Interview: Nate Washburn, Director of DER/I&C Design, Consumers Energy

BY BEN COOK AND ROBERT MALTHOUSE

  • Consumers Energy has brought forward storage installation plan
  • Despite cost concerns, the utility wants storage to play ‘major role’
  • Alternatives to li-ion batteries could be cost-effective, says Washburn

Consumers Energy, Michigan’s largest energy provider, has become a relatively recent convert to energy storage but wants to establish itself as a pioneer.

It’s an ambitious target and, if achieved, would mean that Consumers Energy will have stopped using coal for electricity by 2025, just four years from now.

It would also make it one of the first utilities in the US to go coal-free.

Consumers Energy wants to speed up the installation of energy storage in order to achieve its goal. Initially its target was to install 50MW over a 20-year period, but now there is a greater sense of urgency.

Around seven weeks ago, the company announced that it was going to install the 50MW by the end of the decade.

Though the target has been brought forward, the amount of capacity is small and the company’s hesitancy in aiming bigger is partly due to cost concerns.

The utility’s Nate Washburn believes the cost of energy storage is a barrier to its wider adoption. However, he is optimistic that the development of alternatives to lithium-ion batteries could bring costs down and make storage more viable (see Q&A below).

Four years ago, in a sign of the company’s change of strategy in relation to energy storage, Washburn was appointed Consumers Energy’s battery storage program manager and one of his first objectives was to develop the company’s front-of-the-meter battery strategy for the period 2018-25. Then earlier this year, he was appointed director of distributed energy resources industrial and commercial design, a role in which he leads a team of engineers and designers engineering battery and solar projects.

Back in 2019, Consumers Energy installed Michigan’s first ever rooftop solar array and battery storage system in Grand Rapids. Though small, it was one of its first incursions into the world of storage and complemented another storage system it had installed at Western Michigan University.

Now the company wants storage to play a major role in its ‘Clean Energy Plan’. Energy Storage Report spoke to Washburn about its strategy.

What are currently the biggest opportunities in energy storage?

Currently the industry normal duration for a battery is not more than four hours. The opportunity we have moving forward is lengthening that duration to eight hours, 24 hours, even a week – to the point of seasonal storage. We will need longer-lasting batteries as intermittent generation penetration increases.

How would you describe your company’s growth strategy in storage?

At Consumers Energy, we recently announced our bold Clean Energy Plan that would make us one of the first utilities in the nation to go coal free by 2025.

As part of that plan, we will focus heavily on increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency to meet Michigan’s energy needs and to continue the journey to net zero carbon emissions by 2040. But just as importantly, battery technology will help us store electricity generated by solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources to help meet demand. In our 2018 Clean Energy Plan, we proposed installing 50MW of battery storage between 2032 and 2040. The updated 2021 Clean Energy Plan accelerates that timeline to 2030.

What are your company’s current storage investment priorities?

Consumers Energy currently has three batteries in service and two more batteries that are part of ongoing projects – one in Standish, Michigan and another in White Pigeon, Michigan. Battery storage will serve a major role in our Clean Energy Plan moving forward.

What do you consider to be the biggest obstacles to the wider adoption of energy storage?

Today, a major obstacle to the wider adoption of energy storage is cost. Energy storage prices remain more expensive than traditional technologies, given the cost of supplies and materials needed. Other clean energy technologies – such as wind and solar – are more advanced and their cost have come down over the years. Battery storage is still relatively early in its development.

What do you think will be the biggest trends in storage in the coming year?

One of the biggest trends in energy storage will be the development of other storage technologies becoming viable alternatives to lithium-ion batteries. These emerging technologies could help batteries become more efficient, lower cost, and extend duration.

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