Are US Utilities Ready For The Deployment Of Energy Storage?
By Ali Nourai
Are utilities convinced that storage is an effective solution for a specific real problem or a specific opportunity in the energy market?
I recently revisited the “Distributed Energy Storage Roadmap” Survey DNV GL conducted on behalf of The National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries (“NAATBatt”), and found myself wondering how utilities think about storage in general, and what they think about the effectiveness of distributed storage in functioning as a much larger storage unit.
After combing through the data, I could not observe a consensus for preferred storage technology or preferred storage location on the distribution lines from conclusions drawn in the original survey. Therefore, in order to see if utilities viewed storage as a tool with many uses to be determined, or if they had specific uses for it in mind, my team analyzed the relative ranking or score that respondents assigned to each storage application. To this end, we reviewed how participants ranked a list of 15 different, but feasible, storage applications (or services) based on their overall value or usefulness.
Figure 1 compares the relative ranks of the first eight choices made by each of the 22 respondents from 18 US utilities (or utility holding companies). The scores are all normalized to 0-100 to see it in percentage. The thick line is the average of all responses. It should be noted that there is not much variation between the rankings of the various choices. At one extreme, we see a company like AES that is clearly convinced what few storage applications (services) make sense for them (ranked 100%) and what do not (ranked 0%). At the other extreme, we see many utilities at “the roof of the chart”, with almost the same high score for their first, second, third, and even the eighth choice for storage.
This small variation between the first and other choices of storage applications may indicate that many of the surveyed utilities are not quite convinced which of the first eight applications of energy storage are best for them. Clearly, there are a few leaders among utilities that have been investigating and doing storage projects, and thus have a relatively clearer conviction or differentiation between their choices. Based on the responses from these 18 utilities, one may conclude that many US utilities may not have yet identified a specific need to be addressed by energy storage located on their distribution circuits.
One may rightfully claim that energy storage can offer so many values to so many different stakeholders that this is the source of the challenge in identifying the best uses. This characteristic of energy storage could make it a challenge to find the “best use” but, sooner or later, we need to be convinced whether energy storage could deliver its promised values for specific grid needs or not.
What can we do about it?
As a former utility person who spent 30 years working in R&D, transmission, distribution and generation departments of one of the largest utilities in the US and launched many MW-scale energy storage projects, I have two recommendations for Utility executives:
1. If you are semi-active on storage and have some experience with storage demonstration projects, stop pursuing more demonstration projects and look at storage as “a real solution for real problems”. Once you shift to this course of action, you will realize that there are indeed some concrete problems around the system that energy storage can address in a cost-effective manner. Some of the sodium sulfur battery installations I did during my utility years in early 2000s were recognized to be the only solution that could be realized in less than a year as compared to building new power lines or substations. Your perspective will impact how you look at the grid problems and see the storage values. After all, not all inputs to a business case analysis are purely black and white.
2. Develop a strategy/roadmap for deployment of energy storage, particularly in conjunction with renewables. If it was 2010 or earlier, I would encourage utilities to do it internally (kudos to those who have already started it). However, time is of the essence. If you have not done so yet, seek external help to enable your organization to accelerate the implementation of strategic storage applications. You will be at a disadvantage if you attempt to gradually develop an internal expertise at this stage in such a rapidly growing field that, in some cases, is threatening the traditional utility business models across the world. A timely action could change this threat into new opportunities.
“Distributed Energy Storage Roadmap” Survey
In September 2013, DNV GL (formerly DNV KEMA) was asked by The National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries (“NAATBatt”) to survey US utilities and some other key stakeholders of the electricity grid concerning their views about the optimal use of distributed energy storage. This study was sponsored by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and copies of the completed survey results “Distributed Energy Storage Roadmap” are available from both Naatbatt and DNV GL websites. Figure 2 shows a list of the surveyed utilities and other stakeholders.
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