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Developments in Storage Create New Possibilities for Solar

Solar power is clean, quiet, and cost-efficient, but it also has limitations. It can only be used when it’s produced — unless it’s stored, but storage has its own drawbacks, including cost. Yet, new storage options and other developments around the world are making solar power more viable as a major energy source.

According to Benjamin Alade at The Guardian, solar electricity (including storage) was recently installed for 170,000 homes in Nigeria, which saved residents money, minimized noise from generators, and reduced reliance on an unstable power source. In Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia, writes Annette Choi for PBS, the federal government has made plans to transform an old coal mine into a giant battery that will store energy from wind turbines, an artificial reservoir, solar panels, and more, potentially providing reliable energy to 400,000 homes.

These and other similar projects represent a shift toward more reliable storage solutions and, therefore, a global uptick in solar power use and demand.

U.S. Solar + Storage Projects

Here in the U.S., the Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot program is an initiative to make solar energy technologies cost-competitive by reducing the cost of solar energy systems by 75 percent before 2020. According to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, in 2016 SunShot “started tackling storage for photovoltaics (PV) head-on” with its Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar PV (SHINES) program. The six SHINES projects “have made notable progress toward creating solutions that will ultimately allow utilities and consumers alike to benefit from solar energy storage.”

Separately, Arizona Public Service, in partnership with a PV solar system provider, are set to build a 50-megawatt (MW) solar-fueled battery in the desert to provide power to local residents. This project “will make Arizona home to one of the largest battery storage systems in the country,” states Emily Holbrook for Energy Manager Today

Partial Grid Defection

Given that there are still many challenges, it’s easy to get stuck on how to “make storage work effectively,” and to lose sight of what happens once it does. Australia offers a glimpse of what comes after widespread use of solar storage becomes commonplace. Writing for The Guardian, Bianca Nogrady states that “with solar photovoltaic units now found on 16.5% of Australian residential roofs, battery storage has stepped into the big league. What was once viewed as an add-on to solar photovoltaic is now driving a revolution in the energy sector and turning the concept of a national electricity grid upside down.”

Nogrady explains that the affordability of rooftop solar and battery storage is leading to a phenomenon known as partial grid defection (PDF): “This is the scenario where, instead of rooftop solar owners selling their excess solar power back to the grid, they are using batteries to store that power for later use. This creates a new opportunity for households and businesses to effectively play the electricity market….” That is, “excess energy can be sold back to the grid during peak demand — and therefore peak dollar.”

For now Australia isn’t seeing full grid defection, but utilities there — and in other parts of the world where solar is becoming more prevalent — must prepare to alter their business models to evolve along with the capabilities of new technologies.

Expert Predictions

As the solar-plus-storage market expands, many in the industry are making predictions about what we’ll see next. According to Krysti Shallenberger at Utility Dive, Chris Nelder, Manager of Mobile Practice at Rocky Mountain Institute, states, “I expect a jump in utility-scale energy storage deployments in 2018, perhaps on the order of three times 2017 levels…. By the end of 2018, I expect that grid operators will have gleaned some interesting fresh insights on how utility-scale storage performs.”

Some of those realizations might be around pricing. Writing for Greentech Media, Barry Cinnamon touches on an issue that may not be obvious at first: “Although battery prices will continue to decline, all-in energy storage system price declines will stagnate as contractors realize the additional integration work necessary to complete these systems. Simply adding the cost of the battery does not account for the additional design, permitting, software, training and configuration work necessary for these systems….”

Experts are also warning of potential pitfalls. For example, in a separate Greentech Media article, Cinnamon cautions that software — not essential for solar on its own — is “a critical part of all energy storage systems.” He notes, “Although it is possible to electrically connect the necessary hardware components and put them in a box, getting the phone app, software and embedded firmware to work properly together is complicated.”

Of course, the considerations discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg for the emerging move toward solar-plus-storage systems. The coming months and years are sure to see many more exciting developments.

Karen Marcus's picture

Thank Karen for the Post!

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