The week before last was a busy one: three days in San Diego at the Energy Storage North America Conference and two days in Iceland at the Arctic Circle conference. San Diego was sunny and warm and the conference was highly technical. Reykjavik was windy, cool, and rainy, and the conference was very broad-covering all things arctic.
Sunny Storage News In San Diego: In San Diego, the topics related to how quickly batteries and other energy storage solutions are coming into vogue across the global power grid. An audience – that has grown 20% annual for the past several years – discussed all manner of things related to energy storage: falling cost curves, technology progress, new software applications, and business models from across the country and the world.
There is good news here. Costs of various storage technologies are declining rapidly, more applications for energy storage are cost-effective, and the technology is proving its mettle. There were numerous case studies presented by various utilities at the conference. Meanwhile, retail giant Walmart indicated it has piloted batteries to firm up on-site solar energy and is now eying broader applications, including possible back-up generation to keep stores open in extreme weather and grid outage events.
Several participants cited Southern California Edison’s decision to replace gas-fired generation – no longer available after the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak – with batteries, as an example that chemical energy storage is finally here. In this instance, the deployment of batteries will provide an ability to remedy the situation within months; most other solutions would have taken years.
Many conversations referred to the concept of energy storage as a proverbial Swiss Army Knife – a single tool with multiple uses and revenue streams that can be accessed through “value stacking” (e.g. providing short-term voltage stability, longer-term capacity and peaking services, solar-firming, energy arbitrage, and more). Big money is also sniffing around the space as well, with MacQuarie recently having made a $200 million commitment to storage projects developed by AMS, and other significant commitments to the space by the likes of Engie and Constellation/Exelon.
Storage can help stabilize the grid and vastly increased the amount of renewables that can be cost-effectively integrated in the years to come, so it is encouraging to see the progress being made.
During the previous two ESNA events in 2014 and 2015, many participants commented that the storage industry felt like the solar arena did ten years ago: close, and almost ready to take off. In San Diego, one could feel that promise getting closer. I overheard one individual say that storage felt like solar about six to eight years ago. So clearly we are making progress. And not a moment too soon…
Gloomier News From Reykjavik: I further enlarged my carbon footprint as I flew from San Diego via Boston to the Artic Circle Conference in Reykjavik. This was a meeting of 2,000 representatives from dozens of countries focused on the future of the Artic region.
This northern country is at the epicenter of climate change and it seems every Icleander you talk to, from the concierge at the hotel to the taxi driver on the way to the conference hall, will tell you stories about new and strange weather events and the loss of things (like glaciers) that existed just a few decades ago. The Arctic is projected to see impacts which are much more pronounced than down where we live in the lower 48, and people here will tell you about areas they skied on thirty years ago that are no longer there, or windstorms of unprecedented ferocity.
Those are subjective observations, but the information presented by various presenters at the conference was objective, scientific, and very sobering. The climate issue pervaded a large number of panels at the conference in one form or another.
One of the speakers in the morning plenary observed that many people talk of the rain forests as the lungs of the planet. Ice, she observed, is equally as important and serves as the planet’s circulatory system. Thus, it is not just the folks who delight in endless summers and endure interminably dark winters that need to be concerned about this. In that sense, she noted, we are all Artic nations.
One interesting thing about the economy there is that Iceland’s grid is 100% renewable and power is cheap (which is why data centers are increasingly locating there, and the reason I was speaking at the conference). I had to keep reminding myself as I walked along the waterfront at night that every light I saw blazing into the darkness was 100% carbon free.
The nexus between two cities: The progress reflected at the San Diego conference on batteries will ultimately aid Iceland as the planetary energy economy ultimately gets cleaner, decarbonized, and more affordable. And the lessons from Iceland, the measurements of ice and ocean temperatures and other variables concerning environmental health will ultimately feed into various national and state policy prescriptions in the future.
Two very different conferences suggested to me that the race for the future is on and the stakes could not be higher. Despite the damage already done, we still have a chance to minimize the overall planetary impact of our energy economy. Cost-effective tools are now available for us to transform our energy economy at the global level, and as technologies improve, and supply chains become more efficient, those tools get continuously better and cheaper. But this race is only winnable if we accurately recognize the risks we face and make a commitment to address this challenge head on.