Batteries may solve energy grid problems

The energy grid was not designed for today’s myriad uses. With increased electricity use, consumer-produced power and an aging infrastructure, utility companies are looking for ways to more reliably and efficiently deliver electricity. Haresh Kamath, energy storage program manager  with the Electric Power Research Institute  in Palo Alto, Calif, thinks part of the answer lies with grid-based energy storage. 

The old power grid just sent power, but today's grid has to take on power from both directions. Haresh Kamath thinks that energy storage can mitigate some problems that user-generated energy is causing. Haresh Kamath/EPRI
The old power grid just sent power, but today’s grid has to take on power from both directions. AAAS panelist Haresh Kamath thinks that energy storage can mitigate some problems that user-generated energy is causing.
Haresh Kamath/Electric Power Research Institute

The power grid is a complicated system. When someone turns on a light, power plants must ramp up production to produce more power. If that light is turned off, the power plant powers down a little.

But with energy storage, plants may be able to produce a more constant supply of power, charging the batteries when there’s too much power being generated and supplementing power with the batteries when there’s not enough power.

This would also solve problems when users are generating power. Right now, excess power generated from consumer photovoltaics is pumped back into the grid. But the grid was not designed to receive power, just deliver it. If that extra power could be stored near the consumer, it would allow the current grid system to continue.

But it’s not just hooking up some cellphone batteries to power lines.

“Just about every energy storage system on the grid today is a demonstration system,” Kamath said at a AAAS session about batteries on Friday. “Even though it’s being used in a commercial way, it’s not a sustainable business model.”

Kamath said the market for energy storage is now focused on mobile devices like laptops and smartphones.

Russell Moy, an audience member, claimed that battery makers are hesitant to make car batteries, let alone large-scale storage systems, due to the high markup of consumer devices. Moy wondered how utilities would convince battery makers to sell components for the grid. Kamath said that utilities are seeking a different kind of battery.

“Utilities are looking for very rugged systems,” he said. “Typically when you look at utility equipment, the life is measured in decades, not years.”

For that kind of longevity, utilities would be looking to build new types of energy storage. This could range from storing energy in electric-car batteries to building dedicated stations near the consumers.

Batteries aren’t the only solution though. Kamath pointed to Germany, where solar panels are generating excess power.

“At certain times of the day, you sometimes had the inverters strip offline because of voltage constraints,” he said. “And so what they did was they said, ‘We don’t need storage to solve this, we just need an advanced inverter that can actually recognize these conditions and make sure that they’re minimized.'”