Attention has long chased the latest innovations in energy production. Windmills have gone from scorned to sexy. Manure is now fuel at an award-winning Washington dairy farm. Coal-fired plants have the potential to support local agriculture. However, these days some of the most consequential innovation is happening in shipping containers and the mesh of wires and electronics that bind these electron-carrying crates to the grid. The future of energy demands storage, and the Northwest is a pioneer. Private sector solutions are emerging, but the market is young, and there is a risk that innovations develop independent of each other, resulting in expensive projects and incompatible products.
THE GRID SOLUTION
Intermittent sunlight and wind resources (two leading renewable generation options) pose a challenge to utilities, grids, and customers who expect steady electric supply and low prices. Washington’s own Renewable Portfolio Standard remains hotly contested in part because utilities feel they’re obligated to install expensive renewable capacity that can’t be adequately integrated into the existing grid. Varied winds are difficult to integrate. Solar energy doesn’t match existing grid loads.Growth sectors such as electric transportation add to the challenge.
Energy storage is a key solution in the low carbon economy—a necessary technology and a huge economic opportunity, potentially a $30-billion industry by 2022. Renewable policies are popular in the US and have increased sixfold in developing nations. The world needs storage, and the Northwest has astake in this cutting edge technology. Enter MESA—Modular Energy Storage Architecture—”an open, non-proprietary set of specifications and standards for energy storage in development by an industry consortium of electric utilities and technology suppliers.”
“Utility IT systems have been very black box and old school. You buy into a system like that and you can’t do anything without a vendor helping you,” said Rogers Weed, the former Director of the Department of Commerce under Gov. Gregoire and 1EnergySystems’ current VP of Product Management. “It precludes innovation. Look at open standards like BlueTooth and WiFi—devices are able to evolve quickly because of those open interfaces.”
Open standards will save $$$. When MESA was first convening, it noted that some community energy storage projects cost upwards of $100,000 at the same time that the Nissan Leaf was being sold for $35,000. Both products contained essentially the same 25kWh Li-ion battery. MESA enthusiasts commonly use this comparison to illustrate the opportunity in economies of scale. Why design and build battery systems one at a time when you can engineer them for scale and create a cost position that lets you deploy thousands?
MESA’s vision was created by the leadership of Steve Klein and Dave Kaplan. Klein is a pioneer in renewable and sustainable utilities and the CEO at SnoPUD. He recognized the need for storage but insisted that prevailing technology be open and non-proprietary. Kaplan has decades of experience in the PC software business where open standards were instrumental to the industry’s growth. Together they hatched a plan to use the PUD’s leverage as an early customer and 1Energy’s experience in software and standards development to steer the entire storage industry towards an approach that would drive costs down and adoption up much more quickly. Kaplan coined the phrase “Modular Energy Storage Architecture” or MESA and founded the independent organization shortly afterward.
Founding members of the group include locals: 1EnergySystems, Snohomish PUD, UniEnergy Technologies, Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Energy, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. But MESA goals have resonated down the West coast and around the nation. Founding partners also include: Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Alstom Grid (DC-based, with a Redmond office), and Parker Hannifin’s Grid-Tie Energy Division from Charlotte. The potential for growth is palpable. FoxConn in China has joined as have NEC Energy Solutions in Massachusetts and Austin Energy. Interest has also grown in other SE Asian nations who seek innovative models and standards.
Synergy is building in related markets as well. Developments in parallel sectors such as distributed solar generation and the success of innovative companies such as SolarCity have catalyzed cooperation between MESA and SunSpec, a group pushing for “open information standards for distributed energy.” The distributed generation model is intimately connected to storage technology—at the grid level as well as in commercial enterprises and homes.
Weed notes that no other standards group is where MESA is today and anticipates more interaction with international standards bodies, such as the IEEE, in the future. As battery costs come down and the open model gains traction, storage will be a key asset in the Northwest’s power matrix.
Storage allow renewables to more adequately replace thermal generation which is currently dominated by fossil fuels and responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions. Along with other emerging developments in Washington’s grid, including smart grid technology and potential time of use rates, battery storage has the potential to drastically enhance the capacity and performance of Washington State’s grid.
MESA promotes a future where energy storage is widely used and competitively-priced. Navigant research projects that grid storage will reach 14,000 MW of installed capacity by 2022, from almost nothing in 2012. This is exactly 14,000 times the capacity of the single system announced by SnoPUD in January 2014. California alone mandated 1,300 MW of grid storage by 2020, providing demand base for emerging battery suppliers.
Locally, SnoPUD has three energy storage systems that are coming online. PSE is also planning to install batteries in Glacier, Whatcom County next summer. While other parts of the world are further along and have oriented themselves towards the storage solution, the structure of MESA and regional synergy might give the Northwest a leg up on emerging competition as one-off projects give way to standardized, out-of-the-box, solutions for all types of global customers.