Energy storage, EVs and collaboration

Three worthy issues arise in one day

Phil Carson | Nov 15, 2011


Today's column will be a departure, just to call attention to three worthy issues and provide links to the details. Rather than pontificating—or, more accurately, prattling on—I'll just pass along three ideas, some resources and, yes, a few pesky questions.

First, energy storage. The California Energy Commission (CEC) held a workshop yesterday to present a report on technology, policy and gaps in research. The workshop format—mostly a loosely structured informational session with Q&A (some grandstanding) all over the map—doesn't lend itself to cogency, but that's not the intent.

"2020 Strategic Analysis of Energy Storage in California" appears worthy of your attention, just click on the linked title.

(The report was put out by the CEC's Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program and authored by Ethan Elkind, University of California (UC), Berkeley School of Law, Andris Abele, UC Los Angeles and Byron Washom, UC San Diego, based on research by many parties including prime contractor, the California Institute for Energy and Environment.)

The report gives synopses of leading storage technologies, reviews California's relevant policies and regulations, examines applications and frames possible paths forward to 2020, when the state must meet its self-imposed 33 percent renewable portfolio standard.

Space does not permit a blow-by-blow or even highlights from this informative paper. But I'd venture to articulate a few points and pertinent questions in search of answers. Storage has intrinsic value in the abstract, but attempt to integrate it into the grid for frequency regulation, renewables integration, outage mitigation and other purposes and it rapidly runs into reality. Do cost/benefit reviews make certain storage technologies cost-effective and in what applications? How should storage services be priced? What's the mechanism for cost recovery? Should government mandates or incentives play a role? Are there research gaps that government should address due to free market lapses?

The answers, it won't surprise you, are hotly debated. The report had 50 or more "project advisors" from regulatory bodies, utilities, grid operators, national labs, industry associations, consumer advocates, vendors and others. I'd suggest that inclusiveness and consensus might have been sought, but I'd like to see dissent incorporated into such reports, even if 50 critiques would be unwieldy. Perhaps a Web-based forum to accompany all such reports in contentious subjects would be appropriate. (Workshops such as yesterday's should also require every speaker to identify themselves each time they speak or listening renders the proceedings meaningless.)

For background on California's efforts, see our "Energy Storage Debate Rages in Our Pages" and "Energy Storage Policy Evolving in California."

I'm a sucker for how-to stuff and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade association for investor-owned utilities just issued "The Utility Guide to Plug-in Electric Vehicle Readiness."

This primer would be appropriate for utility executives as well as operations managers, from today's nuts-and-bolts to long-term strategies. The timing is apt. We know that electric vehicle uptake has been much slower than forecast one year ago, yet the pattern has been much faster uptake of pure plug-ins over hybrids—the opposite of earlier forecasts. I'd like to share more and deliver attribution, but cannot at this point. I think the numbers are there for anyone willing to dig.

I understand that preparing for EV uptake must be done regardless of the rate of uptake and, in fact, slower-than-anticipated uptake is the perfect time to prepare and get the bugs out. A few backgrounders might also provide insight into current issues:

"Interop and EVs: Work Remains"

"EVs and Utility Preparations"

"Electric Vehicles:  Four Things Your Utility Should do to Prepare"

Lastly, the Vermont Law School (VLS) issued a statement based on early results of its national smart grid research project that focuses on legal, policy and regulatory hurdles to grid modernization:

"The United States needs unprecedented collaboration among electric utilities, government, industry and academia to create a smart grid with clear policies, empowered customers, demonstrated cost savings and a greener environment ..."

The real issue, of course, is how to achieve such collaboration. Sure, it's occurring in pockets and examples abound. But nothing of this magnitude can escape the gravitational pull of the black hole composed of special interests, money-hungry politicians and money-fueled noise that sucks the soul out of a nation that's lost its way in a thick and potentially lethal fog. The VLS risks irrelevancy if it doesn't recognize and suggest solutions to the prevalent political polarization in this country and how it affects grid modernization.

This just in: there are no fancy solutions. "Where there's a will, there's a way" remains operational. Plain and simple, we lack the will to act together. The power industry cannot be expected to break from the pack. I believe the juxtaposition of polling data that indicates that individual Americans are willing and able to settle differences and achieve compromise on major issues of national importance and the gridlock  and incompetency evident in, say, the House of Representatives, puts the power industry on notice. Try typing "global warming" or "Solyndra" or "smart meter" into your Web browser and press "enter."

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily



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I was one of the reviewers and I did note that the report read like an advocacy piece, though in all fairness perhaps that's what the researchers were expected to write.  However I also pepared a lengthy dissent that I had planned to deliver in person and will make available to anyone who wants a copy before it is posted on the CEC web site.  Among other things, I point out that storage is still too expensive, it is unlikely to deliver promised economic or emissions benefits and may actually increase both short-run costs and overall emissions, and manufacturing at scale may not lead to reductions in capital costs. 

I also point out that a KEMA report published in 2010 never said 3-4,000 MW of storage was needed at high levels of renewable penetration.  Instead, it said grid performance would be improved by installing that much storage without considering cost-effectiveness or other alternatives. 

I think the attitude among storage proponents and in particular, those who want to make a business out of building and operating storage facilities is, "other technologies got their subsidies and now we're entitled to ours".  They're forgetting that the bills for this stuff ultimately have to be paid by ordinary citizens, many of whom are struggling to pay for other basic necessities.  I'm fine with spending some public money on carefully targeted R&D money that yields specific performance and cost improvements, but at this point, a mandate is the wrong answer.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Hear ya loud and clear

Thanks Jack,

I appreciate your mentioning your dissenting view. "Consensus" can be a good thing but, at this stage, a full airing of all views, including dissent, is crucial.

The people of California and industry will be the better for it if storage is fully evaluated from all angles.

Regards, Phil Carson