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The promise — and importance — of energy storage
February 13, 2017

Most people know that batteries store electricity — in our cameras, cars and portable laptops. Now batteries are used to store energy on a larger scale — for buildings powered by rooftop solar or wind installations, and on the electrical grid.

Headshot of man in suit (Courtesy of Charles Hanley)
Charles Hanley is senior manager for the Grid Modernization Program at Sandia Labs. (Courtesy photo)

But high-tech batteries are just one type of energy storage. More than 200 companies from around the world are looking at new ways to store energy, energy expert and entrepreneur Bartosz Wojszczyk says.

What does energy storage have to do with you? For one thing, it can ensure that when you flip on a switch, the light works.

Storage technologies are important pieces of the energy transition puzzle not only because they can stockpile electricity for use later, but because they help stabilize the flow of electricity, especially as intermittent power sources such as solar and wind enter the network.

“New renewable and clean energy technologies that are coming in at reasonable prices are driving us from that traditional model, where we have a big centralized plant that provides electricity through transmission lines to our homes,” says Charles Hanley, who manages grid modernization, energy storage, distributed energy resources and other programs for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Thanks to solar panels and wind turbines, people can now generate their own electricity at home, or in places far from the power grid. That makes efficient energy storage essential.

“Storage will be more and more important to smooth out some of the variability that comes when the wind isn’t blowing, when the sun goes behind the clouds,” Hanley says.

Solar energy technologies can generate a lot of electricity during the daytime, although peak electricity demand often occurs later, when people come home from work and school. That’s when they turn on lights and turn up the heat in winter or the air conditioners in the summertime. If that daytime energy is stored, it can be used later when it’s needed and more valuable.

A number of technologies are already in use: various types of batteries, hydropower and thermal energy storage, to name a few. But scaling these technologies to meet demands of power grids is still daunting and costly.

More research and development is needed on affordable, efficient storage technologies.

Fortunately, big businesses are investing in energy storage research and development. Wojszczyk says the energy storage market is set to expand dramatically, citing the Boston Consulting Group prediction that the energy storage market will be worth up to $400 billion by 2020. That includes grid-connected, non-grid-connected and different applications.

That investment should eventually bring affordable storage technologies to the marketplace. That’s what happened with solar and wind technologies. Those prices have dropped significantly in the past few years.

Row of power boxes (© AP Images)
Inverters provide battery backup and are one of the technologies used to store energy from solar or wind at small businesses and homes. (© AP Images)
Two computer screens on a desktop (© AP Images)
Virtually monitoring the flow of electricity to and from the energy grid is integral to new systems for storing and distributing energy. (© AP Images)

But Hanley says it’s important to remember that, along with manufacturing batteries and other energy storage tech, “the system that goes around them” is critical. That includes advanced power electronics: technologies — some under development — that can regulate voltage and respond to fluctuations, and other controls and dispatching tools to supply safe, reliable electricity, whether it goes to a national power grid or to businesses, homeowners or communities that have their own distributed energy resources.

“We are going through a transition in terms of energy technologies and our whole energy infrastructure,” Hanley says.