Remember the transformation cellphones made to the communications industry? For the telecom industry — and for all of us customers — life before cellphones was entirely different from life after. Electric storage technology, that is, batteries, could have a comparable effect on the electric industry.
That’s because electricity storage is a bridge technology that can take Texas from a system of large, centralized, fossil fuel and renewable power plants, to a future of cleaner, decentralized renewable energy. And it is a crucial bridge, as Texas attempts to keep the lights on amid this technology transition.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, manages the flow of electric wholesale power to 90% of consumers in the state. The ERCOT market is undergoing a challenging transition from large centralized and controllable power plants to ever-increasing levels of variable renewable energy. Just like any new technology, there are some downsides.
The increase in renewable energy and the premature shutdown of traditional power plants is certainly resulting in less air pollution, yet at the same time creating grid reliability concerns. This transition has caused a very tight supply-demand situation in ERCOT where anything unexpected, such as an extended cold snap, extremely hot weather or excessive problems at centralized power plants, could result in rolling outages. These controlled outages are ERCOT’s way of keeping the grid in balance in an emergency and avoiding a complete systemwide blackout.
Electric energy storage can address this reliability concern, allowing the integration of more renewable energy. Storage provides another tool for ERCOT and utilities to balance energy flows, especially during peak use periods. A device that stores energy during low use times, and then discharges electricity during peak use, will make the grid more reliable, economical and cleaner.
Some background on electricity generation and delivery will help explain why storage is the next best bridge technology.
Electricity is one of the few commodities or services that doesn’t depend on storage to sell and deliver its product to consumers. Food, oil, natural gas, beverages, clothes, gasoline and most other goods are shipped from the manufacturer to the consumer and stored at various points along the way.
In contrast, electric energy is produced at the same time consumers demand it. When you flip on a light switch, a generator must immediately produce additional electricity flowing into the grid to maintain system reliability, so the lights stay on for all of us. Over the last 100 years, the electric industry has built a complex network of generators, transformers and wires to deliver this power on demand, an amazing engineering accomplishment by any measure. And, we rely on it 24/7, 365 days a year, to support our very quality of life.