It’s depressing that lithium batteries get almost all of the focus in the energy storage industry. Lithium batteries have a number of advantages, including high energy density, good longevity, declining costs and established integration with electronics, vehicles and stationary energy storage. Although ideal for residential and commercial storage applications, lithium ion chemistries are not great for long term and high capacity energy storage — which are the characteristics that many utility storage installations require.
Flow batteries have the potential to meet these utility storage application needs. Flow batteries use two tanks of liquid electrolyte, separated by a special membrane, that flows between the anode and the cathode within the battery cell. Energy is stored in this liquid electrolyte instead of as part of the electrode material in conventional batteries. The energy storage capacity of a flow battery is related to the amount of liquid electrolyte — bigger tanks provide greater storage capacity. The power output of a flow battery depends on the size of the anode and cathode electrodes in the battery cell.
Since their storage capacity is limited mostly by the size of the electrolyte tanks, flow batteries are great for grid-scale storage. They are also finding applications when sited alongside PV systems. Since the battery can absorb power in excess of what the grid or inverter can handle, inverters can be smaller — resulting in lower equipment costs and greater efficiency.
I heard about new flow battery technology from my friends at NexTracker. I was initially hesitant to learn about flow batteries – one could say I’m in a lithium rut waiting for the commercialization of dual lithium crystalline reactor technology for interstellar travel. But when I understood the real-world benefits of Avalon’s batteries when integrated with utility-scale tracker installations, I was convinced.
So on this week’s show we’re going with the flow. Our guest is Matt Harper, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Avalon. I hope you tune in to this week’s Energy Show as Matt explains the technology behind flow batteries, practical applications, availability of electrolytes, and Matt’s view of how flow batteries have the potential to meet our long duration energy storage needs.
One of my favorite Hemingway books is “The Sun Also Rises.” It’s about Spain, bull fighting and a group of lost generation friends in Paris in the 1920s. But this show is an energy podcast, not a book report. So with apologies to Ernest Hemingway — here in California — the sun also rises. But it rises at night with battery storage.
Governor Brown recently signed into law a bill called SB 700, which establishes an additional $800 million dollars of incentives for behind the meter battery storage. These incentives, part of the Self Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), are designed for both commercial and residential systems. SGIP is the biggest battery storage incentive program in the U.S. For the past year and a half, our battery storage customers have been using SGIP funding to reduce the costs of their combined solar and storage systems.
These incentive programs don’t appear automatically. The California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA) worked for three years to finally get this storage incentive passed. Bernadette Del Chiaro, Executive Director of CALSA, explains the key reason for these storage incentives: “What we’re trying to do is create a mainstream market for energy storage — just like we’ve done for solar photovoltaic systems.”
Why did it take so long? There was intense opposition from electric utility business interests who do not want customers storing their own energy, just as they do not want their customers generating their own solar power. Utilities benefit financially when they install their own “grid-sized” batteries on their side of the meter, just as they benefit from large utility scale solar farms. From an overall perspective we still need utilities, not necessarily for electricity generation, but primarily for long distance transmission and local distribution of electricity.
Utilities have provided a terrific service to the world for over 100 years. Now, with inexpensive solar and batteries, utility customers can install their own generation and storage systems. To learn more about why the Sun also Rises At Night with Batteries, Listen to this week’s Energy Show.
Energy storage is critical to our ability to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Basically, we need a way to store the abundance of daytime solar and use this energy at night. Although lithium ion batteries have been getting most of the attention, fuel cells provide another way to convert fuels into electricity.
A fuel cell is an electro-chemical cell that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a reaction of hydrogen or another hydrocarbon fuel, such as gasoline or natural gas, with oxygen. The history of fuel cells goes back over a hundred years — in fact, their first commercial use came from NASA to power orbital space craft. Fuel cells are different than batteries because a battery produces energy from a chemical reaction that is already in the battery, whereas a fuel cell requires a continuous source of fuel and oxygen to sustain the chemical reaction. The great thing about fuel cell technology is they can continue to supply energy for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.
