Is Storage Necessary for Renewable Energy?
Tom Lombardo posted on August 17, 2014 |
Conventional wisdom says that a renewable energy future depends on energy storage. Maybe not.

Physicist and energy expert Amory Lovins, chief scientist at The Rocky Mountain Institute, recently released a video in which he claims that renewable energy can meet all of our energy needs without the need for a fossil fuel or nuclear baseload generation. There’s nothing unusual about that - many people have made that claim - but he also suggests that this can be done without a lot of grid-level storage. Instead, Lovins describes a “choreography” between supply and demand, using predictive computer models to anticipate production and consumption, and intelligent routing to deliver power where it’s needed. This “energy dance,” combined with advances in energy efficiency, will allow us to meet all of our energy needs without sacrificing reliability.

It’s a short video - I’ll let you watch it and then I’ll make some comments about it:

Video courtesy of The Rocky Mountain Institute

Okay, so there is a little storage involved: ice-storage air conditioning and smart charging of electric vehicles. But where others, including myself, have assumed that large storage devices will need to be added to the grid, Lovins thinks that massive storage facilities are unnecessary, and he presents compelling evidence to support his claim, including actual data from Europe and computer models from NREL.

Image courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

Flexible Demand

Lovins quickly mentions “unobtrusively flexible demand” without telling what it is. When you turn on a light switch, you want the light to come on now; there’s nothing flexible about that. But when your refrigerator’s compressor needs to run, can it wait a few minutes? Certainly. The same is true for air conditioning, heating, and many other “automatic” loads. Smart grid technology can be added to appliances, allowing the grid to control these flexible loads.

To a certain extent this is already being done. My power company installed a switch (with my permission) that allows them to disable my central air conditioner during peak hours. They guarantee that it won’t be off for more than 30 minutes a day and they give me a discount on my bill for participating in the program. There’s no decrease in my comfort level, and the program helps to balance demand so everyone’s AC isn’t kicking on at the same time. Smart appliances and the smart grid will make this feasible and completely transparent to the consumer.

Storage or Choreography?

Lovins presents this in the context of storage vs intelligent routing of electricity - which one do we need? That’s a false dichotomy. There will always be a need for storage since many applications are off grid. Obviously storage is needed in order to electrify transportation. So I agree that dynamic routing is the best long term solution for the grid, but we still need to invest in storage technologies. The good thing is that both storage and smart routing can be implemented together, a little at a time, and scaled up gradually.

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