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Battery-Fueled Utility Grid Forming Marks Power-Energy Industry Milestone

As reported in part one of this two-part series, a milestone in utility-scale, battery-based energy storage was reached in May when Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and project partners GE Power, ZGlobal and Coachella Energy Storage Partners successfully jump started the 44-MW El Centro combined cycle natural gas-fired power plant and autonomously reformed the local utility power grid relying solely on a 30-MW/20-MWh lithium-ion battery-based energy storage system (LiBESS). 

Believed to be an industry first, the achievement is that latest in a string of milestones revolving around deployment of LiBESS in California since state leaders ramped up and industry participants began carrying out emergency grid storage resource procurement plans in the wake of the October 2015 methane leak at the Aliso Canyon underground natural gas storage facility outside Los Angeles.

Here in part two, we continue our discussion with IID and GE Power, gaining additional insight regarding the project and the significance of the achievement for IID and its customers, as well as for utilities and the power and energy sector beyond the Imperial Valley. 

Emergency Response

Deemed “one of the worst environmental disasters in US history,” the massive methane leak at Southern California Edison’s (SCE) Aliso Canyon underground storage facility is making deep and lasting impacts on human and environmental health and quality of life. It also raised the specter of power shortages, rationing and outages across Southern California. 

Responding to the state government’s January call to procure and deploy greater amounts of battery-based energy storage capacity as quickly as possible, industry participants have been going all out to realize these groundbreaking aims ever since.

Battery-based energy storage deployments, the vast bulk coming in the form of LiBESS, shattered the previous record-high in 2017’s first quarter. According to GTM Research and the Energy Storage Association’s (ESA) latest U.S. Energy Storage Monitor, 234 megawatt-hours of energy storage were deployed in the first quarter – fifty times that deployed in 1Q 2016.

Utility-side, “front of meter” installations accounted for 91 percent of 1Q’17’s total deployments. “Much of this growth can be attributed to a shift from short-duration projects to medium- and long-duration projects in the utility-scale market, along with a surge of deployments geared to offset the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak,” commented GTM Research’s director of energy storage Ravi Manghani.

Ripple Effects of the 2011 Southwest Blackout

What’s now known as the “Southwest Blackout” in September 2011 occurred at a time when temperatures in the Imperial Valley soared into the triple digits. The region-wide blackout left 2.7 million people across Southern California and Mexico without electricity, some for as long as 12 hours, and galvanized local leaders into action..

The Imperial Valley has been a magnet and center for local utility-scale solar and geothermal power development. That emissions-free generation capacity is bringing in local government revenues and helping meet California’s ambitious renewable energy, energy storage and greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals, but the electricity produced is transmitted far away, for use in cities and urban centers along Southern California’s west coast, such as San Diego and Los Angeles. 

The irony and perplexity hasn’t been lost on some local residents and solar and distributed energy advocates, who asserted that a total blackout could have been avoided if IID had been more open, supportive and cooperative when it came to installing and grid-connecting local rooftop and ground-mounted solar PV, be it on public or private property. 

Solar and Storage in the Imperial Valley

IID responded by reiterating its commitment to solar and other forms of renewable energy. According to the customer-owned utility, California’s third largest: “IID customers are generating more clean energy than ever before. More than 30 percent of the electricity consumed by IID’s customers comes from a renewable energy resource.

“Today, IID has more than 4,000 rooftop systems connected to the grid and that number continues to grow daily. In fact, IID has outperformed targets set by California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard, with solar energy experiencing dramatic growth in the past five years.”

Coupled with an adjacent solar PV field as well as the 44-MW El Centro combined cycle natural gas power plant, the 30-MW/20-MWh LiBESS marks IID’s latest, most substantial, and prospectively most effective response to the 2011 regional grid failure. IID issued some $31 million in infrastructure bonds to finance the project, the utility's Marion Champion told Energy Central. 

A Precedent-Setting Lithium Ion Battery Energy Storage System

The utility-scale LiBESS – GE’s largest sale as of contract signing with Coachella Energy Storage Partners in Sept. 2015 – is much faster in terms of responding to fluctuations in grid electricity flows. All things considered, IID and project partners believe it should be a much more efficient, and hence economically beneficial, means of enhancing the overall reliability and resilience of IID’s electricity services as compared to operating a natural gas-fired “peaker” plant.  

In addition to its precedent-setting utility grid “black start” capability, the LiBESS paves the way for IID to enhance its ability to integrate solar and other renewable power generation capacity. Furthermore, the LiBESS will act as a spinning reserve, as well as help stabilize the power grid by providing frequency and voltage regulation services, Champion explained. 

Added to all this, IID anticipates a substantial reduction in climate-warming carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other environmental degradation associated with fossil fuel use. 

“The facility is a technological marvel: nearly 100,000 lithium-ion battery cells built by Samsung, configured by General Electric, managed by the engineering consultant ZGlobal and connected to the grid by way of a substation constructed by Chula Vista Electric Co.

“The 30 battery banks are housed in a warehouse-like building in El Centro, between a gas-fired power plant and a solar field,”  Desert Sun reporter Sammy Roth wrote in late October upon the LiBESS being commissioned.

Rapid Evolution

LiBESS research, development and deployment is evolving rapidly. Installed costs are rapidly approaching the point where they are more advantageous and beneficial than investing in natural gas and other fossil-fuel fired grid alternatives, industry participants and analysts, such as GTM Research, point out. 

Right-sizing and designing an energy storage system that meets, if not exceeds, customers’ needs and wants is the mark of a well conceived and carried out project implementation, GE Power’s general manager of distributed grid systems Mirko Molinari explained in an interview. 

“All of our storage systems come with a SCADA (Supervisory Control and data acquistion) system. When you consider all the components of an advanced energy storage system – batteries, power electronics, then all the rest, and there are many different types – the central intelligence depends on how you design and configure the platform that controls and manages the entire system. 

“You need to operate the system as a whole. That means understanding what each component and the controls will allow – the operational effects on batteries, the need to warrant service for a certain duration and performance without battery degradation. “The ‘dumb’ way is to oversize the battery, but that adds to the cost of the project.” 

At this stage, one of the main barriers to growth in LiBESS and other forms of advancded energy storage is political and regulatory in nature – the flexibility and range of grid services LiBESS can provide is yet to be fully recognized or appreciated, much less realized in most markets, Molinari added. 

Market regulatory mechanisms need to be put in place in order for utilities and other LiBESS investors to generate new revenue streams to pay for them by stacking multiple LiBESS grid services, he continued.

“Power electronics, stationary lithium-ion batteries, microgrids, distributed renewables and integrated energy storage control and management systems – all these technologies have now reached the point where we really want to bring them to the market in a serious way. We’re fully committed to exploring and supporting our customers and stakeholders in doing so.” 

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