The U.S. power grid is evolving. Ensuring the nation has sufficient juice to run daily operations requires considering multiple factors, all of which concern keeping the lights on. Existing systems face new threats, from more powerful storms fueled by climate change to rising international tensions creating an increased threat of attacks. Energy storage is essential for providing people with lifesaving heat and keeping transportation running.
However, energy storage also creates issues that humans must solve. The current fossil fuel-based systems have multiple vulnerabilities and contribute to rising global temperatures, which impacts daily life and contributes to international tensions. Switching to renewable energy isn’t free of environmental consequences and presents new questions about the ideal grid configuration for maximum security and power reliability.
What issues currently exist, and what solutions are in the works to address them? Here’s why energy storage is crucial for a resilient power grid.
The Role of Energy Storage in Grid-Based Systems
Understanding existing energy storage systems is crucial for devising the best possible solutions to current problems. Where does power come from, and how do large organizations ensure sufficient supply? For example, hospitals, with their myriad temperature-sensitive substances, must guarantee blood stores and medications stay cool during an outage. How does the current grid distribute stores to protect the most vulnerable and best meet consumer needs?
1. How Energy Storage Today Meets Fluctuating Consumer Demand
Much of today’s power grid comes from pumped hydroelectric storage. PHS systems operate by pumping water from a low- to high-end reservoir, releasing water through a hydroelectric tube to generate kinetic energy. Worldwide, 96% of current energy storage exists in such a system. Perfecting this technology has led to 70%-85% efficiency and a long life span of 50 to 60 years.
These stations meet consumer demand by adjusting how much water they release at one time. However, sudden surges — such as the increasing heat waves caused by climate change — can nevertheless create strain.
While today’s grid primarily relies on fossil fuels, PHS systems can handle energy input from myriad sources, including renewables like solar. This mixed capability is crucial for sufficient storage and grid reliance. Although batteries can do a lot, they can’t replace the immense capacity these facilities offer. Combining their power protects current needs while aiding the transition to green energy.
2. Vulnerabilities of Today’s Grid
Despite the efficiency and life span of such systems, they have inherent vulnerabilities. The greatest is that they require a lengthy supply chain to deliver power from individual PHS systems to businesses, government agencies and consumers. A disruption along any part of this chain may result in outages to thousands, even millions.
Keeping the lights on isn’t a mere matter of protecting against the dark. Many of today’s technologies that society relies upon require an uninterrupted power supply to function as intended. A single defrosted freezer is a headache but pales in comparison to countless grocery stores losing power — and precious food supplies. Medical centers and delicate computer operations rely on consistent temperatures, which are difficult to maintain without juice.
Disruptions to the grid may arise from increasing storms or deliberate attacks in an attempt to destabilize national security. Either way, the resulting problems create a humanitarian and economic nightmare, driving fresh tensions. Taking proactive measures to diversify the grid now can prevent future disasters.
3. Integrating Renewable Energy Technologies
Renewable energy promises to increase grid resiliency. It does so by addressing climate change and dispersing sources of power generation.
While it’s far more difficult to coordinate attacks against multiple smaller grids than one large one, the transition poses energy storage challenges. Can such hubs store sufficient power to meet the needs of numerous consumers, many of whom may not have solar panels installed or other alternative means of producing power independently? What alternative means of providing power exist if local stores run dry?
The Foundations of Energy Storage in a Resilient Grid
Fortunately, solutions are already in the works. Many of them address the dual challenges of energy storage and improved grid security simultaneously, including integrating renewable technology to slow climate change.
1. Grid Stabilization and Frequency Regulation
Frequency stabilization refers to balancing electricity supply and demand by regulating AC systems. Rolling blackouts are an example of this system at work, temporarily decreasing power to some areas to prevent a total system overload.
Grid stabilization and frequency regulation grow in importance as the shift to green energy continues. While individual collectives consisting of homes and businesses with panels and centralized battery storage insulate neighborhoods from larger outages, it leaves them vulnerable to supply shortages.
What happens if cloudy skies cut panel production, leaving some residents in the dark? Tying such microgrids to larger ones provides necessary stability, as areas with surpluses can send power to those with shortages.
2. Integrating Renewables
Problems arose as solar became a leader in renewable technology, but they gave birth to solutions. For example, early home solar systems connected to the grid risked sending electricity backward over damaged wires, creating further problems. The only options were suffering the same outages as everyone else or going off-grid.
