Energy Storage That Can Free Us From The Grid Remains Elusive
For Jim and Lyn Schneider, the decision to invest in $50,000 worth of solar panels and battery storage was easy. There were no power lines near their property in a remote area near Alcova, Wyoming. The utility company estimated it would cost the couple around $80,000 to get electricity in their new home.
"It's like wow, we're gonna have to be really primitive! We're gonna be cooking on a campfire! We're gonna have to really like each other," Lyn Schneider said between bursts of laughter.
Their system of relying on solar during the day and battery power at night has worked pretty well in the four years they have lived in Wyoming.
Still, the Schneiders are surprised by how much maintenance is involved. Jim has to "equalize" the batteries once a month which is a method of cleaning that helps them to keep their charge.
"He's got a clipboard with a bunch of sheets on it that I don't know anything about," Lyn Schneider said. "He's always got his little clipboard out and he's out here checking everything!"
Another drawback of batteries is that they can be toxic, and they die. Right now, the Schneiders have to replace three of them.
The Schneiders' experience illustrates both the benefits and drawbacks of energy storage. Those same drawbacks are a big disincentive for large utility companies. Many are choosing to stick with what they know, like overbuilding infrastructure to make sure there is enough electricity to run all of our air conditioners on the hottest day in August.
"The power lines, the substations, the generation equipment, all need to be sized to meet that peak demand even if it's only for one or two hours of the year," Brian Warshay, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said.
For energy storage to provide electricity on those high demand days, the price would have to come down. The Department of Energy predicts [.pdf] that storage would be economically viable at $150/kWh or less. Although prices are dropping quickly, they are still about twice that amount.
Rocky Mountain Power, a utility with customers in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, has chosen not to invest in energy storage, for now. Over the next decade, they plan to meet demand not by building new power plants but through energy efficiency measures. Spokesman Dave Eskelsen said that when considering energy storage, cost was a factor for the utility.
"Utilities typically use proven technologies. We'll probably wait for a lot of technological development before they're employed in the large scale in the utility business," Eskelsen said.
Energy storage researchers are part of a global race to get to the point where the technology is both cost-effective and reliable. There are batteries, made by companies like Tesla and AES Energy Storage, as well as people banking away electricity in compressed air, molten salt, and in the spinning wheels of a train.
Ice Energy is one of those companies storing energy in unexpected places. It sells a product called the Ice Bear which stores energy in a gigantic block of ice at night. During the day, the ice begins to melt which is then used in conjunction with an air conditioning unit to cool down warm air.
Standing next to the Ice Bear unit at New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado, Ice Energy's Executive Vice President for Marketing Development Greg Miller explained the process in greater detail.
"When it's melting, it's taking that refrigeration from a vapor phase to a liquid phase. And that cold liquid then comes back to the air conditioner, grabs more heat, takes it back to the Ice Bear. It's just a cycle process," Miller said.
Energy storage technology has the potential to be the new frontier. But with real barriers standing in the way, guesstimates put this technology within reach at a large scale sometime between 2020 and 2030.
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.