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Debate over the 'holy grail'

As we noted this past week, finding the "holy grail" is just the first step. Learning how to use it, value it and de-mystify it is another step. A big one. Especially when the so-called "holy grail" is energy storage, which has a variety of applications, each valued differently, with impacts on electricity markets and with alternative technologies serving similar roles. And no well-defined place in the regulatory structure.

We offered two columns this week on a staff proposal at the California Public Utilities Commission on how to approach this thorny subject and we received some feedback, most of it thoughtful. We'll bring those comments to the fore today. Synopses are unwieldy things, so I'd refer you to the original articles, "California's Energy Storage Policies" and "Energy Storage and the Barriers to Adoption."

First, one reader returned to the fundamental premise of fossil fuels vs. renewable resources, declaring that endless quantities of "inexpensive" fossil fuels precludes the need for renewables. This view, of course, simply shrinks in the face of a challenge. It does not include consideration of the subsidies currently dedicated to fossil fuels, nor their massive environmental costs, which if included in the cost of "cheap" coal and natural gas, would fundamentally change their economics. Nor, of course, does this argument address the finite nature of fossil fuels or the increased costs as recovery becomes ever-more difficult. Further, this view doesn't make any allowance for U.S. competitiveness in the global race for clean energy, which clearly will dominate 21st century global competition. Sustainability doesn't appear anywhere in this world view. But this view has a large constituency that depends on ignoring these factors. And the simplicity of an argument made without taking any of these factors into account is very appealing. To wit:

"The technology for storage on a cheap, large-scale basis simply isn't there," our anonymous correspondent wrote. "If it was, utilities would implement it. There would be no need for a government mandate. The same can be said for using renewables. In most cases they aren't the cheapest or the most reliable solution, and bring their own problems.

"The hard truth staring everybody in the face is that today the cheapest and most efficient form of energy storage is fossil fuel," our correspondent continued. "Given that we keep finding more and more of them, especially in forms that are excellent for power generation, it's silly to force expensive alternatives on society. One day we are going to stress energy production to the point that we will find ourselves with a third-world power generation system, unable to provide power with the 99.99 percent reliability that a first-world economy needs."

Just mine, transport and burn more coal and pay no attention to the resulting devastation of communities, the emissions that kill thousands each year or the millions of gallons of untreated toxic waste from hydro fracking that wind up in our water sources, perhaps? And be sure to place responsibility for promoting sustainable, renewable energy—fighting, naturally, either for a level playing field where no one gets subsidies or for its share in a world riddled with subsidies—in the hands of "the government"—the universal bogie man—rather than in the hands of the people who use the government to reflect their values. But I have to applaud the rhetorical use of the phrase "the hard truth" to bolster one's argument, as if adding that phrase somehow precludes any other point of view. I believe I'll tuck that one into my own rhetorical toolbox. On a factual basis, would anyone complaining about federal subsidies for renewable energy care to review the history of, say, the fossil fuel industry? I'd suggest that would yield its own trove of truths that would undercut those with short memories.

Well, I certainly don't have any opinions on the matter .

Then we had comments from the thermal energy storage sector, which certainly deserves a fresh look as we've focused on batteries of late.

"While all parties involved are posturing for position in California and storage happens at a snail's pace, proven technologies and regional independent system operators like PJM and ERCOT are moving forward with programs that reward storage customers for participation," wrote P. Valenta. "Many of those storage customers use proven affordable thermal energy storage (TES).

"According to a March 2012 KEMA energy storage study for the copper industry, thermal energy storage has over 1GW of installed capacity in the U.S. That is twice as much as pumped hydro and more than all other energy storage technologies combined. The prediction is that that pattern of growth will continue because of the new control technologies available to TES operators. TES is affordable today.

"While TES is a seasonal storage solution in most areas of the country and it may not be the total solution that California is looking for, TES provides the biggest benefit when the California  grid has the most difficulty—summertime. A total solution will require all forms of storage to provide the grid reliability needed when moving away from dispatchable fossil fuels to intermittent renewable energy. While I understand the slow pace for a total solution, a separate program for distributed thermal energy storage could get the storage movement started with minimal investment."

Of course, the discussion suffers from disagreements over the facts in the case, as evidenced by another forum posting.

"Pumped storage in California alone amounts to more than 3 GW," wrote contributor Jack Ellis. "Nationwide I think the amount is well into the double digits of GW.

"I'd love to see more thermal storage, but unless it's cost-competitive with peaking plants, it's just too expensive. Even if its capital costs are comparable to a peaking plant, only the most efficient technologies are competitive on an operating cost basis. The bottom line, though, is that thermal storage would be readily adopted if it made economic sense. Since it doesn't make economic sense without sizable out-of-market payments, either it's still too expensive or market conditions don't make sense. As a long-time observer of the electricity industry in California, I suspect both cost and poor market conditions are responsible for the slow uptake of thermal storage."

My "takeaway"? The work begins with that elusive "single version of the truth" where facts are agreed upon. Of course, that's easier when it comes to, say, gravity, versus, say, global warming. The more complex and intangible the facts, the greater the debate.

But the more interesting discussion is around the viability of arguments that focus solely on snapshots of current practices and prices in contrast to the direction that a given service territory or our nation as a whole ought to move in. Add to that contrast the self-preservation of entrenched interests and the notion that we can simply remain static and endlessly repeat what we did today into the future and you have a real debate.

No doubt, preparing for the future costs money. Typically, all new technologies are more expensive at the outset and you don't achieve savings without scale. And because "the government" doesn't always execute well on the will of the people (distorted, as it is, by vast sums of money that fuel influence peddling), we have a real wrestling match on our hands.

In my view, you can look backwards and say things are good enough or you can look forward and say things could be better. I believe readers know which side I'm on.

Not that that resolves any issues around energy storage in California.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily



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