Earlier this summer, the CPUC authorized San Diego Gas & Electric to spend $26 million (it had originally applied for $55 million) on research, development, and demonstration of energy storage projects — a first for utilities in the state.

Residential rooftop solar penetration is as high as 50 percent in some San Diego-area neighborhoods, said Lee Krevat, Smart Grid Director for SDG&E, and total concentration across the utility's territory is likely unsurpassed statewide.

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