Renewables Storage Key To Growth On Grid

Improving energy storage capabilities is the top challenge in boosting the amount of renewables on the U.S. grid, according to a new report from a leading organization of physicists. To address it, the American Physical Society (APS) calls on the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a strategy that will help regulators and utilities understand the value of energy storage in grid-level applications; conduct a review of battery chemistries the department supported in the past for possible use now; and increase research and development in basic electrochemistry in search of breakthroughs.

The APS report, “Integrating Renewable Electricity on the Grid,” also points to long-distance transmission as a hurdle, urging further work on direct current superconducting cables for long-distance transmission of renewable electricity, as well as accelerated R&D into possibilities such as alternating to direct current options and semiconductor-based circuit breakers at 200 kilovolts and 50 kilo ampere.

American Physical Society grid report

image via American Physical Society

It’s storage, however, that gets the lion’s share of attention from the physicists. That’s because, as they point out in their press release announcing the report, “Wind and solar energy are variable by nature: The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow.” Today, this variability in feeding the grid is mostly dealt with by “ramping up conventional reserves” — boosting coal-fired energy production when a weather front dims solar production, or when the wind stops turning turbines.

The APS report says improved forecasting will help anticipate these rises and falls, but “as renewable generation grows it will ultimately overwhelm the ability of conventional resources to compensate renewable variability, and require the capture of electricity generated by wind, solar and other renewables for later use.”

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.