Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on the IEEFA blog.
By Deborah Lawrence
The electricity grid is an aging beast, but not so old that it’s frozen in time.
The grid as we know it typically operates by tapping several different power sources and by keeping some back-up on the side just in case. Oddly enough, it runs with virtually zero storage capacity, but that’s only because large amounts of electricity are difficult to store. This is a technological challenge, to be sure, but that’s only because it’s never been seriously addressed.
Today, entrepreneurs worldwide are raising a question that goes something like this: What if we decided to think outside our box and imagine that instead of myriad electrical wires joining our houses, we got our household electricity from rooftop solar panels instead? And what if those panels pumped electricity into an array of batteries in our garages next to the workbench? Or into an electric vehicle that had the capacity to store that power and send it back into our homes?
The energy requirements of a utility company are vastly different than the needs of a house, of course, but we’re not talking about utility companies. What we’re talking about is what makes sense: Tackling the storage challenge on a smaller-than-utility scale — house by house.
GTM Research is already on to this notion and has said recently that it expects home battery storage to grow into a $1 billion industry by 2018. That’s only three years away, but the trend is already taking root as small storage systems come online now. Solar City, one of the big U.S. solar-panel installers, offers battery storage for home use now. Here’s Solar City’s pitch: “A cost-effective, wall-mounted storage appliance that is small, powerful and covered by a long lasting full 10-year warranty.”
What’s not to like about a new front in energy technology that turns homes into micro-grids?
It’s not going to happen en masse overnight, and there will still be a need for large-scale utility generation. Industrial users, especially, are probably going to be better off relying on a traditional grid system. And for renewable energy to take hold on a truly massive scale, too, viable battery storage is needed, which is is where technology is making exciting strides. While lithium-ion batteries have taken center stage, other less sexy technologies are being employed with success. If lithium-ion batteries are the Teslas of the energy-storage world, flow batteries are the pick-up trucks: hardworking and reliable. Lead acid batteries, too, are gaining traction.
Notes of interest on this point — and related thoughts — from Navigant Research:
The point is that the grid as we know it doesn’t have to be run the way it has always been run. And the innovation that is taking place now suggests that in the not-so-distant future it won’t be the same beast that it is today.
Image credit: Flickr/Mike Linksvayer
Deborah Lawrence is an IEEFA energy consultant and founder of Energy Policy Forum.