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Energy storage policy evolving in California

I had an impromptu visit yesterday from Avtar Bining, program manager for energy storage at the California Energy Commission (CEC), which advises that state's executive branch on policy and planning.

Bining had noticed my interest in energy storage and informally filled me in on his work and current responsibilities at the CEC, as well as the CEC's priorities.

My recent columns on energy storage may be found at "Straight Talk On Energy Storage" and "Energy Storage Economics 101." 

In the big picture, the CEC is set to deliver a draft report this fall for Gov. Jerry Brown and stakeholders on near-term energy options and possible policy choices for California, which has become a crucible of sorts for these issues. The interest in California's process and policies is widespread, of course, because that state's challenges and solutions may well be coming soon to a theater near you.

Bining's piece of that report will be his latest CEC assignment, energy storage: the attributes of various media, their applications, proximity to commercialization, costs, etc.

Bining shared his own view, which may or may not be reflected in the upcoming report, that a "mix-and-match" approach—using energy storage where it is the best and most cost-effective solution—makes the most sense. He was careful to note that utilities, on the one hand, want to maintain the flexibility to determine the best and most cost-effective solutions, while vendors point out that mandates could produce economies of scale, lower costs and higher uptake.

In the policy realm, one cannot do everything for everyone, Bining noted, but he suggested that policies should provide at least something for everyone to attract consensus.

He said  that energy storage "has the potential to play a big role" in helping California achieve its 33 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2020—the quote actually is from his address to the Energy Storage Association's 21st annual meeting last month in San Jose. He also said at that meeting that a smart grid and energy storage have a "symbiotic relationship." And he connected the dots for his audience on how the CEC has become central to energy storage research, development and policy in the Golden State.

The CEC, launched in 1976, became the home for the Public Interest Energy Research (PIER), launched in 1998. PIER's mission is to "improve the quality of life in California by bringing environmentally safe, reliable and affordable energy services and products to the marketplace." Energy storage is one of PIER's six program areas and it has funded efforts at the proof of concept and field demonstration stages. PIER offers the equivalent of venture capital to early-stage projects with high-risk, high-return, as well as late-stage projects with low-risk, low-return prospects. It does not finance the journey across that technological graveyard known as the "Valley of Death."

That brings us to the CEC's and PIER's role in providing the cost-share for California's $1.3 billion share in 18 projects that attracted federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), of which perhaps one-third address energy storage.

One partner in these multi-faceted efforts is the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE), the prime contractor in assisting the CEC in developing its 2020 energy storage vision for the state. That effort's advisory committee includes the gamut of stakeholders, including the California Public Utility Commission, investor-owned and publicly owned utilities, the California Independent System Operator, the Energy Storage Association, the Electric Power Research Institute, the various national labs and others.

(We spoke with the CIEE's Merwin Brown, director of electric grid research, in "Integrating Renewables, Optimizing Transmission," and Sascha von Meier in "Smart Transmission: Which Way to Go?")

This approach may strike some as contrary to a free market model, but I see the glass half-full: the CEC, PIER and CIEE actually are working on behalf of the citizens of California, whose interests, priorities and needs would not otherwise be met.

Bining told me yesterday that early stakeholder participation, transparency and performance are the concepts governing the process of determining the best energy policy options for California. I look forward  to seeing the draft policy report this fall and Bining's report on the progress on those ARRA-funded  storage demos.

That's my view. What's yours?

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily





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