These Southern California Power Companies Are Leading the Energy Storage Revolution

The Coachella Valley’s two electric utilities are national leaders in one of the hottest clean-energy technologies, according to a first-of-its-kind report.

The Imperial Irrigation District and Southern California Edison brought more battery storage onto the grid than any other U.S. electric utilities in 2016, according to data compiled by the Smart Electric Power Alliance, which was released this week. The Washington, D.C.-based trade organization surveyed 178 utilities, and found that 43 added storage to their portfolios last year — none more so than Imperial and Edison.

Energy storage is a simple concept: Generate electricity when it’s cheap, and stow those electrons away until you need them. While large-scale batteries are still relatively expensive, they’re becoming increasingly popular among utilities as more solar and wind farms are built. Those renewable energy facilities generate cheap electricity, but only when the sun is shining or the wind blows. That doesn’t always line up with when homes and businesses are using energy — hence the growing interest in batteries.

“The technology is rapidly improving and becoming more economic,” said Brenda Chew, a research analyst at the Smart Electric Power Alliance, whose members include utilities, solar installers and storage companies, among others. “Overall, it’s just seen as an important player for integrating higher levels of renewable (energy).”

The Imperial Irrigation District — which serves 150,000 customers in the Imperial Valley and the eastern Coachella Valley — opened a 30-megawatt battery in El Centro, one of the country’s largest lithium-ion batteries, in October. General Electric and Samsung were among the contractors who worked on the project, which cost $38 million.

 District officials have said the battery will make it easier for them to incorporate more solar and wind into their energy mix.

“There’s just so much that the battery can do, and it’s so new, and we’re learning more about it every day,” Matt Dessert, then a member of the district’s board of directors, said at the battery’s commissioning ceremony last year. “It’s going to be awesome to watch this facility grow, to educate all of us in the benefits of battery storage.”

That single battery accounted for all the energy storage Imperial deployed in 2016. Southern California Edison, which powers the rest of the Coachella Valley, installed several smaller batteries — but they added up to a whopping 63 megawatts.

“It’s a tremendous amount of storage, probably the equivalent of about 25 percent of what the country has historically seen in any given year,” said Colin Cushnie, Edison’s vice president of energy procurement and management.

The U.S. added a record 221 megawatts of storage in 2016, according to the consulting firm Greentech Media and the Energy Storage Association, a trade group. San Diego Gas & Electric came in fifth on SEPA’s list of top storage utilities with 17 megawatts, and Northern California’s Pacific Gas & Electric placed seventh, with nine megawatts.

Edison’s storage projects included a 10-megawatt system in Ontario, which was built by Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors at the company’s Gigafactory near Reno, Nevada. Edison also deployed two 10-megawatt batteries built by General Electric and Samsung, which are connected to natural gas-fired power plants in Norwalk and Rancho Cucamonga. Those batteries are designed to reduce climate pollution and other hazardous emissions from those inefficient “peaker” plants by helping them fire up more quickly.

RELATED: Coachella Valley cities among top natural gas guzzlers

In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered Edison and California’s other major investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric, to collectively buy at least 1,325 megawatts of storage by 2020. Edison was already working to meet its 580-megawatt mandate, Cushnie said, but its efforts sped up dramatically last year after a massive, months-long natural-gas leak at Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon gas storage field outside Los Angeles.

With Aliso Canyon mostly shuttered for the foreseeable future — it’s still unclear whether state lawmakers will allow the facility to reopen — regulators started to worry that there wouldn’t be enough natural gas available to supply Southern California power plants, leading to blackouts. So last May, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered Edison to buy as much cost-effective storage as it could — by the end of the year.

The result was a storage gold rush. The vast majority of the batteries Edison installed in 2016 were a direct result of the Aliso Canyon situation, Cushnie said.

“From the time of the mandate to do more energy storage as quickly as possible, it was about seven months total (until the projects came online), which in the energy business is an extremely accelerated time frame,” Cushnie said. “Those things typically take a couple years, if not longer, and it was done in seven months.”

RELATED: This bill could take energy storage to the next level

Large-scale batteries controlled by utilities aren’t the only type of energy storage. As the cost of lithium-ion batteries drops, smaller storage systems sold by companies like Tesla and sonnenBatterie are becoming more popular among homes and businesses, especially those with rooftop solar panels that can generate their own electricity.

A new bill in the state Legislature could make those small-scale batteries more affordable. Senate Bill 700, which was approved by the chamber’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee this week, would require Edison, PG&E and SDG&E to offer rebates for storage systems. According to the Senate’s bill analysis, the rebate program would be funded by utility ratepayers and cost at least $62.25 million per year, with up to a quarter of that money set aside for projects that benefit disadvantaged communities. The legislation was written by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

RELATED: Coachella Valley at forefront of energy storage

Californians can already get rebates for storage through the state’s Self-Generation Incentive Program, which will start accepting new rebate applications May 1. But the new program proposed in the Senate would have several key differences, according to Benjamin Airth, a senior project manager at the Center for Sustainable Energy, a San Diego-based nonprofit that supports the bill. Among those differences, the new program would also fund job-training initiatives to help the storage industry take off, Airth said.

“We want to give folks the resources to get trained to understand the codes and and standards, to make sure we get quality installations going out,” he said. “It’s a critical component to market transformation.”

These Southern California Power Companies Are Leading the Energy Storage Revolution, by Sammy Roth, The Desert Sun, April 28, 2017.

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