However, fuel cells can either be clean and renewable power sources — or just as polluting as fossil fuels — depending on their fuel source. Currently, most fuel cells use hydrogen as their fuel. Although the chemical reaction of hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen is emission-free (the only byproduct is water), the source of the hydrogen is problematic. Almost 100% of the hydrogen gas used for fuel cells and industrial processes comes from reforming natural gas. As a result, just as much CO2 is produced when hydrogen is used as a fuel, as if the natural gas were to be combusted directly. Nevertheless, future processes in which ordinary water is electrolyzed into its components hydrogen and oxygen can indeed produce hydrogen perfectly cleanly — as long as solar or wind are used to power the process.
More and more fuel cells are finding their way into the conventional power and transportation industries. Bloom Energy is successfully selling their natural gas-powered fuel cells to customers that need a reliable source of backup power. And Toyota has rolled out their Murai hydrogen fuel cell car in areas that have sufficient hydrogen filling stations (most of which are in California). For more about the underlying technology and opportunities for fuel cells, tune in to this week’s Energy Show.
Great solar policy is just as important as great solar technology. Obviously we need the technologies for these products — but we also need the policies so that solar products can be cost-effectively installed. And I’m not just talking about incentives…policies related to net metering, interconnection and permitting are just as important.
Getting good solar policy requires effective political lobbying. I hate to let you down, but these great energy policies did not magically spring from the brains of inspired politicians When I look back at the successes our industry has had over the years — net metering, the California Solar Initiative, Solar Tax Credits, state incentives — all of these policies were based on sound analytical research coupled with effective lobbying.
There are a few companies that specialize in the types of analysis that’s required to put together good policies. One of the best is Cross Border Energy, based in Berkeley California. They provide clients with strategic advice, economic analysis and expert testimony on market and regulatory issues in the natural gas and electric industry. It is my pleasure to have Tom Beach, Principal Consultant of Cross Border Energy as our guest on this week’s Energy Show.
Tom has been influential on many of California’s ground breaking energy policies. He has worked on the restructuring of the states gas and electric industries, the addition of new natural gas pipelines and storage capacity, renewable energy development, and a wide range of issues concerning California’s large independent power community. I also had the pleasure of working with Tom on the California Solar Initiative many years ago. To learn more about the energy industry, real world solar economics, and Tom’s perspective on energy regulatory issues, listen up to this week’s Energy Show.
PS – the Kyocera and SMA rooftop solar system I installed for Tom back in 2003 is still working perfectly, with only 0.4% degradation over the last 15 years.
PPS – his monitoring system is intermittent since his 15 year old computer that runs the software is on its last legs.
The electric utility industry is undergoing rapid change. There used to be two types of utilities: investor owned utilities (IOUs, such as Pacific Gas and Electric and ConEd) and municipally owned utilities (MOUs, such as LADWP and Silicon Valley Power). Now there is a third hybrid type, called a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) utility.
IOUs work for their stockholders — striving to maximize their profits by charging the most they can for electricity, maximizing their net assets and minimizing their expenses (often maintenance). MOUs work for their local cities — and try to provide affordable and reliable power in their territory. Not surprisingly, electric rates at IOUs are almost always higher than rates at nearby MOUs. Because IOUs profit by installing their own solar and storage systems and maximizing their own sales of electricity, they do not look favorably on homeowners and businesses installing their own systems. My biggest competitors for almost 20 years have been local IOUs.
CCAs offer the potential for lower electric rates for customers in their territory, without changing completely to a municipally-owned business structure. CCAs buy power from large solar and wind farms, as well as hydroelectric facilities. They then distribute this power over the existing utility lines. The existing utility bills customers and maintains the power lines, while the CCA essentially just charges customers for the energy they use. CCAs offer customers cheaper electricity, and they offer better economics to solar customers.
Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE) is the new CCA serving most of the Silicon Valley area. My guest this week is John Supp, Manager of Accounts Services at SVCE. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we talk about the operations, economics and effects that CCAs will have on both customers and the utility industry in general.
Electric utilities got their start in the U.S. in the 1880s. Thomas Edison began transmitting DC power as he literally illuminated the world. Then George Westinghouse (with help from Nikolai Tesla) deployed a better way of delivering electricity with AC power. Both Edison and Westinghouse went on to build tremendously successful companies, aptly named General Electric and Westinghouse Electric respectively. Although dominant in the 20th century, both companies have struggled in the 21st century.