Early hybrid systems offer an innovative solution to keeping individual homeowners connected during outages. They switch to battery energy storage, breaking their connection but keeping the home lights burning.
Today, technology goes even further, building on a concept similar to rolling blackouts. It also gives individuals and businesses another incentive to go solar. Today’s hybrid systems still allow the security of a battery backup but may enable consumers to sell power, earning extra money for converting their property to green energy. This technology allows power to travel both ways yet disconnects to insulate unharmed parts of the system from damaged areas.
The Role of Batteries in Green Energy Solutions
Such programs work toward the goal of increasing grid resilience through diversifying power sources. However, installing entire solar systems takes time, and the existing grid already faces enormous strain from rising temperatures. Furthermore, even property owners who would like to take advantage of such incentives may face other challenges, such as building and zoning regulations or unfortunate environmental conditions like nearby mountains that block sunlight.
Although not every space is suitable for solar panels, backup batteries have fewer restrictions. Governments and power companies can coordinate programs to distribute them at a reduced cost to business owners to increase grid resiliency and protect the larger supply chain from outages. They can receive their charge through fossil fuels or remote green sources and go where needed to supply necessary juice.
Batteries form an integral part of overall grid resiliency and provide another way for governments to subsidize green energy and balance demands on the existing grid as climate change heats up. Organizations with high demands can switch battery backup power during high-temperature days to prevent rolling blackouts.
For example, Connecticut’s statewide program allows commercial and industrial building owners to save up to 50% on such a battery’s cost in exchange for using it to reduce pressure on the grid. Enrolled organizations can receive an incentive twice a year for 10 years for lowering their demand on the grid while enjoying the peace of mind that they have a backup power source in case of extended outages.
3. Black Start Capability and Grid Resilience
When a storm or attack causes an outage, individual power stations must come back online before sending power to the other connected parts of the system. Black start capability refers to the ability of one part to restart others and facilitate the recovery process.
In standard facilities, engineers used generators to get everything back online, although doing so took considerable time. Microgrids offer superior reliability.
A microgrid is a smaller, self-sufficient power-generating facility, with some found on college, business and hospital campuses today. These smaller microgrids function like individual hybrid solar systems, remaining connected to the larger grid, except during outages, when the “island” effect isolates their section.
During an outage, the energy storage in these microgrids can restart the larger one. Doing so improves the speed at which everyone comes back online.
Methods of Energy Storage: Advantages and Challenges
Increasing grid resiliency through diversifying energy production and distribution offers multiple advantages, as does switching to clean solar power. However, how do you store it? Examining the current energy storage methods and their benefits and limitations paves the way for the future and clarifies how microgrids work together with larger systems to improve resilience.
1. Battery Storage
Battery storage is what most people connect with solar energy. While crucial for home systems and electric vehicles, batteries create unique environmental problems. Mining for lithium and cobalt can lead to water and air pollution, land degradation and groundwater contamination. While some teams have begun research into using green sources like hemp as a replacement, these models aren’t currently available.
In the near future, lithium will reign supreme. However, the future of renewable, sustainable energy storage appears bright. Efficient battery backup systems increase grid resiliency by providing on-site power storage for crucial operations during high-demand periods.
Individual microgrids will largely rely on battery storage, with the ability to transfer that power elsewhere if needed. Improving humans’ ability to generate clean energy in one location and store it in another will go far in keeping the lights on.
2. Hydro Storage
PHS systems will remain vital in America’s energy future. They play a critical role in improving grid resiliency by balancing the energy generated by smaller microgrids with the larger whole.
Solar energy is affordable, green and good for the planet, but it causes fluctuations in supply that don’t always match demand. Therefore, connecting individual microgrids to the larger system ensures that each consumer has the power to meet their needs, even if the sun hasn’t shined on their roof in days. Reliable, long-lasting PHS systems account for this distribution need, even as diversification improves overall grid resiliency.
Energy Storage for a Resilient Power Grid
Once upon a time, energy only flowed one way, from the power station to individual consumers. Now, the shift to renewable energy promises to increase grid resiliency by diversifying the source, but doing so creates new infrastructure challenges.
Fortunately, technology is rising to the task. Combining current energy storage methods with the microgrid and improved battery solutions will reduce vulnerabilities in the system and keep the lights on as needed.