Energy Storage is the Policy Epicenter of Energy Innovation

March 21, 2018 | 10:23 am
A darkened Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy of David Shankbone.
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

Right now, the reliability and economics of the electric power grid is changing. A major player in this change might be energy storage. Utilities have always known that storing electricity is valuable, but other than building dams to hold water, it wasn’t a real option. But battery advances—some from government-funded R&D for vehicles, some from laptops and cellphones—have opened a door.

How will utilities and regulators know what to do with battery energy storage?

When the utility industry has gradually seen enough research, testing, safety standards and performance assurances, then they will have the confidence to adopt this new technology. The common experiences with batteries for storing energy are not perfect. Think about your cellphone’s battery. But where a national interest is made into policies or funding, the needed gaps are getting attention.

Where is this happening?

China, India, Germany, Japan, UK, Canada and Australia all have dedicated policies and strategies to bring on the reliability and efficiencies of grid energy storage.

And in the US?

The US Department of Energy has run a small and effective R&D program that leverages the funding of states (Alaska, California, New York and Washington in particular), utilities, and private companies relying on the expertise and staff of national labs in Idaho, New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington. For a look at the budget of this effort, see my colleague’s blog.

Our national interest in security, quality of life and economy based on electricity, and the growth from technology innovation will all benefit from success in energy storage. However, federal funding has lagged far behind that of other countries, and our own needs.

Policy decisions supporting energy storage of many kinds, in many states. Courtesy Energy Storage Association.

To give just one example: the US has not funded the 2014 DOE recommendations for an Energy Storage Safety Strategic Plan.

Meanwhile, the states push policies

Through initial regulatory approvals or bigger plans, states actively supporting adoption of energy storage include Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, and Virginaa. (There may be more, given the widespread interest in grabbing this opportunity.)

So how far have we come?

Batteries for the grid are still exceedingly rare. The first time a utility company in the US added a battery to its grid was in the late 1980’s. Two demonstrations were built in 1987. One was built by the co-operative electric company based in Statesville, North Carolina, which accepted a test battery from Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey. The other, much larger, was installed by Southern California Edison east of Los Angeles.

For comparison, the first nuclear power plant for a utility company started running in 1957, 30 years earlier.  That plant was built from a core that was intended for a Navy ship, a reminder of the national security interest in energy technology innovation.

To shorten power blackouts, strengthen our military bases, reduce our electric bills, and reduce pollution from power plants, we need federal government program commitments that are up to the opportunity and the challenge posed by our international rivals.

About the author

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Mike Jacobs is leading the Union of Concerned Scientists’s work on electricity markets and regulatory reform. He develops proposals in an effort to shape federal, regional and state electricity markets, regulation and policies to encourage the expansion of renewable energy resources and the reduction of coal-fired generation.