California storage reaches its JFK moment


June 5, 2020

It’s 59 years since President John F. Kennedy claimed that the US would land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. In 1969, it achieved this goal.

There has been a great deal of focus on this claim since Elon Musk’s SpaceX last week sent two astronauts into orbit. And for Wärtsilä’s Jussi Heikkinen, there is a parallel between JFK’s statement then and energy storage today.

Heikkinen is director of growth and development at the Finnish firm, where he has spent four decades. But where does this parallel come in?

“We are facing a similar situation [as then],” he said. “We know where we want to go, but not exactly how to go there. We need sophisticated tools, software, supercomputers… and any mathematics that can help us to work out the right way to go through this transition.”

Heikkinen said this on 21st May at a virtual conference run by the California Energy Storage Alliance, which has made the presentations available to catch-up listeners this week. The day featured nine talks on how to use storage to help California reach its goal of 100% renewable electricity by 2045, but the lessons apply more broadly. And Heikkinen’s drew on the findings of a white paper that Wärtsilä published last month.

The ‘Path to 100% Renewables in California’ paper compares three ways that the US state could seek to pursue its goal of a green grid, which are:

  • Current Plan, where California follows its existing Integrated Resources Plan to 2030 and Wärtsilä extrapolates from there. This relies heavily on wind and solar, but doesn’t achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 as the grid would still use some fossil fuels.
  • Current Plan without Fossil Thermal, which is similar to the Current Plan but would use biomass and biogas instead of fossil fuels. Wärtsilä said this would achieve a carbon neutral grid by 2045.
  • Optimal Plan, where California optimises the whole grid until 2045, and uses power-to-hydrogen and power-to-methane as long-term energy storage, along with short-term storage and renewables. This would reach that 2045 target. It concludes that this one is the best.

The research calls on policymakers in California to start supporting the rollout of power-to-gas technology now. It said this was best because there is growing interest in using green fuels in the transport and aviation sectors, and so any investment in these technologies would support those other sectors too.

Heikkinen added this work could be done now and the preferred fuel chosen later. He also argued it was important for California to invest in technologies that help it to self-balance fluctuating production from wind, solar and hydro, instead of looking to neighbouring US states that will be shutting down their own fossil fuel fleets.

Investment credentials

In the day’s first presentation, CESA highlighted huge investment opportunities for storage companies in California.

Jin Noh, policy manager at CESA and senior manager at Strategen Consulting, said that the state would need 25GW of flexible ramping capacity by 2030, including 8.9GW of batteries and 11.1GW of standalone storage. In addition, he said it would need 23GW of solar-and-storage hybrids.

Noh said California was entering a “golden age” for storage companies. There is now 287MW of storage online with 1.5GW in development and 963MW contracted, as well as 1.6GW of storage procurement announcements in the first quarter of 2020. These came from utilities such as Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, as well as community choice aggregators.

He said that storage and renewables needed to grow in parallel: “It’s not as easy as overbuilding our renewable portfolio and curtailing resources. We really need a lot of long-duration resources as well,” he argued.

There are key questions for businesses and policymakers around grid reliability, and how they can deliver storage in a cost-effective manner.

But Noh added there was proven business cases “for different types of configurations, different types of technologies [and] different types of approaches, to ensure that reliability is met”.

To paraphrase JFK, it won’t necessarily be easy. But it is a challenge California and other states have shown they are willing to accept, unwilling to postpone, and intend to win.

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