After racing for months, engineers here in California have brought three energy-storage sites close to completion to begin serving the Southern California electric grid within the next month. They are made up of thousands of oversize versions of the lithium-ion batteries now widely used in smartphones, laptop computers and other digital devices.
One of the installations, a 30-mehawatt facility at a San Diego Gas & Electric operations center surrounded by industrial parks in Escondido will be the largest of its kind in the world, developers say. It represents the most crucial test yet of an energy-storage technology that many experts see as fundamental to a clean-energy future.
Here, about 130 miles southeast of Aliso Canyon, the site of the immense gas leak in 2015 — the global-warming equivalent of operating about 1.7 million cars over the course of a year — 19,000 battery modules the size of a kitchen drawer are being wired together in racks. They will operate out of two dozen beige, 640-square-foot trailers.
Made by Samsung, the batteries are meant to store enough energy to serve as a backup in cases of fuel shortages. They are also designed to absorb low-cost energy, particularly solar power, during the day and feed it back to the grid after dusk. They in effect can fill in for the decades-old gas-fired plants that might lack the fuel to fully operate because of the disastrous leak.
“California is giving batteries the opportunity to show what they can do,” said Andrés Gluski, chief executive of AES, which is installing the storage systems. AES is an Arlington, Virginia-based construction company.
It said it plans to charge the batteries when solar and wind power are most abundantly available, then discharge them during times of peak demand for energy, in the early evening. The battery will act like a sponge, soaking up energy when it is abundant—during the day when the sun shines or late at night when the wind is blowing—and then releasing it when energy resources are in high demand.
The California Public Utilities Commission’(CPUC) has ordered SDG&E to get 165 megawatts of storage capacity by 2020, and have them operational by 2024. This first giant step was mandated to be ready to go on Jan. 31.
SDG&E said that adding storage projects not only improves power grid reliability but also accommodates greater amounts of renewable power and helps ease congestion. It said it plans to charge the batteries when solar and wind power are most abundantly available, then discharge them during times of peak demand for energy, in the early evening.
AES is installing a smaller array for the electric utility in El Cajon, a suburb east of San Diego. And separately Tesla, the company perhaps better known for its electric cars, has built an array for a different utility on the grid, Southern California Edison, near Chino, Calif.
The stakes are high for both energy storage companies. If their projects struggle or fail, it could jeopardize not only the stability of Southern California’s grid but also interest in the technology over all.
When people began building and buying homes in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles in the 1970s, they paid little attention to a depleted oil field in nearby Aliso Canyon that had been converted into a natural gas storage facility.
That all changed in October 2015, when a giant geyser of gas began spewing out of ground at the Aliso facility, the second-largest gas storage unit of its kind in the U.S. The geyser of methane inundated surrounding communities, forcing thousands of residents to move to motels and other temporary housing miles away. Some residents tried to stay home and tough it out, wearing gas masks to avoid the foul-smelling air, but many of them got sick from toxic chemicals used in the effort to plug the leak. In January 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.
It took the Southern California Gas Co. nearly four months to plug the leaking well and shut down the Aliso storage facility. During the leak, an estimated 100,000 tons of methane and 8,000 tons of ethane spewed into the atmosphere—the equivalent (in terms of greenhouse gases) of the annual emissions of 1.7 million cars. The Aliso leak was the worst single natural gas leak in U.S. history in terms of its environmental impact, with a carbon footprint larger than the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. As a greenhouse gas, methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
After the Aliso gas storage facility was closed on Feb. 28, 2016, work began to find an alternative fuel source for several regional power plants that had relied on gas from Aliso. Here’s the good news: the solution chosen by the affected utilities (and given the green light by state energy regulators) may hold the key to rapid expansion of the use of renewable energy to generate electricity throughout the U.S.
