Think of it as a championship prizefight between contenders for meeting peak power needs: In the red corner, at a size somewhere between a shipping container and an office building, but with a brain that’s hard to beat, it’s the GE Digital Gas Peaker Plant! In the blue corner, it’s battery storage, which bulks up by saving excess generation until it’s needed, then delivering power to the grid at breakneck speeds! Either way, advanced energy is the winner.
Greentech Media this week published a story titled “GE Digital Gas Plants vs. Utility-Scale Batteries,” which GTM called a “battle” that is “playing out on the grid.” How much of a battle it is remains to be seen, as each of these advanced energy technologies could be a boon to both utilities and consumers, keeping peak generation costs down while maintaining reliability. GE Power Digital, an AEE member, is deploying modular gas generators that are quick to spin up, and can be part of a larger, digitally managed system for managing a utility’s full fleet of generation assets. GE’s Predix software platform, which can manage everything from coal plants to wind turbines, including the wires that tie them all together, will keep peaker plants agile to meet peak demand and provide frequency regulation.
Meanwhile, costs of grid-ready lithium-ion batteries are dropping precipitously, and the technology’s ability to spin up at the flip of a switch and also provide grid services like frequency regulation makes it a contender for meeting all sorts of power needs. And while a digitized peaker fleet could, in some ways, provide competition for energy storage, these technologies could also work together. Indeed, in April, GE introduced a gas-plus-storage facility for Southern California Edison. Instead of keeping the gas plant in standby mode, the plant can use stored energy to meet a demand surge while the peaker ramps up.
As energy storage proves itself in more and more uses, AEE members are leading the pack. This week, AEE member Stem announced a partnership with another AEE member, CPower, to pair demand response with behind-the-meter battery storage to create an “integrated solution for managing electricity demand” for customers of all sizes. So now we have storage-plus-demand response.
Building energy management systems and other demand response assets can lead to huge savings for large-scale energy users at relatively low cost, but can be slow to respond to real-time changes. Batteries, on the other hand, are able to help manage electrical load instantaneously, but even though their costs are coming down, they’re still more expensive than traditional building energy management systems. Stem and CPower plan to combine the two technologies into a relatively inexpensive package that allows for a wider range of energy management options.
“If you're solving it all with a battery, it’s going to be an expensive solution. If you’re doing it all with curtailment, it’s going to be a potentially disruptive solution,” Jason Babik, CPower’s senior VP of business strategy and development said in an interview with Greentech Media. But combining the two “can be really a ‘one plus one equals three’ type play, because you have a more dynamic resilient response to an event or a need.”
Meanwhile, AES Energy Storage has gone Punkin chunkin’. Except in this case, instead of catapulting gourds with a giant trebuchet (it’s a thing!), the AEE member is making a deal with APS to provide energy storage for peak load management for the town of Punkin, Ariz., which is served by a single transmission line.
“We had creeping load growth,” said Erik Ellis, APS manager of energy technology assessment, in an interview with Utility Dive. “You're talking about a town where, every year, 1% or 2% growth occurs and over time you start to approach the limits of your conductor to carry the current to the residents of that town.”
Adding another transmission line to the town would be costly, in part due to the remote location and “pretty rugged terrain,” he said. The solution? Batteries that can serve the town during the 20 or 30 days a year when demand is at its peak. The rest of the time the batteries will provide grid services, including soaking up excess solar power generated in the middle of the day for the peak evening hours. Deferring a big transmission investment, quick timeline (12 to 15 months from planning to operation), and savings from putting more solar to work made the battery a winner and APS and its customers
“When we ran the economics in this Punkin center case it came out pretty clearly in favor of the battery,” said Ellis.
So, in a cage match, which advanced energy technology would come out on top, digital gas peakers or advanced battery systems? Just like my attempts to figure out how much each of the assets weighed (weight class joke), that’s not the point. Besides, the metaphor breaks down when you see just how many contenders could climb in the ring: Beyond storage and digital natural gas peakers, solar peaker plants have proven to be reliable assets as well. Ultimately, the question is not which technology would float like a butterfly but sting like a bee. It’s recognizing the growth of a healthy and competitive advanced energy market with plenty of choices for customers of all sizes.
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