Why energy storage is (not) a dead-end industry

Energy storage industry experts respond to the damning report on energy return on investment from IFK Berlin. Photo credit: Airlight Energy, CSP thermal energy storage

Energy storage industry experts respond to the IFK Berlin report on energy return on investment (EROI) for renewable energy. Photo: Airlight Energy, CSP thermal energy storage

Is investment in energy storage worth the effort? Didn’t we find out last week that our industry is going nowhere because of the fundamental constraint of its energy return on investment (EROI)? Perhaps we had better take another look, just to be on the safe side.

First off: let’s not panic. While EROI studies point to a possibly critical problem in relying too heavily on energy storage for renewable power generation, the effects, if real, are presumably only likely to kick in at relatively high levels of penetration.

We are a long way off that yet. Meanwhile, there is the fact that the science around EROI, while apparently robust, is still relatively immature and clearly evolving, as indeed are the technologies and manufacturing processes being described.

This potentially implies uncertainty around current EROI assertions and predictions.

Certainly, most sector professionals consulted by Energy Storage Report had few qualms about dismissing the research: “BS” and “hokum” were among the terms used by knowledgeable industry insiders.

Some observers question the impartiality of parts of the research to date.
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Why energy storage is a dead-end industry

A report by IFK Berlin on the energy return on investment (EROI) of battery energy storage, when used to balance intermittent renewable energy on a grid scale, suggests it may not be viable.

An IFK Berlin report on the energy return on investment (EROI) of battery energy storage suggests it isn’t viable when used to balance intermittent renewable energy. Photo credit: Guto

Could energy storage send us back to the Stone Age? Galling as it may seem to those of us who view storage as the solution to the problem of renewable energy intermittency, and hence the key to a carbon-free future, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests this might indeed be the case.

The studies have nothing to do with energy storage’s main preoccupation at the moment, which is cost. Instead, they deal with a much more fundamental issue: how much energy it takes to be able to store the energy in the first place.

The concept of energy return on investment (EROI, also called energy returned on energy invested) is critical to energy storage because it provides a measure of whether a particular technology might be appropriate for use at scale.

In essence, if it takes more energy to create a given storage mechanism than the mechanism could ever deliver over the course of its life, then the net result of using the technology is that it will cannibalise power rather than return it to the system.
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Arizona’s answer to the US carbon headache?

Energy storage in Arizona should see huge growth if new procurement proposals from the state utility APS and RUCO are approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission. Photo: Abengoa, Solana solar power station

Energy storage in Arizona should see huge growth if new procurement proposals from the state utility APS and RUCO become part of Arizona’s energy policy. Photo credit: Abengoa, Solana solar power plant

Arizona could become the next big market for energy storage if a settlement agreed last month gets the go-ahead from regulators. And in doing so it could help lead the way in overcoming an energy headache facing a number of American states. As reported in Greentechgrid, state utility Arizona Public Service (APS) and the state’s Residential Utility Consumer Office (RUCO) have agreed that the electricity company should evaluate energy storage as an alternative to peaker plants going forward.

The measure, which still needs to be approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), essentially allows storage, along with renewable energy sources, energy efficiency and demand response, to compete with peakers on a like-for-like basis.

“RUCO’s proposed conditions establish a procurement process for consideration of alternative resources, including single or multiple storage projects through 2021,” says the submission to the ACC.
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When batteries beat traditional power

The largest commercial battery storage system in Europe, commissioned by WEMAG in Schwerin, Germany, is proving that battery energy storage can beat traditional power for grid frequency regulation. Photo credit: Younicos

The largest commercial battery storage system in Europe, commissioned by WEMAG in Schwerin, Germany, is showing that battery energy storage can beat traditional power for grid frequency regulation. Photo credit: Younicos

Battery storage is usually seen as being a handy adjunct to help renewable energy square up to traditional power plants. But on frequency regulation, at least, it seems batteries may actually be better than the generation sources they are helping to supplant.

That, at least, is the consensus emerging from early operating experience at Europe’s largest commercial battery power plant, the 5MWh lithium-ion facility that WEMAG has commissioned from Younicos in Schwerin, Germany.

“Whereas coal-fired and other thermal plants typically take up to 30 seconds to adjust production up or down, and then just hit the neighbourhood of where they are supposed to be, batteries react within milliseconds,” explains Philip Hiersemenzel of Younicos.

The fact that batteries might beat traditional power plants for frequency regulation has long been touted as a big selling point for battery storage and has already helped sell projects in the US.

Now the performance of WEMAG’s installation is strengthening that business case.
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Solar thermal energy storage loses its way

Does phase-change material storage have advantages over molten salt thermal energy storage for a concentrated solar power plant? Photo credit: Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, SolarReserve

Is phase-change material storage better than molten salt thermal energy storage for a concentrated solar power plant? Photo: Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, SolarReserve

Too much salt is not just bad for your health. It could also harm the likelihood of thermal energy storage (TES) cost reduction across the entire concentrated solar power (CSP) industry.

Right now, molten salt TES is seen as critical in justifying the high cost of CSP versus other renewable energy sources, such as solar PV or wind.

TES allows CSP, or solar thermal energy, to deliver stable, round-the-clock power, which is more valuable to grid operators than the intermittent generation provided by renewable alternatives.

But it is just possible that a growing preference for molten salt among CSP developers could hamper the chances of adopting more efficient and cost-effective types of TES.
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Energy storage news headlines

As we reach our second birthday, Energy Storage Report is changing the way it brings you the global energy storage news headlines.

As we reach our second birthday, we are changing the way Energy Storage Report brings you the global energy storage news headlines. Photo credit: Anssi Koskinen

Believe it or not, Energy Storage Report is two years old this week. We’d like to thank the growing number of fans who have followed us via email, online and on Twitter over the last 24 months.

Our annual anniversary is also a time when we take stock of progress and bring in changes that we hope will improve our value to you, our readers.

A year ago we gave up simply re-packaging industry news in order to provide a deeper level of analysis, which seems to have gone down well in terms of bringing in new readers and generating comment.

This year we are ringing the changes again, albeit in a smaller way. For reasons too tedious to mention, we feel there isn’t much value in reproducing our weekly headlines, which already appear in our weekly free newsletter and on our Twitter feed, on our website.

So, effective today, we’ll be dropping the news headlines from our website. As a newsletter subscriber, you will of course continue to get them for free every week in your inbox. If you are not already receiving our newsletter, why not subscribe now? Or, if you want, you can find out about breaking energy storage news as soon as we do, on Twitter.