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California, New Mexico Commercial, Industrial Companies Turn to On-Site Solar-plus-Storage for Energy Cost Savings, Reliability and Environmental Benefits

image credit: *Courtesy NantEnergy

Solar-plus-storage tech and project development specialist NantEnergy has built up quite a bit of market momentum in the wake of acquiring Sharp Electronics' business unit last fall. The Scottsdale, Arizona-based company has signed contracts to deploy its SmartStorage systems for 12 U.S. commercial-industrial (C&I) customers in California and New Mexico through end-June.

The prospect of reducing utility peak-demand charges and provision of reliable, efficient, emergency power generation and distribution by deploying on-site solar-plus-storage is proving increasingly attractive to C&I businesses. Added to that is the opportunity to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improve the overall environmental and social imprint of their operations, NantEnergy VP of Systems Solutions' Carl Mansfield explained in an interview.

NantEnergy this week announced the installation of three new solar-plus-storage systems for its latest C&I customers in California and New Mexico, "highlighting a palpable shift in the corporate use of renewables from a pricey, 'en vogue' nod to environmental concerns to a very real operating framework that boosts bottom lines. This maturing of the renewables market is poised to make another shift, where solar-plus-storage is a standard feature of corporate utility procurement, just as necessary as utility-based electricity, water and Internet connectivity," a company PR representative said.

Peak demand shaving and emergency back-up power

NantEnergy's three new, behind-the-meter, C&I solar-plus-storage customers are expecting to shave 25% off their utility demand charges and save a combined $3.6 million in electricity bill expenses over the next 10 years. "The primary value proposition for most of these systems is utility bill savings by active demand-side electricity management, as well as potential time-of-use (TOU) energy arbitrage and the delivery of microgrid-based capabilities that provide grid outage protection in the form of off-grid, back-up power for critical operations and services— it's wholly economics based," Mansfield said in an interview.

Utility demand charges in California have increased by as much as 64% since 2014, rising to account for as much as 50% or more of a company's monthly energy bill, according to NantEnergy. Adding to that, California experienced more than 430 grid outages lasting an average 117 minutes in 2017, more than any other U.S. state.

“NantEnergy is committed to providing energy management solutions that help businesses meet their corporate sustainability goals and in turn make a significant contribution toward local and state clean energy goals,” said NantEnergy Chairman Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. “Every hour that C&I customers enjoy substantial energy cost savings in this era of skyrocketing rates, they also will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten the environment and the global economy.”

Utilities are increasingly turning to distributed solar-plus-storage systems as a means of addressing these issues, as well. "We’ve deployed with all the IOUs (investor-owned utilities)," Mansfield said. "Our largest microgrid installation was with PG&E and they were very receptive and showed strong interest in the design. We heard from them that they had not seen a similar microgrid interconnected to their system in the past."

NantEnergy's SmartStorage technology

NantEnergy's C&I customers financed and purchased the SmartStorage systems outright and rely on NantEnergy to operate and maintain them. Customers' payback and return on investment (ROI) flows from the energy cost savings they realize over the SmartStorage system's life cycles. Those vary from state to state depending on market rules and regulations. "In a less favorable region of the U.S. you might find a much longer payback period based solely on energy cost savings, but with emergency back-up power you get outage protection at no additional cost," Mansfield pointed out in an interview.

All of the 12 behind-the-meter, C&I solar-plus-storage systems NantEnergy has installed so far this year are based on the integration of solar PV arrays with lithium-ion battery energy storage systems and the company's SCADA and smart energy control and management software platform, Mansfield explained. "Those are the three pieces of our 'secret sauce," so to speak: software controls, all the pre-integrated hardware and our 10-year asset management service [via which] we operate, maintain and achieve certain performance goals on an annual basis."

In addition to the C&I customers NantEnergy has installed SmartStorage systems for so far this year it has also installed a "significant amount" for telecommunications network operators in Central America. Some of them are hybrid systems that make use of both lithium-ion and zinc-air flow batteries, Mansfield noted.

Here in the U.S., the company joined with Duke Energy to deploy its zinc-air flow battery technology to augment and then replace the sole feeder line supplying electricity to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park site that the U.S. Forest Service relies on for critical telecommunications services. "It's very rugged terrain. I think it was something like five miles of feeder line, which was extraordinarily expensive for Duke to maintain," Mansfield said.

"We weren't pushing to expand our customer base while we were going through the divestiture, but now we're shifting with some success. Since completion of the acquisition, we've been more aggressively expanding our sales and marketing and C&I business in general compared to prior years," Mansfield told Energy Central. "This [the clients the company has installed systems for through June] is sort of early stage reporting of momentum. We've been investing fairly heavily in sales, marketing and product development," Mansfield said.

Combining lithium-ion and zinc-air flow battery tech

Looking ahead, NantEnergy intends to add the zinc-air flow battery energy storage systems it has been manufacturing and deploying in the U.S. and internationally for many years to its product lineup, as well as develop a hybrid system that combines zinc-air and lithium-ion batteries. "We had been silently deploying zinc-air batteries worldwide over the six to seven years prior to Sharp acquiring the company," Mansfield recounted. "It's an in-house product and we've now deployed at more than 3,000 systems, the majority outside the U.S....We're now operating a large, site-based fleet that includes a lot of island microgrids in Indonesia, for example."

NantEnergy's zinc-air battery system hits a market sweet spot in that it provides long-duration energy storage capacity and outage protection, Mansfield elaborated. "We think there's a very large market for that," he said.

Zinc-air battery systems offer other advantages, Mansfield continued. "Zinc-air batteries are very temperature tolerant. They don't require active cooling as is the case with lithium-ion systems and there's no risk of thermal runaway. The oxygen is pulled in from the air."

Furthermore, NantEnergy's zinc-air flow battery is an environmentally benign technology that makes use of safe materials that can be readily recycled.

NantEnergy manufactures some of its zinc-air flow batteries at a plant in Scottsdale and some with a manufacturing partner in Indonesia. The company is also working to add a third manufacturing facility in the Los Angeles area.

Another advantage to zinc-air as compared to lithium-ion batteries is that it takes much less to build and run a zinc-air battery manufacturing plant, about an order of magnitude less, according to Mansfield. "There's no extremely expensive production equipment, clean rooms are not required and you don't need the stringent environmental controls, such as humidity management, lithium-ion plants require," he explained.

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