Why Piloting Battery Storage Will Help Utilities Unleash More Clean Energy

A clean energy future is more than just new wind and solar arrays—it requires innovations in our transmission and distribution systems. And that means using batteries, which are essential for storing energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, and which can ensure that the grid doesn’t become overwhelmed if too much energy comes online. Recently, we supported a new pilot project in Utah that could help utility companies develop the skills to operate battery storage—a key step on the path toward bringing more clean energy online rather than more expensive and dirtier fossil fuels.

To meet high demand for electricity during peak hours, utility companies must increase the amount of energy available to the grid.  Traditional approaches to bringing in more peak-hour power have relied on low-efficiency natural gas combustion turbine plants that are expensive to run and relatively large polluters. However, a new pilot project of Rocky Mountain Power, the largest public utility in Utah, is paving the way for a new, more cost-effective solution that will use clean solar energy and batteries instead.

Last year, Rocky Mountain Power projected that a transmission line serving Utah wasn’t going to be able to deliver enough power during the summer, a period when electricity usage is high among consumers due to air conditioning. Typically, when faced with this problem, utilities take one of two traditional approaches to bring in more power:  putting larger conductors on the transmission line or building a new substation to bring in more energy from a different transmission line.  Instead, Rocky Mountain Power proposed an innovative pilot program to build a 5 MW battery storage system and a small solar installation (650 KW) to provide more energy at the needed time.  This solar component is roughly the equivalent of 100 solar rooftop installations covering a couple of acres, and the battery storage system can be located at the same site.

While this project’s solar installation doesn’t mean that its batteries will be charged with 100% clean energy today, the project is an important milestone, because Rocky Mountain Power will build the skills to use more batteries and hopefully bring more solar energy online. As Western Resource Advocates’ Engineering Fellow, I testified during hearings before Utah’s Public Service Commission and supported the project as a good technical solution and an opportunity for Rocky Mountain Power engineers to gain experience with operating a large battery storage system. The Commission recently approved the project, and we’re celebrating this as a victory that will help advance cleaner energy, because it has great potential for replication not only in Utah but throughout the West.

Why is this project so significant for our clean energy future? Western Resource Advocates sees battery storage as a key to unlocking more clean energy, cutting carbon emissions, and ensuring clean air. If we envision a world where everyone is using rooftop solar and generating plenty of clean energy, batteries will be essential to preventing too much power from overwhelming the grid. In order to lay the groundwork for a zero-carbon economy, we need utilities to understand and be comfortable with operating battery storage.  Batteries can be charged up at night with cheap, clean wind energy or from excess solar energy during morning hours when demand is low. The battery system can then be used to discharge energy into the grid when more consumers are turning on lights and using appliances—typically in the late afternoon and early evening. This use of “energy shifting” to instantly meet power demands avoids having to generate power from more expensive and dirtier fossil fuel power plants.

And, as is increasingly the trend, this innovative and cleaner battery/solar approach is the cheapest option that Rocky Mountain Power has to ensure their energy transmission capacity can meet demand. This is good for the environment and good for the customer’s wallet. While there are some unique aspects of this particular situation, battery storage will increasingly be the lowest-cost solution and the best solution for a cleaner energy future.

We applaud Utah’s Public Service Commission for supporting this pilot project that advances clean energy and is cost effective! Thanks also goes to Utah Clean Energy for advocating before the Commission for this critical component for improving air quality, using clean energy and decreasing carbon pollution.

We are working to advance more of these types of pilot projects throughout all our Interior West states. We look forward to more steps forward to transform energy for the benefit of our health, environment, communities and economies.