The biggest factor holding down the percentage of electricity generated by solar and wind power has been the inability to store this alternative energy for use when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. How to store enough electricity to power anything larger than a small building—a city or even a small town, for example—has been an unmet challenge for engineers for decades; thus far, none have created or validated a reliable and risk-free method of achieving this Holy Grail of power generation.
Southern California now has made a huge bet that it can build a reliable electric-power storage system and quickly validate it by hooking the system up to an active power grid as its first test. To use a circus metaphor (we need to get one in before Ringling Brothers ends its 133-year run this spring), this is like walking a high-voltage tightrope—read power line—without a net.
The experiment now under way in SoCal involves installing thousands of powerful rechargeable batteries in networks tied directly into the electricity grid. The utilities are hoping these mega-battery installations can effectively function as an “on-demand” power plant, storing solar energy which floods into the grid during daylight hours and releasing it during peak demand periods after the sun goes down.
Engineers in Southern California are close to completing three energy-storage sites that they expect to hook up to the electricity grid next month. The installations are made up of thousands of oversized lithium-ion batteries, including a San Diego Gas & Electric facility in Escondido, CA that will be the largest storage unit in the world. The Escondido facility, about 130 miles southeast of Aliso Canyon, features 19,000 drawer-sized battery modules wired together in racks and operating out of two 640-square-foot trailers.
The risks can’t be downplayed: if a powerful battery doesn’t have an almost perfect design or is not properly maintained, it can catch fire or—in the worst case—explode. Think of the fire risk from defective batteries that caused Samsung to recall 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in September (or earlier recalls due to fire hazards involving lithium batteries installed in cars and commercial airliners) and multiply these a thousandfold in terms of the power of the modular battery racks we’re discussing here.
Did we mention the battery modules about to go online in Escondido are made by Samsung?
In Escondido, where local radio stations still carry public service announcements about the natural-gas shortage, the AES battery packs are being installed at a critical spot on the regional electrical grid: the place where the giant wires from power plants and wind and solar arrays connect to the network of local wires.
The batteries are intended to relieve the pressure on the system. Mainly, they will serve as a kind of sponge, soaking up excess or low-cost solar energy during the day and then squeezing it back into the grid in the evening, when demand surges as the sun sets. There is enough capacity in the containers full of batteries to power about 20,000 homes for four hours.
The idea is that they help the utility lessen its dependence on the type of natural gas plants known as “peakers,” which can turn on and off quickly to meet sudden peaks of demand but are generally used only for short periods and at great expense. And peakers, by burning fossil fuel, are also at odds with California’s green-energy goals.
The project is also being watched closely by advocates for renewable energy. The reason: If utility-scale battery installations work as designed, they would help wind or solar generators to act more like conventional power plants by working steadily even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
“Energy storage is really the tool to do renewables integration for a utility infrastructure company like us,” said Josh Gerber, advanced technology integration manager of SDG&E, as workers smoothed the thigh-high concrete pads that support the containers at the Escondido site. “Without it, you have more risk that the variability of renewables is going to cause reliability problems.”
Under the contract, AES is responsible for making sure the batteries perform for 10 years, after which SDG&E will take over. One potential downside is that if the batteries are fully charged and discharged each day, they could degrade more quickly.
The executives involved expressed confidence in the design and reliability, despite Samsung’s recent smartphone problems. Not only are these batteries a different configuration than the smartphone units, executives said, but the larger footprint allows for the inclusion of sophisticated monitoring as well as industrial safety and cooling and ventilation equipment.
All of the lithium battery storage projects underway in California are designed to augment rather than completely replace the power generated from natural gas-fired power plants. The goal is to eliminate the need for expensive gas-fired plants known as “peakers,” which are only ignited during peak-demand periods.
Let’s hope California’s experiment with battery power-storage units has a better outcome than a 2012 installation at a wind farm in Hawaii. The facility in Oahu, which deployed 12,000 lead-acid batteries, reportedly caught fire three times in its first 18 months of operation. The storage facility vendor subsequently went bankrupt, and seed money for other battery power-storage initiatives across the country dried up