Energy | July 15, 2009 |
Ill Wind Blows Over Storage Market
The majority of wind energy development companies we've spoken with say there's no need for storage; any limitations in the ability to distribute wind power are due to a lack of transmission infrastructure. By contrast, many energy insiders say storage could make the business case for wind even stronger. Objective analysis indicates that while need may be too strong of a word, in many cases storage would greatly benefit wind.
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), has taken a firm position against storage, especially onsite at wind generation facilities. According to the recent Pike Research report by David Link entitled Energy Storage Technology Markets, "...The association’s official position is that storage systems are not required to integrate wind energy into electric power systems.... AWEA’s reticence comes down to simple economics, as developers do not want to bear the additional cost of storage, on top of the cost they are already bearing to deploy core wind generation assets.
This posture is understandable, if not exactly correct. After decades of development, wind power is now approaching the cost of fossil fuel energy in many locations (grid parity), so wind developers don't want to scare investors or lending institutions into thinking that storage is required. That much is true in some cases, especially if you don't care about unutilized power generation that's well, gone with the wind.
At the Storage Week conference, we heard many stories about wind projects that are only harnessing a fraction of the available wind because of low demand at night or insufficient transmission capabilities. Brett Perlman, a former Commissioner from the Texas PUC and now Vice President of Strategy and Development at Atreides Capital, said wind farms in West Texas have a 9 gigawatt capacity, but 4 gigawatts of the wind can't get back to the grid. Just imagine all that energy being wasted, while during the day natural gas and coal plants are in full effect to meet peak demand.
An analogy that springs to mind since it's July -- you don't "need" a bathing suit to cool off in a fountain on the way home from work, but isn't it preferable to walking or riding the rest of the way in a soggy suit?
Perlman says the problem in Texas is insufficient transmission -- an easy argument to make because while sometimes true, power producers usually don't foot the bill and have a strong aversion to even mouthing the world "storage" when they are looking for project funding. Negotations often require transmission commitments to match the wind project before going forward.
Conversely, Dr. Imre Gyuk the DOE's Program Manager for Energy Storage Research (hence a self interest in promoting storage) told of Japanese wind farms that don't put any of their power on the grid at night, instead storing it all and selling the power during peak hours. And they're profitable.
Stephen Byrd, the Chief Economic Officer of Energy Storage and Power, gave another indirect example of why wind companies may be down on storage: its growth could also help to delay the end of some coal power production. Byrd cited instances that in places where wind energy is plentiful during off-peak hours, coal plants (because of CO2 emissions) are being spun down or even mothballed at great cost to their operators so that the maximum amount of wind power is consumed. If storage were available, then the excess energy could be stored and used at peak, with a very low CO2 footprint.
Rather than looking for a yes or no answer, it's best to ask the economic questions to see if they add up. What is the model for cheap and abundant off-peak wind to be stored and sold during peak times? What can be paid per megawatt of storage capacity to turn a profit?
An even more challenging question is: at what point is it better to invest in storage as an alternative to adding transmission lines? In simplistic terms, if you build the transmission line to meet the maximum wind output, you've overbuilt for what you need during the vast majority of the day. But if you build smaller lines and add some storage, you might get greater efficiency.
The biggest related question of them all has yet to be studied: how does the cost per megawatt of storage equate to cost per megawatt per mile of transmission lines, and what's the relative energy efficiency when including losses? Several attendees of the conference asked questions around the periphery, and all agreed that no one -- EPRI, DOE, AWEA, etc, has tried to tackle it, partially because of the complexity of the model due to a plethora of variables.
I spoke with Gary Tarplee, Managing Director of Edison Mission Energy, which develops wind and solar projects around the country. He admitted that "Wind needs storage... but developers don't want to pay for it. They don't want its cost to be associated with their cost."
So if the wind industry is afraid to ask the question, perhaps third party storage companies will. Tarplee agreed that there may be a business case for third-party companies to buy excess wind at night, store it, and sell it during the day. Which leads to questions for another day: Where should the storage be located? At the wind farm? At substations? Closer to the edge?
John Gartner is the editor in chief of Matter Network and an industry analyst for Pike Research