ABB: ‘AI will be game-changer for storage sector’

Technology company ABB, which reported revenues of $26.1 billion in 2020, has focussed its energy storage investment strategy on research and development as it seeks to capitalise on a rapidly expanding global storage market that will be valued at almost $20 billion by 2027.

September 10, 2021

  • Artificial intelligence can extend life of lithium batteries, says ABB’s global storage manager Carlos Nieto
  • Utility level distribution in the US and demand for back-up power in Africa driving growth
  • But safety is ‘big concern’, adds Nieto

Technology company ABB, which reported revenues of $26.1 billion in 2020, has focussed its energy storage investment strategy on research and development as it seeks to capitalise on a rapidly expanding global storage market that will be valued at almost $20 billion by 2027.

Carlos Nieto, ABB electrification distribution solutions global energy storage product line manager, says the company is experiencing “unprecedented growth” in the utility-level distribution market, especially in the US.

He also highlights Africa as a market with major growth potential given the substantial demand for back-up power due to grid instability.

In an effort to grow ABB’s energy storage business, one of the company’s key focusses from an R&D perspective will be using artificial intelligence to extend the lifetime of lithium-ion batteries and maximise return on investment by enabling systems to “learn the varying loads” by factoring in weather forecasts, for example.

Energy Storage Report spoke to Nieto to find out what ABB sees as the biggest opportunities in the storage market, what its investment priorities are, and what the outlook is for the sector.

What are currently the biggest opportunities in energy storage?

Carlos Nieto: The global battery energy storage market is anticipated to reach $19.74 billion by 2027, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.4 percent. The sector has enormous opportunities, largely driven by decarbonisation and the drive to zero emissions.

At ABB, we are experiencing unprecedented growth in utility level distribution, especially in the US, which is deploying a huge amount of energy storage.

In Europe, e-mobility is picking up at pace, with plug-in vehicles making up 10.5 percent of the market, compared to only 3 percent in 2019. However, the grid is not yet ready to adopt all the EV chargers needed to satisfy this increasing demand, especially when you consider the growth in E-fleets and the future potential for EV air travel.

How would you describe your company’s growth strategy in relation to energy storage?

CN: ABB is focused on growing its battery energy storage portfolio, as part of its broader electrification offering.

There are already big players out there, who are well established in transmission level energy plants of over 100 MW. Our unique selling point in this specific area stems from the growth of productised, modular packaged solutions, which are pre-engineered, pretested and fully assembled, enabling a seamless on-site installation.

We are also focused on harnessing the power of digitalisation, through our ‘ABB Ability’ cloud-based platform, for example, which gives greater visibility on protection control, asset management, and remote and cloud connectivity, allowing users to improve performance, enhance the lifetime of their assets and reduce total cost of ownership.

What are your company’s current investment priorities with regards to energy storage?

CN: Our investment strategy is focused on research and development (R&D) that will further strengthen our digital offering and improve our smart applications.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a key focus, especially when it comes to maintaining the status of lithium batteries. Using machine learning will allow us to extend the lifetime of the installation and maximise return on investment (ROI) as the system learns the varying loads by factoring in outside influences, such as the weather forecast, so energy storage can operate in an optimum way.

At the same time, we are investing a big proportion of R&D into power conversion and hybrid systems with other sources of energy storage such as fuel cells, where we see increasing demand for DC-coupled storage.

Another trend that will shape the sector is the growth of optimised DC micro grids with their own power conversion – from MV to DC distribution. As a localised, self-sufficient energy system that incorporates generation, storage and demand within a bounded and controlled power network, microgrids can operate autonomously. They optimise energy consumption, levelling peaks in energy demand while reducing total cost for energy thanks to on-site generation.

What specific markets are you targeting?

CN: Core segments for ABB include E-mobility, utility distribution, and at the transmission level, integration of renewables.

Another growth market is the need for back-up power, where we are seeing the increasing use of energy storage to supply loads during power outages. For large industries and utilities this back-up power solution can supply loads for up to an hour. The biggest demand for back-up power is in Africa, where the grid is unstable, but processing factories need a strong and consistent power supply, which energy storage can help to provide.

We are also targeting growth in ‘energy as a service’, where energy storage can be used to perform ancillary services through reactive power compensation and frequency support.

What do you consider to be the biggest obstacles to the wider adoption of energy storage?

CN: The shift has already started, and we believe that wider adoption of energy storage will be realised by 2025. There are of course some barriers to adoption, which we collectively as an industry need to address.

Safety is still a big concern, and we are focused on how to improve standards across the board. This includes the complete remit – from cell level safety to unit levels, in addition to supervisory controls, to keep the whole system as safe as possible during its whole lifetime.

Another barrier to adoption is that energy storage is still seen as a huge investment. While battery costs have dropped heavily over the last five years, we still have to demonstrate the return on that investment.

What do you think will be the biggest trends in energy storage in the coming year?

CN: There is no doubt that we will see greater demand for energy storage over the next ten years, largely driven by the increasing penetration of renewables and greater loads from the growth of e-mobility and data centres and the massive amount of data that we are generating.

With this huge demand on our electricity infrastructure, comes the need for greater grid resiliency and reliability, a role that battery energy storage can fulfil. Higher safety standards and lower costs will facilitate the mass adoption that everyone is talking about.

Battery storage is not yet deployed on an exponential level but, by 2030 we will see significant growth, largely driven by ambitious decarbonisation targets.

The increasing use of AI will be a real game changer for the sector, helping to optimise performance and enhance the lifetime of systems and reduce operating costs.

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