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California tests battery sites

California tests battery sites

One of many battery-system components that, it is hoped, will help California bolster its power grid.

Utilities have been studying batteries nationwide. But none have moved ahead with the gusto of those in Southern California.

After the giant gas leak in Oct. 2016, Californian engineers decided to turn to another technology, batteries. 

They freed up the utilities to start installing batteries – huge battery sites.

And, as a result: it’s the worlds first battery side test of this size. 

“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.

Challenges and risks

The battery site tests do have far-reaching potential. But the challenge of storing electricity has vexed engineers, researchers, policy makers and entrepreneurs for years. Even as countless technologies have raced ahead, batteries haven’t yet fulfilled their promise.

And the most powerful new designs come with their own risks, such as fire or explosion if poorly made or maintained. It’s the same problem that forced Samsung to recall 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in September because of fire risk.

And even worse … after a smaller, but pioneering battery project at a wind farm on Oahu in Hawaii went up in flames in 2012, investment in battery storage all but dried up for a few years. That installation, which used 12,000 lead-acid batteries to help even out fluctuations in the power flow, caught fire three times in its first 18 months of operation. The storage developer, Xtreme, eventually went bankrupt. The wind farm turned to a different technology to smooth its output.

California grid

After racing for months, engineers have brought three battery 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.

  1. One of the installations, at a San Diego Gas & Electric operations center surrounded by industrial parks in Escondido, Calif., will be the largest of its kind in the world. It represents the most crucial test yet of an energy-storage technology that many experts see as fundamental to a clean-energy future.
  2. The site at Aliso Canyon (place of the gas leak in 2015) 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.
  3. AES is installing a smaller array for the electric utility in El Cajon, a suburb east of San Diego.

Separately Tesla, has built an array for a different utility on the grid, Southern California Edison, near Chino, Calif.

Battery container sites

AES does not actually make its batteries but buys them, along with other equipment, from manufacturers like Samsung, LG Chem and Panasonic. It designs and assembles the arrays, stacking the boxy batteries into racks inside containers.

In Escondido, 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 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.

Energy storage is the tool to do renewables integration for a utility infrastructure company

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 project, along with the smaller array AES has installed in El Cajon, could provide the proof-of-concept leap for California.

Let’s wait for results the next years.


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