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Tina Casey headshot

Even without Green Hydrogen, Energy Storage Could Help Accelerate Wind and Solar Development

By Tina Casey
Green Hydrogen

Green hydrogen has begun to score more attention as a large-scale, long-duration storage medium for wind and solar energy, leading to the much-anticipated “hydrogen economy” of the future. However, it is still in the early phases of commercial development. In the meantime, other types of energy storage are already on the market. A new report indicates that under favorable policies, energy storage could see rapid growth in the U.S. while helping to accelerate wind and solar development, too.

First, the good news about energy storage

As one example of strong interest in the interplay between energy storage and renewable energy, trade publications that used to focus exclusively on fossil energy have been pivoting toward the energy storage topic. Last month the news organization Oilprice.com, for example, covered a new white paper by the Energy Storage Association titled. The report indicates that improved policies would support 100 gigawatts in new storage for the U.S. as early as 2030.

That jump in storage capacity represents an important factor in the pace of decarbonization in the U.S. and globally. As one of its key points, the ESA paper argues that energy storage makes wind and solar more competitive, and therefore more attractive to investors. A more aggressive timeline for energy storage development would consequently give wind and solar development a push, too.

The figure of 100 gigawatts could actually turn out to be an underestimate, considering that the white paper does take green hydrogen into account. That’s fair enough, considering that the hydrogen society concept faces cost and technological barriers before it can become fully mainstreamed.

Instead, the white paper primarily factors in existing battery storage technology along with pumped hydropower, which currently accounts for the overwhelming majority of large-scale energy storage capacity in the US.

Some good news about green hydrogen

The 100-gigawatt goal represents a more ambitious outlook than an earlier projection, in which ESA anticipated only 35 gigawatts by 2025.

In terms of technology, though, 100 gigawatts may turn out to be a fairly conservative estimate.

That’s because new, scaled up energy storage technology is beginning to emerge, and it could take hold within the next several years.

Green hydrogen offers a good example. Though most analysts don’t foresee full commercial development in the near term, the field may be accelerating more quickly than anticipated.

Mitsubishi is already working in that direction, with new turbines that can transition power plants from natural gas to hydrogen. The company recently announced plans for a trio of such projects at power plants in Ohio, Virginia, and New York. An earlier Mitsubishi project in Utah is already under way, enabling a coal power plant to switch into natural gas and ultimately into green hydrogen.

Another example of large-scale energy storage system is the flow battery, in which two specialized liquids are held in tanks. They can remain at rest indefinitely and will generate electricity when made to flow adjacent to each other, separated only by a thin membrane.

The U.S. Department of Energy is also supporting new technology for large-scale, long-duration energy storage through its innovative DAYS program. Some of these projects may bear fruit within the ten-year time frame mapped out by ESA.

And now for the bad news…

The ESA white paper makes a good case that energy storage can enable the U.S. to decarbonize more rapidly than expected, to achieve 50 percent renewable energy on the grid by 2030.

However, there is a rather large catch. Supportive policy is required in order to reach beyond the initial goal of 35 gigawatts.

“While well on our way, the policy work initiated in 2017 is not yet complete,” ESA explains.

The white paper focuses on several policy targets related to the treatment of energy storage assets in relation to the grid, such as breaking down the “silos” that separate electricity generation, transmission and distribution assets.

Much of this action can be undertaken through existing regulatory and policy structures.

The obstacles proliferate, though, when legislative action is required.

“Chief among these [actions] at the federal level would be the enactment by the U.S. Congress of an investment tax credit (ITC) for stand-alone storage facilities. This would create an investment signal and facilitate a rush of capital into storage development that would match the demand for storage arising from the clean energy transformation and electrification over the coming decade,” ESA argues.

That’s going to be next to impossible under the current political lineup in Congress and the White House.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is on track to foster in a "green recoveryfrom the COVID-19 crisis, but the Republican-controlled Senate is not. Even if legislation squeaks through the Senate, the current president is all but certain to veto legislation that supports renewable energy.

For the time being, energy storage, green hydrogen and clean power advocates will have to continue to rely on a patchwork of state legislation favorable to their interests, and the goal of 100 gigawatts will have to wait.

Image credit: Kantei/Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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