Without a doubt utilities strive to deliver reliable and affordable power all over the world. But new technologies — particularly wind, solar and battery storage — are making the conventional utility business model obsolete. Customers are able to purchase and maintain their own power plants for less money than it costs a utility to centrally generate power and transmit it to every building. There is no doubt in my mind that over the next 20 years we will transition to a network of microgrids supported by some type of intelligent power distribution system.
What we knew and (some of us) loved about conventional utilities is changing. And utilities are fighting back — hard — to maintain their power supply monopoly. So here are Ten Electric Utility Company Myths — some of which were based on fact, and some were simply PR spin.
1. Myth: Utility profits are decoupled from selling electricity
2. Myth: Solar shifts costs to disadvantage ratepayers
3. Myth: Utilities support energy efficiency, we offer rebates
4. Myth: Utilities like EVs. They get to sell a lot more electricity
5. Myth: Utilities like Solar and Battery Storage
6. Myth: Utilities are a public monopoly working for ratepayers
7. Myth: Solar reduces electricity costs
8. Myth: Safety is a utility’s #1 concern
9. Myth: public utilities are the only way to provide reliable and affordable electricity
10. Myth: Solar will disrupt the grid at high penetration levels
Listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we go into detail on each of these myths — and explain their implications on ratepayers and competing power industries.
California continues to lead the country when it comes to clean and inexpensive energy. Here is an example – In May the California Energy Commission passed a rule that goes into effect on January 1, 2020 that requires solar on all new homes. The rule applies to all new homes, apartments and condos under three stories tall. The rule also includes an option to include an energy storage system (which we believe will become a standard feature with all solar systems).
We have received a number of calls and emails from people both in favor of and against this new rule since it was passed. What we really like about this new rule is that new home buyers will definitely save money. We’ve done hundreds of installations on new homes and the monthly energy savings are always more than the monthly mortgage increase. Always.
According to data from the California Energy Commission, the cost of a new solar system would be an extra $40 per month on a typical mortgage. And that’s without the tax credit. The monthly savings on the homeowner’s electric bill would be $80 per month. So the net monthly savings is $40 per month, or almost $500 per year. So every new home that has solar on it is going to come out almost $500 cash flow positive every year. Based on our installation experiences, I think the CEC’s cost numbers are on the high side and savings number are low – so the benefits are even better. This New Solar Homes Mandate is good for home buyers, and will increase the awareness of solar on existing residential rooftops.
But there are some negatives about this new rule. Some people have a visceral reaction against mandates. They simply don’t want to be told what to do. Moreover, adding solar will slightly increase the cost of a new home. Nevertheless, our government mandates things like seat belts, clean air, new home warranties and energy efficiency. By mandating popular consumer safety and efficiency benefits, costs generally come down for everyone, to the overall benefit of society. For more about California’s New Solar Homes Mandate, Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
This week we’re talking about battery storage system safety. But first, a brief digression. As a contractor, the biggest safety concern that I have for all rooftop solar and battery systems is not necessarily with the solar panels or the batteries, but with fall protection. It’s an OSHA regulation that all workers must be secured with roof anchors and proper harnesses when working on rooftops. So make sure your solar contractor installs roof anchors during your installation so the people working on your roof are safe. Back to battery safety…
Look around: there are batteries everywhere. 120 years ago we started with batteries in our cars and flashlights. Now just about every portable device we have requires batteries: cars, laptops, phones, entertainment systems, toothbrushes and wacky Internet Of Things devices. Fortunately, with the proliferation of electric vehicles, the prices for large-scale battery storage systems have declined substantially. We’re now at the point at which in many locations it is cost-effective to install a home or business battery system to avoid high peak electricity costs — and get the added benefit of backup power if your utility is unreliable.
Batteries pack a lot of energy in a small package — but not as much as conventional fuels. The energy density of a standard alkaline battery is 0.14 kwh/kg, and the energy density of a lithium ion battery is 0.5 kwh/kg. Compared to explosive gasoline (13 kwh/kg) and uranium (23 million kwh/kg), stationary batteries used in buildings are extremely safe. Moreover, circuitry required by safety agencies (UL, National Electrical Code) makes it almost impossible for these batteries to burn or explode — even if they are damaged or misused.
Nevertheless, the solar and battery storage industry takes safety issues related to battery storage systems seriously. Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show to learn about the built-in safety provisions in residential and commercial battery storage systems — as well as the fire safety, transportation and worker training required for their safe installation.