NEWS: Price is Right for Storage – or Is It? Utilities’ Pot Power Problem

Posted by Lexie Briggs on Oct 24, 2014 12:52:38 PM

marijuana-hyrdorponic-utilities-powerEnergy storage was in the news this week, with new market entrants reported and storage’s value touted – but also questioned. AEE Member company Enphase announced this week that it had not only created a solar microinverter that is so technologically advanced that it “was not even possible to do when we started the company,” according to Paul Nahi, Enphase’s CEO, but is also moving into the realm of energy storage. Enphase is taking years of research and development to create an energy management system that will accompany a modular plug-and-play battery. According to Greentech Media, the system will combine grid smarts, analytics, communications, and energy storage, in addition to load management and consumer control capabilities.

Meanwhile, Martin LaMonica, writing for Xconomy, covers several battery startups that are driving down prices of grid-scale energy storage. Several startups are pursuing vanadium-based batteries. Though not a new technology, vanadium has been seen as too expensive for this kind of large-scale production. Imergy, one of the battery startups, has developed a way to purify the element from waste products from mining and other industries. LaMonica notes that companies are using other new technologies to create these batteries. Ambri, an AEE Member company, is moving a liquid metal battery into production.

But not everyone thinks storage is all that it’s cracked up to be. Bentham Paulos, writing in Greentech Media, tells us “Why [We] Should Question the Value Proposition of Energy Storage.” He claims that although most proponents of storage cite the ability to back up variable output from wind and solar generation sources, the grid already manages such fluctuations just fine.

“This claim [that the grid can’t handle the variability of wind and solar power] is not true now,” Paulos writes, “and will not be true for quite some time.” Noting that fossil fuels are “the original storage,” Paulos says that incremental improvements in power plants (faster start-up and lower minimum operating levels) and shorter dispatch intervals would allow for variability in supply just as the grid does now for rising and falling demand. For that matter, storage will also have to compete with demand management, which is getting increasingly interactive through such technologies as demand response, for correcting imbalances between supply and demand. 

Paulos does concede that energy storage could have beneficial uses on the distribution level, helping rooftop solar owners use their own excess power instead of putting it on the grid, and solving back-feed problems where distributed generation reaches a high degree of market penetration (as in Hawaii). It could also help large energy users reduce their demand charges. And if it gets cheap enough, storage could substitute for peaker plants. 

“So while there may be a rationale for energy storage, integrating wind and solar into a modern power grid is not one of them,” concludes Paulos.

In the category of Advanced Energy News of the Weird, managing the power needs of marijuana growers is becoming an issue for utilities in Washington and Colorado, states that recently decriminalized recreational use of the drug. In an EnergyWire story entitled “Utilities struggle to control appetites in energy-hungry marijuana industry” [subscription required], David Ferris writes that most marijuana farming is taking place indoors under hydroponic lamps, which are energy hogs. 

“This has become a major issue with most of the regional utilities, now that we have legalized the recreational use of cannabis in this state. There is a huge new industry that’s popping up, grow operations. They’re getting as much as 200 watts per square foot of lighting power density, which is astronomical,” said Kurt Nielson, the manager of Lighting Design Lab, a spinoff of Seattle City Light, which is attempting to identify more energy efficient lighting that serves the growers’ needs.

But Ferris writes that state officials and utility executives in Washington and Colorado are “deeply worried” about even offering rebates to the marijuana industry to encourage conservation in fear of violating federal drug laws. This is forcing utilities to plan “in stealth” for what is, in every sense of the word, a growth industry.

Robert Walton also wrote on the pot power issue for Utility Dive. In his piece, Walton points out that, in a recent report by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, legal marijuana cultivation was cited as one of three major categories of load growth in the Northwest. (The other sources of load growth? Data centers and electric vehicles.)

“Efficiency gains are possible,” said Bryan Jungers, a research analyst at Manifest Mind, an advisory firm that focuses on sustainability and clean technologies. But like a teacher smelling a little too much incense in the hallways, utilities are trying not to ask too many questions. “They’re still supplying the power but it’s sort of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.”

AEE recently released a report detailing 40 technologies that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and grow the economy. Advanced lighting and advanced lighting controls are both included, although we will leave it to the reader to extrapolate their use for any sort of indoor farming. Download the report by clicking below. 

Download "Advanced Energy  Technologies for Carbon Reduction" Report

Featured image courtesy of Rusty Blazenhoff (not joking) and used under a Creative Commons license.  

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