White House Summit on Scaling Renewable Energy and Storage

Electric utilities and technology developers at the cutting edge of renewable energy generation and energy storage met at a White House-hosted “Summit on Scaling Renewable Energy and Storage with Smart Markets” this week to exchange ideas and explore how to rapidly scale these technologies to make tomorrow’s electricity grid cleaner and cheaper. I had the pleasure of participating, representing both NRDC and the Community Storage Initiative, where I serve on the advisory council.

More and more utilities, equipment manufacturers, and others are working to develop energy storage using equipment already located in households and businesses that also can help make the electricity grid cleaner and cheaper, as summarized in a report the White House released as background for the summit. (Storage makes it possible to take advantage of solar energy even when the sun isn’t shining and wind power when the wind isn’t blowing. And if more is generated during periods when energy service needs are low, these emissions-free sources have to be curtailed from coming into the electric system.) 

And many of these energy companies are eager to share their experiences and insights, as shown by the enthusiastic response to the Community Storage Initiative, which has already attracted a great group of supporters. (More on the initiative below.)

Yesterday’s White House summit was an important step forward, as it included many of the nation’s largest electric utilities that are making significant new commitments to developing smart markets, renewable energy, and storage. The summit included electricity regulators in California, New York, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) talking about their leading efforts in this area. And of course, it provided another great example of key stakeholders coming together to exchange views and develop this opportunity. For our part, the Community Storage Initiative announced the inaugural CSI Leadership Forum in Minneapolis on July 20 and 21.

Energy storage can make the electricity system more flexible and ready to use renewable generation that has variable output, like wind and solar. Storage with advanced communication and controls can even offer the prospect of providing the grid with “ancillary services” like frequency regulation and load following, reducing the costly need for power plants to quickly ramp up and down as total energy consumption changes during the day.

The idea behind community storage is two-fold:

  • To coordinate the dispatch and optimization of premises-based energy storage resources, often on the customer’s side of the energy meter, to achieve electric system-wide benefit; and
  • For the developers of storage resources to work together and exchange information to deliver on the opportunity.

There’s a lot of focus on installing dedicated batteries at consumers’ premises and on driving down the currently high cost of those installations. The advances are coming rapidly, and this will surely pay off over the years to come.

However, there is also a growing recognition that many homes and businesses already have energy storage devices, and that it takes only a relatively low cost effort of adding smart communication and controls to make these helpful to the grid, as well. Electric vehicles are an excellent example. Adding smart charging comes at low cost, and done right, doesn’t interfere with mobility. Another great example is grid-connected operation of the tens of millions of “hidden batteries” already in our homes in the form of water heaters. Another rapidly emerging example of a customer-located energy storage technology is integrated ice-making air conditioners, although this involves installing equipment specifically to provide storage services.

Water heaters and storage

And if you’re puzzled by the idea that tens of millions of hidden batteries are already out there, see my previous blogs here, here and here about how our humble water heaters can be turned into effective and low-cost energy storage devices – all while keeping our showers hot. Grid-connected water heaters are electric water heaters with communication and control capability that allow utilities to use them as low-cost thermal batteries, heating the water when power is cheaper and cleaner, and deferring heating when power is expensive

NRDC, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the Peak Load Management Alliance (PLMA) have been working together to explore advanced electric water heating technologies, and found enormous opportunities in both high efficiency “heat pump” water heaters and in grid-connected ones. (Heat pump water heaters work something like a refrigerator in reverse, collecting heat from air around the water heater and moving it into the tank.)

However, the pathways for making full use of all forms of energy storage opportunities in homes and commercial buildings, including grid-interactive water heaters, are not well developed. Given the great economic and environmental potential for storage, but an absence of obvious venues for information exchange, NRDC joined with NRECA and PLMA in February as founding supporters of the Community Storage Initiative, and were promptly joined by the Edison Electric Institute and the American Public Power Association.

The Community Storage Initiative is dedicated to encouraging manufacturers, utilities, and other stakeholders to explore and exchange ideas and experiences on energy storage opportunities using customers’ equipment. In the short time since we launched the initiative, it’s been great to see great enthusiasm and interest in sharing experiences. If you’d like to join us, please visit the CSI website.

What’s next?

It’s early days for delivering on the potential for energy storage located at homes and businesses. Our CSI will be doing what we can to promote the exchange of ideas and experience in the full range or key areas, from technology to marketing to consumer incentives and pricing to whatever is needed, including holding the inaugural CSI Leadership Forum in July to chart the course and prioritize our efforts. And NRDC will continue supporting regulatory and policy reforms that tap the potential, examples of which you can find here for New York, California and FERC.

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