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Electricity storage technology is not a luxury line item

Amy Myers Jaffe outlines the importance of electrical storage technology for developing U.S. electric grid resiliency and for competing with countries that are investing in energy research and development in The Hill.

It seems like a no-brainer. As more U.S. regional grids meltdown amid stresses of extreme weather, federal funding for new localizable, flexible technological solutions to electricity storage seems like a must-do, especially where U.S. military bases and other vital infrastructure is concerned.

So leave it to the rancorous partisan politics of energy in the United States to find detractors to the U.S. Department of Energy’s announcement that it intends to target long-duration energy storage for renewable energy. The supposed objection is the high cost the technology currently has. It’s a common theme, previously applied to everything from solar panels (now over 80 percent cheaper and falling) and deep offshore wind (now increasingly becoming commercial) and even back in the day, which almost no one remembers, U.S. natural gas.

That electricity storage has a role to play in future grids should be unchallenged. Even traditional energy like nuclear plants and key gasoline distribution companies keep generators on hand to deal with grid emergencies, in effect substituting for storage technology. It’s an imperfect system if the propane or diesel fuel needed for the generators also gets disrupted. Climate change and cybersecurity mean more similar solutions are necessary. As costs fall for batteries and/or hydrogen production, new opportunities are arising. 

The idea that storage technology is pie in the sky is wrongheaded. Already, new aggregated battery systems, referred to as virtual power plants, are succeeding where other fuels have failed, and often saving hundreds of millions of dollars in relieving electricity system congestion without recourse to expensive, billion-dollar centralized infrastructure. Virtual power plants, a system where surpluses from small scale storage devices are tapped all at once and provided to the grid as if from a centralized power station, have been deployed as a backup to renewable energy in South Australia and New York City, replacing other traditional solutions that would have been cost-prohibitive for ratepayers. In effect, these aggregated storage systems displace construction of more costly system upgrades in transmission, substations, large scale generation and capacitor banks, and can be installed and repaired much more quickly.

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