Energy Storage Should Be an Urgent National Priority

July 27, 2018 | 1:12 pm
Photo: UCS
Rob Cowin
Former Contributor

Imagine if the US had these three things: access to unlimited electricity from clean sources everywhere in the country, an electricity grid impervious to outages and electricity prices that were even cheaper than they are today.  These aspirations can become reality with advancements in energy storage.

This technology was developed right here in the good ole’ US of A, but unfortunately, the US is now falling behind other countries in this increasingly lucrative global market, and our outdated electric grid is growing more vulnerable to increasing threats like cyber-attacks and extreme weather.  So how do we regain our leadership in this critical technology, and how can we increase the development and deployment of energy storage here at home?  The answer is innovation.

What are the experts in the field saying?

Back in March, with the help of the Bipartisan House Advanced Energy Storage Caucus, UCS convened twenty-one experts on energy storage research, development and demonstration from around the country.  The goal was to develop recommendations for congress on how the federal government could best support innovation in this game-changing technology.  Our new policy brief, “Federal Support for Electricity Storage Solutions: State Perspectives on Research Development and Demonstration”, synthesizes the convening dialogue and includes a brief analysis of the applications and benefits of energy storage.  It also identifies and prioritizes the most important research questions and breakthroughs needed to advance the technology.  The brief highlights important ongoing work on energy storage across the federal government.  And most importantly, it contains recommendations for policy-makers on how the federal government can best foster and support innovation in energy storage.

We wanted to hear diverse perspectives, so we included a broad cross section of technical experts from different states and regions, including university professors, start-ups, the national labs, small rural electric co-ops and big utility representation, conservative political voices, the defense community, former state and federal officials, and financial analysts.

Three important points of unanimous agreement at the outset of the convening:  1) Energy storage RD&D across the federal government is underfunded relative to the strategic importance of innovation in this technology.  2) “The U.S. is no longer the global leader in energy storage technology.”  3) The private sector is not making the needed investments in energy storage RD&D to achieve transformational change.  Specific, strategic efforts are needed by the federal government to advance the technology.

The fiscal year 2019 “Minibus” is an opportunity

When congress returns from August recess, and the “minibus” conference committee resumes consideration of the fiscal year 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, they can provide a big boost to our energy security and our economy by increasing our federal commitment to research, development and demonstration of energy storage.  At present, we are only spending $41 million in fiscal year 2018 on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) flagship Energy Storage Program at the Office of Electricity (OE).  We are not going to out-innovate China and South Korea with that kind of insufficient federal investment.  For context, DOE is spending $1.2 billion in FY18 on nuclear energy RD&D.

The FY19 House bill surprisingly increases appropriations for OE’s energy storage program by $10 million, indeed a modest, but much needed increase, whereas the Senate bill keeps funding at FY18 levels.  OE’s Energy Storage Program partners with industry, utilities, and state energy organizations to advance multiple storage technologies, improve performance, and reduce costs, and has a strong track record.  This program focuses on research questions ranging from the applied early stage, to pre-commercialization and demonstration projects.  Minibus conferees should support the House funding levels for this program.

Another important DOE program for energy storage RD&D is the Advanced Research Projects Agency -Energy (ARPA-E), which has invested between 10 and 15 percent of its funding in energy storage projects over the last several years.    The Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) pioneers transformational energy projects that represent high-risk but potentially game-changing technologies and provides effective technology-to-market advice to the best performers. For storage, ARPA-E takes this transformational approach to new chemistries, controller technologies, long-duration components, and cost reduction.

The FY19 House Energy and Water Appropriations bill cuts ARPA-E’s funding by 8 percent, but the Senate bill increases funding by 6%.  Minibus conferees should take this opportunity to come together on this nonpartisan issue and do what’s best for the country by supporting the Senate funding levels for ARPA-E.  The US must continue to innovate and lead in the energy technologies of the future.

We all want the US to be the country selling batteries instead of buying batteries in the 21st century.  Increasing federal funding for energy storage research development and demonstration will pay big dividends for our economy and national security, while helping to make the US electricity grid cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable.  We’re not doing enough; we’ve got to do more.  Let’s hope congress seizes the opportunity in the FY19 budget.