By Peter Rive, SolarCity Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer
The design of an electrical grid for the 21st Century is one of the world’s most exciting challenges, and at SolarCity we are vigorously engaged in assisting the effort. Our vision is of a grid that is cleaner, more efficient, more flexible, more secure, and more affordable than what we currently have today.
I’ve recently read speculation about one of the most valuable tools to advance this vision—energy storage—that needs to be addressed.
Battery storage for residential, commercial, and utility-scale customers is one of the most anticipated developments in the energy space, and recently SolarCity participated in media stories exploring some of the challenges we’ve faced trying to get our customers’ residential storage units interconnected in California.
That narrative is real, but it’s only half the story. While there is tension between utilities and companies like SolarCity, we work with them every day to connect our solar power systems, and there’s potential for much greater synergy. In fact, batteries should power that synergy.
One of the more polarizing ideas going around is that battery storage will lead to mass defections from the grid. Needing only their solar and their batteries, the story goes, Americans will simply cut the cord.
While this is technically feasible, SolarCity has no interest in this scenario. While cutting the cord enables one household to be 100% renewable and self-sufficient, it limits what these technologies can do. In short, the grid is a network, and where there are networks, there are network effects. When batteries are optimized across the grid, they can direct clean solar electricity where (and when) it is needed most, lowering costs for utilities and for all ratepayers. This is true of homeowners’ behind-the-meter storage units, and it’s also true of larger commercial and utility-scale units.
Grid operators are best-positioned to direct battery storage to discharge clean energy at optimal moments—for example when demand is at its highest, and when grid infrastructure is most under strain. Without this storage capacity, solar penetration in excess of 60% of mid-day peak could become problematic for the grid, as utilities have to contend with an abundance of power which can cause voltage and power balance issues.
However, with storage in the hands of grid operators and utilities, this problem becomes an immensely powerful solution. In this scenario, grid operators are suddenly empowered to store and discharge solar energy where and when it’s needed most, smoothing out peaks and ramps, while powering more of the total grid consumption with clean and renewable sources. Additionally, utilizing storage to unlock massive benefits in the areas of frequency and voltage support can further lower grid costs. Many of these capabilities are available now through distributed resources, even without storage, and we should work together to put them into the hands of utilities for the benefit of the ratepayers.
Any utilities or grid operators interested in exploring storage benefits such as peak shaving, frequency regulation, and voltage support should contact us. I’ve recently created a Grid Engineering Solutions department made up of some of the brightest minds in power systems engineering, and its mission is to help solve the challenges preventing the shift from the grid that we currently have, to the grid that we need.
As with the example of the solar/storage customer who goes fully off-grid, we can do so much more working together than we can working alone.