By Emily Newton
The most popular forms of renewable energy — wind and solar — don’t produce a consistent energy output.
This means large-scale use of renewables can have a negative impact on the grid, making their adoption less practical. Without a solution, this could pose problems for far-reaching transitions to renewable energy, like California’s current pivot away from fossil fuels. Cutting-edge battery technology may be the answer.
As a result, it could significantly increase demand for renewables and make them a more convenient and reliable alternative.
Renewable Energy’s “Duck” Problem
Sources of renewable energy tend to overproduce significantly at certain points of the day. This can put additional strain on the grid and make renewables less practical.
Renewable energy sources have one major problem: Unlike fossil fuel-powered plants, they can’t increase or decrease production to meet demand. As a result, renewables like solar panel arrays create scenarios like California’s “duck curve” — overproduction of energy at peak sunlight, when demand is lower, and underproduction around dusk, when the need is greater.
As renewable energy production increases, the duck shape of the curve becomes even more pronounced. This creates demands that can be difficult for providers to keep up with.
The intermittency of wind and solar power can also create long-term problems — in 2016, Germany increased national wind turbine capacity by 10% and solar capacity by 2.5%. Despite this investment, national wind power production increased by just 1%, and solar power actually fell. Capacity that may provide enough energy one year may provide significantly less the next.
Because of the relationship between production and demand, local developers either need to build more than they need or underproduce renewables and continue to rely on fossil fuels.
Building excess green capacity may seem like a reasonable, if costly, solution. However, it also has some major drawbacks. The production of surplus energy could lead to the generation of additional pollution. Fossil fuel-fired plants would likely still need to be activated or deactivated to prevent brownouts, and the startup process often creates more contamination than normal operations.
This process and the overproduction of green energy could also potentially put additional strain on the grid. This is a major risk in parts of the country like California, where failures caused by aging infrastructure are starting to routinely spark wildfires during periods of drought.
Batteries May Be Necessary for 100% Renewable Energy
Battery storage is one way to solve this problem. Renewable power producers could store excess power and provide it back to the grid in times of underproduction. This could potentially create the conditions for a grid powered entirely by green energy.
Even in areas where a complete switch wouldn’t be made, battery storage would reduce the overproduction problem. This would prevent renewable energy from putting additional strain on the grid or requiring utility companies to carefully manage fossil fuel energy production.
Until recently, battery technology couldn’t store energy at a scale that would make renewables more practical. If it could, it was too expensive to implement at a grid level.
New battery tech is changing this. Advances in utility- and consumer-scale battery storage systems have made wide-reaching adoption of renewables much more likely. They improve the practicality of grid energy storage and make consumer goods more effective.
Battery energy storage systems (BESSs) can give utilities more control over how much power is delivered to the grid — smoothing out duck curves where they arise. In combination with improved forecasting tech, they can enable utility companies to more effectively deliver power to the grid, helping them avoid strains and brownouts.
At the same time, the growing availability of home battery storage tech makes consumer-grade renewables — like a rooftop solar array or home wind turbine — a better investment.
Recent improvements in battery recycling and reuse technology are also helping to reduce the environmental impact of lithium-ion battery production. These advances may enable consumers who drive electric vehicles to repurpose old batteries for new uses — like home energy storage.Major Investments in Battery Storage Infrastructure
These innovations in battery storage are being accompanied by major investment in significant, utility-scale projects. For example, multiple grid-level operations have broken ground at California’s Moss Landing Power Plant.
They are the largest battery storage units in the world so far. They’re designed to capture excess energy at times of overproduction that can be fed back into the grid in the evening, when solar power production begins to decline and demand increases. The company behind one of the projects hopes they serve as a model for the rest of the state, which would enable the development of similar units throughout California.
Similar projects are also on the way in Australia — which, like California, has been a world leader in green energy investment.
The large-scale use of these systems may help ease California’s issues with the duck curve. If successful, they could also pave the way for future projects in areas of the world that are also struggling with green energy overproduction — like France, Germany and Australia.
These projects may offer us a glimpse at what the future of the grid could look like — renewable energy backed up by massive battery storage sites.
How Batteries May Drive a New Surge in Renewable Demand
Overproduction and the unreliability of older battery technology have previously meant it wasn’t feasible for governments to adopt renewables at scale. The more intermittent green power produced, the worse the duck curve that utility companies would have to contend with.
Now, new battery storage technology may be paving the way for a fully renewable utility grid — and, as a result, an explosion in demand for green energy. In particular, battery storage projects in Australia and California have the potential to reshape how we use green energy.
These large-scale battery storage projects, coupled with advanced consumer storage technology, may make wind and solar power a much more practical alternative to fossil fuels.
Emily Newton is a journalist with over four years covering the environmental sector. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she also covers the many ways technology is changing our world.