Batteries Are Included

The solution to an environmental disaster in California may hold the key to the future of renewable energy.

When people began building and buying homes in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles in the 1970s, they paid little attention to a depleted oil field in nearby Aliso Canyon that had been converted into a natural gas storage facility.

electricity storageThat all changed in October 2015, when a giant geyser of gas began spewing out of ground at the Aliso facility, the second-largest gas storage unit of its kind in the U.S. The geyser of methane inundated surrounding communities, forcing thousands of residents to move to motels and other temporary housing miles away. Some residents tried to stay home and tough it out, wearing gas masks to avoid the foul-smelling air, but many of them got sick from toxic chemicals used in the effort to plug the leak. In January 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.

It took the Southern California Gas Co. nearly four months to plug the leaking well and shut down the Aliso storage facility. During the leak, an estimated 100,000 tons of methane and 8,000 tons of ethane spewed into the atmosphere—the equivalent (in terms of greenhouse gases) of the annual emissions of 1.7 million cars. The Aliso leak was the worst single natural gas leak in U.S. history in terms of its environmental impact, with a carbon footprint larger than the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. As a greenhouse gas, methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

After the Aliso gas storage facility was closed on Feb. 28, 2016, work began to find an alternative fuel source for several regional power plants that had relied on gas from Aliso. Here’s the good news: the solution chosen by the affected utilities (and given the green light by state energy regulators) may hold the key to rapid expansion of the use of renewable energy to generate electricity throughout the U.S.

The biggest factor holding down the percentage of electricity generated by solar and wind power has been the inability to store this alternative energy for use when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. How to store enough electricity to power anything larger than a small building—a city or even a small town, for example—has been an unmet challenge for engineers for decades; thus far, none have created or validated a reliable and risk-free method of achieving this Holy Grail of power generation.

Southern California now has made a huge bet that it can build a reliable electric-power storage system and quickly validate it by hooking the system up to an active power grid as its first test. To use a circus metaphor (we need to get one in before Ringling Brothers ends its 133-year run this spring), this is like walking a high-voltage tightrope—read power line—without a net.

electricity storageThe experiment now under way in SoCal involves installing thousands of powerful rechargeable batteries in networks tied directly into the electricity grid. The utilities are hoping these mega-battery installations can effectively function as an “on-demand” power plant, storing solar energy which floods into the grid during daylight hours and releasing it during peak demand periods after the sun goes down.

Engineers in Southern California are close to completing three energy-storage sites that they expect to hook up to the electricity grid next month. The installations are made up of thousands of oversized lithium-ion batteries, including a San Diego Gas & Electric facility in Escondido, CA that will be the largest storage unit in the world. The Escondido facility, about 130 miles southeast of Aliso Canyon, features 19,000 drawer-sized battery modules wired together in racks and operating out of two 640-square-foot trailers.

The risks can’t be downplayed: if a powerful battery doesn’t have an almost perfect design or is not properly maintained, it can catch fire or—in the worst case—explode. Think of the fire risk from defective batteries that caused Samsung to recall 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in September (or earlier recalls due to fire hazards involving lithium batteries installed in cars and commercial airliners) and multiply these a thousandfold in terms of the power of the modular battery racks we’re discussing here.

Did we mention the battery modules about to go online in Escondido are made by Samsung?

AES is installing a smaller battery array for a utility in El Cajon, CA (the storage units are being placed at a junction where power lines from wind and solar arrays intersect with power plant lines). Electric-car maker Tesla, which recently opened the world’s largest lithium battery plant in Nevada, is building a battery array in Chino, CA for Southern California Edison. [Tesla’s 5-million-square-foot plant near Reno is scaled to support battery production for public power needs as well as use in electric cars. Founder Elon Musk envisions a future in which every home and business is equipped with a power-storage unit that will enable them to disconnect from the power plant grid.]

All of the lithium battery storage projects underway in California are designed to augment rather than completely replace the power generated from natural gas-fired power plants. The goal is to eliminate the need for expensive gas-fired plants known as “peakers,” which are only ignited during peak-demand periods.

Let’s hope California’s experiment with battery power-storage units has a better outcome than a 2012 installation at a wind farm in Hawaii. The facility in Oahu, which deployed 12,000 lead-acid batteries, reportedly caught fire three times in its first 18 months of operation. The storage facility vendor subsequently went bankrupt, and seed money for other battery power-storage initiatives across the country dried up.

Here’s the bottom line: SoCal’s “live” experiment with stored electricity either will fire up the emerging battery power-storage industry or turn its plans for rapid expansion into a disappointing pile of ashes. For the clean-energy future we all want, let’s hope it works.