Google and Microsoft explain their storage plans

BY RICHARD HEAP:

The falling cost of batteries is attracting data-hungry corporates to energy storage. This was a key trend at the annual conference of the US Energy Storage Association last week.

On 27th August, experts from Google and Microsoft set out their investment plans for storage during a session called ‘The New Consumers’. They explained how storage would complement their renewables investment plans; and how it would help both their own operations and the grid. For both, cost is vital.

We’ll look at what they said shortly.

To put their plans in context, let’s look at the presentation from Manuel Perez Dubuc, president and CEO of Fluence, earlier in the event. On 25th August, he explained how falling prices made new uses of batteries commercially viable.

He said battery cells cost around $750/kWh in 2011, which meant they could be used economically for frequency regulation and generation enhancement.

By 2014, this had fallen to around $400/kWh, which meant they could also be used for peak power. And continued falls to $100/kWh in 2019 opened up a huge range of additional uses, such as pairing storage with solar and wind at hybrid projects. Now they can be used to enhance transmission grids too.

“This is a massive solution to transmission bottlenecks all over the world,” he said, adding they would be economic to use for critical power from 2021/22 as costs keep falling.

These improvements are also attracting interest from corporates, which now see energy storage systems – not just batteries – as key to their energy plans.

Corporate storage plans

“Energy storage has come a very long way over the last 5-10 years and is now what I would call a more mature technology,” said Maud Texier, carbon free energy lead at Google. “In terms of cost, batteries have opened the doors to a lot of applications in a lot of markets… We see a lot of value in adding storage within our portfolio.”

Google has used 100% renewables for electricity since 2017, and now wants to use carbon-free energy 24/7 across its operations.

The firm will do this by continuing to sign large wind and solar off-take deals, but wants to go beyond that by buying clean energy on every grid in which it runs data centres or other operations. Texier said Google is set to become more reliant on storage for load shifting to help achieve these goals.

Brandon Middaugh, director of the climate innovation fund at Microsoft, set out three ways energy storage would help the company to achieve its energy goals, which include 100% energy from wind, solar and hydro by 2025; going carbon negative by 2030; and removing all of its historic emissions by 2050.

First, it plans to cut carbon emissions in its cloud computing infrastructure, which includes over 100 data centres and more than 2million miles of fiber optics. To do this, the company needs to ensure renewables can be reliable back-up power, and so plans to pair its renewables assets with storage.

Its first project to do this is the 37MW Tullahennel wind farm in Ireland.

Second, the company is looking to use energy storage, either long-duration systems or green hydrogen, to replace diesel back-up generation at its sites. Middaugh said it has piloted long-duration flow batteries and hydrogen to do this for some servers.

And third, she said Microsoft is looking at business models where it could use large storage systems at its sites to support grids. This could provide additional resilience for electricity grids and support the rollout of more renewables.

She said: “It’s essential that the [storage] technologies come down the cost curve, as well as get proven out in the market, so that we know that we can adopt these solutions to balance the renewables in our portfolio as well as support our critical infrastructure as back-up.”

The session also included a talk from Adam Kramer, executive vice president of strategy at US data centre operator Switch.

He explained how the improving economics of solar-and-storage has enabled the company to start work on four such projects in 2020, with a total 555MW solar capacity and 800MW battery storage using Tesla technology.

Kramer said recent falls in battery prices had enabled the company to commit to solar-and-storage projects that it wouldn’t have been able to as recently as 2017: “This is why we were finally able to move ahead and pull the trigger on these four massive projects in the state of Nevada.”

Corporate confidence can only be good for storage. It shows that not only is the industry on the right track when it comes to cost reductions, but also that further reductions are possible as corporates with huge financial and technical clout enter the market. A great message for tough times.

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