The combination of increasingly inexpensive solar panels and lithium-based batteries is a powerful one. Look no further than the Solar Impulse 2, a completely solar-powered plane that can fly through the night on its batteries. Piloted by two Swiss explorers, Impulse 2 is attempting to fly around the world without a drop of fuel and it is already nearly halfway there.
While solar-powered air transport may still seem quite outlandish, we are already seeing how solar and storage may meet the energy needs of consumers and utilities.
It is hard to ignore just how far solar production has come in the last 10 years – just take a look at the Solar Energy Industries Association’s latest report on the solar market. In 2005, the United States installed roughly 80 MW of solar photovoltaics (PV). 5 years later, in 2010, falling costs increased PV installations 10 times over – for a total of ~ 850 MW. In 2015, PV installations are on track to hit 8100 MW this year – 100 times the amount installed in 2005 and nearly 10 times the 2010 amount!
New solar projects like the Poudre Valley’s 8 MW installation will actually decrease costs for consumers, in Poudre’s case costing consumers 15% less than base-load power, according to the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association. To get systems like these up and running, solar now employs more than 175,000 – more than tech giants Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter combined.
New solar projects like the Poudre Valley’s 8 MW installation will actually decrease costs for consumers, in Poudre’s case costing consumers 15% less than base-load power.
With 32% of new electrical generating capacity in 2014 coming from solar, and more than half of new capacity – 53% – generated by wind and solar, the need for energy storage when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, is greater than ever.
Energy storage is growing at a blistering pace. GTM Research expects storage to grow 250% in 2015, with over 220 megawatts of new storage deployed. Tesla’s new Powerwall gets much of the media attention with 38,000 reservations for its new battery. While tens of thousands of these new batteries will go to powering grid storage projects in Southern California, a multitude of other companies – storage startups like Coda and Stem,Korean giants LG, Samsung, and Sharp, and American industry leader AES – are already offering and installing storage solutions. Even Mercedes-Benz is selling energy storage!
Competition like this means that applications to fulfill California’s energy storage mandate are flooding in: one recent 74 MW project received over 5,000 MW in bids.
What does exponential growth of solar and storage mean for our grid? Already, it means that big customers, like hotels or manufacturers with peak demand charges, and residential customers in the most expensive markets, like Hawaii, are installing storage “behind the meter” to avoid demand charges and high retail rates.
For utilities, cheaper storage means rapidly available dispatchable capacity and frequency regulation “in front of the meter”. Batteries’ ability to provide these ancillary services has led Southern California Edison to announce it would install 250 MW of batteries to replacing aging gas peaker plants. In some cases, utilities are plugging batteries right into the aging shells of retired coal plants, like Duke Energy’s storage installation in Ohio, taking advantage of existing transmission lines running into the hulking old coal facilities.
In some cases, utilities are plugging batteries right into the aging shells of retired coal plants, taking advantage of existing transmission lines running into the hulking old coal facilities.
Perhaps most exciting, Texas utility Oncor, has proposed spending $5.2 billion on 3 to 5 gigawatts of storage to pair with economical wind and solar resources in Texas.
Solar-powered airplanes? Old coal plants housing new batteries? Utilities proposing massive amounts of storage paired with wind and solar? These – at least the latter two – are our new realities. All of a sudden the future of a renewable-dominated grid looks a whole lot brighter. Are we ready to embrace it?