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Storage Front and Center

The federal government has carefully targeted energy storage as a technological game-changer worthy of its support. We talked about those efforts with Mark A. Johnson, head of the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage program. His edited comments:

ENERGYBIZ: What are some of the most important accomplishments ARPA-E has promoted when it comes to energy storage technology?

Johnson: What we’re doing is really transformational. Where ARPA-E winds up sitting in terms of development is very use-inspired, problem-statement-driven R&D. We try and fund things that are really limited by technical risk at this point. If you can overcome that risk, it might provide a new pathway for developing a technology and the private sector can run with it. We’ve worked on everything from new battery chemistries to what is called the flow battery, a cross between a fuel cell and a battery, and a new way of compressing air called isothermal compression to do a compressed air storage technology. We’re also supporting things like storing energy in electromagnetic coils, so you get superconducting electromagnetic storage, and flywheel technology.

ENERGYBIZ: Where would you say we are right now with energy storage? How long before it really becomes a major player in the energy sector?

Johnson: I would say it is an area of extreme urgency for the department, but there is no one answer. It’s like asking when was the Internet ready for deployment? There were different things that wound up coming along. We have some early-stage battery technology, like lithium-ion batteries, and they’re coming down the cost curve. Using batteries in grid stabilization and in community energy storage applications, we’re right at a tipping point where if we really focus the next year or two, those technologies can go from grid-level demonstrations to actually being much more ubiquitous.

ENERGYBIZ: What will our grid look like in five or 10 years?

Johnson: You’ve got a change in the fuel mix that’s going on. There’s a great upturn in the amount of available natural gas in the United States that certainly is going to wind up affecting how the grid generates electricity. One-third of the new generating plants are wind. This is changing how the grid needs to be operated and managed. We’re looking at more two-way communications across the grid and much more deployment of storage in unique locations like down at the distribution grid, which provides stability close to the end customer. Where there are big transmission congestion issues is where you’ll also deploy storage. And then there are off-grid applications, where the value of storage is the greatest.

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