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Next Five Years Crucial to Energy Storage

Energy storage is getting a bump in the president’s proposed 2013 budget. It’s an extra boost that the industry says that it needs to get out of the lab and into market. Just how far off is the concept whereby such stored power is released when the wind dies down or the sun doesn’t shine?

It’s here now. But some major hurdles are blocking wide scale deployment. Balancing the electricity load is difficult. Storage devices, if they can be shown to work at commercial scale, would be a huge boon to an industry that is trying to advance renewable power. It can help utilities avoid downtime and thereby save billions in lost opportunities while also allowing such companies to sell blocks of peak power at premium prices.

“The choice we face as a nation is simple: Do we want the clean energy technologies of tomorrow to be invented in America by American innovators, made by American workers and sold around the world, or do we want to concede those jobs to our competitors?  asks Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “We can and must compete for those jobs.”

The amount of money that would be allotted to clean energy, generally, would climb by 2.3 percent from the 2012 budget to the 2013 budget. The White House says that such an increase, albeit small, is still making a significant statement with respect to President Obama’s commitment to renewables and green technologies. 

Specifically, he is asking that $27 billion go toward all of the Energy Department's endeavors. Of that, $60 million would be targeted to researching and expanding the uses for energy storage systems. That’s on top of the $185 million provided to 16 separate storage projects via the 2009 stimulus plan.

A KEMA study is forecasting that if the technology is given the right financial incentives then 2-4 gigawatts of energy storage would be developed in five years. The study also says that the cost of the now-expensive storage will drop.

To reach the size and scale that is needed to cut prices, the Electricity Storage Association is advocating for tax and financial incentives like the investment or production tax credits given to wind and solar, which may not get renewed after this year. It also wants to see energy storage included in the Obama administration’s clean energy standards as well as renewable portfolio standards that are now set at the state level.

“The next five years will be critical and provide enormous opportunity to move storage technologies to full commercialization,” says Brad Roberts, executive director of the storage group. 

To be clear, storage devices come in many forms: The most prevalent ones today are batteries that link to the transmission grid where they siphon off power at night, and store it. It is then dispatched during the day when prices rise. Then there’s the fast-response flywheels, and a deviation of that called kinetic energy storage that is practical for short-term needs.

Beyond those tools, there's also compressed air energy storage that holds air underground and releases it in heated form to create electricity. And there’s the mature pumped hydro storage, whereby turbines push water into reservoirs at night and then let it go during the day when demand is highest.

The younger products are now relatively expensive and it is still unknown how they would operate in a commercial setting. If they are to be cost effective, they must be able to offer other services, say experts. Until then, the federal government will partner with private industry to help foster this sector.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory has applied for a grant from the Energy Department to, among other things, help get lithium ion batteries into hybrids and all-electric vehicles, as well as get them connected to solar cells and windmills.

“However, safety of the technology is still a concern, service life is not yet sufficient, and costs are too high,” the lab says, noting that its efforts would serve to break down those barriers.

In a talk with this reporter, Celgard President Mitch Pulwer said that the lithium ion technology is effective now. But he adds that governmental assistance is needed for the advanced battery industry to ratchet up production and enable a supply chain, all of which will help reduce prices for batteries -- a tool that also has powerful applications for the utility industry.

“The challenge with the grid is that the load is not uniform,” adds Gary Rackliffe, with ABB Inc., in an interview. “Energy storage balances those demands and addresses the issue of variability.”

Energy storage’s potential could be short-circuited unless the price of the technology starts to fall. The White House sees the possibilities, garnering the thanks of an industry that also wants parity with other clean tech investments.

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