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Energy Storage and Solar: “Any More Questions?”

Jurgen Krehnke Reliable, cost-effective energy storage is repeatedly cited by energy industry observers as the final barrier to realizing the full potential of solar. “Everyone agrees that solar by itself is a fine energy source, but solar does pose operational issues for electric utilities as penetration increases”, says Jurgen Krehnke, President of Technologies at Eden Energy Group, and a member of the SEPA Board of Directors. “These issues are all addressed by storage. Add storage to solar, and one can say, ‘Any more questions?’ ”

In September, Krehnke attended the Energy Storage North America (ESNA) conference in San Jose, CA on behalf of SEPA to take a read on how energy storage is progressing along the path to full commercial viability. After the conference, SEPA sat down with him to discuss his observations.

SEPA: Jurgen, what was your impression of the ESNA conference?
Jurgen Krehnke: This conference was well conceived and well organized and the attendees were excited and enthusiastic.
At least 10 people at the conference came up to me with the same comment – in almost the same words. They said, “This reminds me of solar conferences I attended x number of years ago”, where x ranged between 8 and 15 years. Everyone hopes that the storage cost curve will bend down as rapidly as solar prices have.

SEPA: Did you get a sense of the state of commercial readiness for storage?
JK: I approached exhibitors at the conference with the mindset of a project developer wanting to incorporate storage into microgrid projects. “Your solution sounds terrific,” I said to early stage companies with great-sounding names. “When can I have it?” Generally I was told to look for a prototype “sometime next year.”

I’m a project-oriented guy. If I see the potential, I want to use it. If you make the price right, I will buy it. And I am not talking about “cheap” but rather “fair value”. But when I find out that prototypes aren’t quite ready yet, it realistically means that scaled-up production is at least 2-3 years away.

SEPA: What battery technologies looked promising?
JK: It’s hard even for me to keep track of the “alphabet soup” of battery chemistry. The early stage companies all claim to have a technology that is environmentally safe, that doesn’t heat up and has target roundtrip efficiencies of 80 percent and above.

At Eden Energy, we will follow 8 or 10 of these vendors closely. One or more of them will become great companies, but I just can’t predict which ones right now.

SEPA: So where does that leave us at the moment?
JK: I think the consensus among the attendees was that lead-acid would remain the battery workhorse for off-grid and residential backup but it has drawbacks for large-scale utility use. Lithium ion needs to prove that it can scale beyond cars and residential uses. Flow batteries were discussed for their promise for scaling up to the multiple megawatt level.

SEPA: This conference took place at a propitious time: California regulators had just issued a proposed decision [editor: since turned into a ruling] directing the state’s three utilities to meet aggressive targets totaling 1.3 gigawatts of storage by 2020. Was there much buzz about that?
JK: Absolutely. With California leading the way, there is the potential to achieve economies of scale similar to those that propelled solar into the spotlight. If we have some technical breakthroughs combined with scale-up, we could see storage take hold faster than anyone thinks, including me.

SEPA: Any final thoughts?
JK: Not surprisingly, cost is on everyone’s mind. On the other hand, everyone also acknowledges that many of the issues with solar – ramping, intermittency and variability – simply go away with viable storage. That leaves us with the difficult question of determining storage’s “fair value” when it comes to peak reduction, ramp support, frequency regulation or demand charges.

I don’t sense much resistance to storage. Utilities seem to be much more embracing of storage than the reaction we sometimes see towards solar. There is a strong determination from all sectors to deploy storage as cost and value meet.