Batteries are ancient, by today’s tech standards.  Benjamin Franklin is the first person we know of to use the term, and the first published science on the topic dates to 1791.  The days of metal disks stacked in brine are long gone (except in middle school science class).  Lead-acid batteries in cars and golf carts are still common and will be for years, given their low cost.  But the focus here is on the next generation of large-scale systems.  And the question is how these batteries – bigger and more powerful than anything we’ve known  can redefine and remake the world’s electrical grid. 

You’ve likely heard the expression “lightning in a bottle”.  Storing electricity at industrial scale is very much like that.  Electricity moves fast.  In copper wire or other conductors, it’s traveling at somewhere between 50% and 99% of the speed of light.  And in grid operations, it has to be sold – that is, used – as soon as it’s produced.  If it isn’t, grid and utility engineers run the risk of power plants disconnecting, since they’re only designed to run in a very narrow range of conditions.  What this next generation of battery tech provides is a way to store that electricity and in doing so provide a whole basket of benefits – financial, technical and environmental.   

Arguably the biggest single benefit battery storage provides is the ability to capture electricity from renewable sources.  Obviously, the wind doesn’t always blow.  And even when it does, that’s an issue in itself.  In February 2017, the Danes powered their entire country for 24 hours on windpower.  But if a wind farm produces more power than needed, the system operator must start shutting down turbines or face overloading the grid.  And while the sun defines “predictable”, solar plants only provide power for so many hours per day.  Large-scale storage means that intermittent, low-cost, and environmentally-friendly electricity can be stored now and used later.    

Having large amounts of electricity in storage and ready to go at a moment’s notice is a financial boost for power companies.  It means that utilities can sell back low-cost power from renewables to meet peak demand; when power sells for far more than it cost to generate.  It also means that utilities can meet their own demand spikes without having to pay the often-bruising high prices electricity markets produce at peak demand. 

There’s more.  Energy storage can improve the system’s operating reserve.  Like energy, the grid is always moving – more demand here, less demand there, big storms and equipment failures now and again.  It’s a dance that never stops.  Engineers and analysts meet these constant changes with machines and data to keep the system balanced.  But they are never 100% correct in predicting what will happen on any given day.  Having stored reserve power that can be deployed in seconds boosts the operating reserve, and in doing so, boosts grid stability.  Improving stability can mean lower infrastructure investment costs.  It can also cut the costs of “black starts” when generators go down.  Typically, they have to be restarted with diesel generators, but battery systems for just this purpose have already been successfully tested. 

So, what do utility-scale batteries look like?  Imagine shipping containers lined up in an electrical substation, or row after row of gigantic desktop computer towers.  The Hornsdale Power Reserve, in South Australia, was designed and built by Tesla.  It uses lithium-ion batteries (like in your computer) and provides 129 MWh of power – enough to supply all the electricity for about 3,500 homes for an hour.  These projects sound large, though total deployments to date are tiny – globally about 6 GWh through 2018.  But there’s one simple fact that you need to remember.  In 2010, commercial battery packs cost about $1,100 per kilowatt-hour.  By December 2019, that price had fallen to $156 per kilowatt-hour, a drop of 87% – and nearly 50% of that total decline came in the preceding three years.  With costs set to break the $100 mark by as early as 2024, batteries are increasingly likely to be included in energy infrastructure and development for years to come. 

Since January, there’s been a lot of discussion, analysis and 151-proof worry about the COVID virus – understandably.  Viral impacts have produced (in less than six months) the biggest economic implosion since the 1930s, public health lockdowns spanning the planet, and a global death toll of (at this writing) 434,388, with nearly 116,000 of those confirmed deaths in the United States.

As you’d expect, there has also been a certain amount of silver-lining searching.  It’s only natural – as human beings, we look for the lesson, or what we could have done differently or what we might gain in times like these.  And with cars off the road and factories closing down, citizens of cities as remote from one another as Los Angeles, Beijing and New Delhi looked out the window and realized something truly strange was happening – the air was cleaner than it had been in years, even decades.  This four-minute clip from CBS has visuals that I won’t try to convey via keyboard.  For many, the spectacle of suddenly invisible (a.k.a. “normal”) air was startling.

With that kind of obvious impact, the next Big Question didn’t take long to surface:  if substantially shutting down Normal looks like this, what kind of impact is it having on the climate?  The early returns are in, and the answer is – not much.  NOAA reports globally averaged CO2 content of 417.07 ppm (parts per million) for May – up from 414.65 ppm in May 2019 and 411.24 ppm in May 2018.  There’s science behind this lack of change.  Earth, in effect, breathes – this was Charles Keeling’s great discovery in the late 1950s.  Atmospheric CO2 content rises and falls each year, bottoming out in October as most of Earth’s landmass hasn’t yet released carbon dioxide before the northern winter, and peaking in May before northern hemisphere forests have really begun to reabsorb it.  This means that COVID’s clean air aftereffects hit just as seasonal CO2 growth approached its peak.

Early estimates are that pandemic shutdowns led to an 8% drop in anthropogenic CO2 output, and that it would take 20-30% reductions for at least six months to put a dent in atmospheric readings.  As climatologist Katherine Hayhoe notes, imagine all the carbon we’ve put into the atmosphere as a pile of bricks.  We’ve been piling them up for about 250 years, more or less, and cutting a slice from latest brick dropped on top of the pile doesn’t make that much of a difference.  And we’re already seeing a rapid rebound in human CO2 output; “Things have happened very quickly”, in the words of one climatologist tracking current conditions as economic activity ramps back up again.

So if even something as disastrous as COVID can’t substantially alter the pace at which CO2 continues to pile up in the planet’s atmosphere, what will?  And if all the efforts made to clean up our energy act to date haven’t materially changed things, what can?  It would be easy to throw up our hands and assume that this spring’s lack of substantive results represents something permanent.

It doesn’t.

We are at an inflection point in how we produce and use energy and the pace of change is only accelerating.  Coal, the dirtiest source of electricity, is dying in multiple major economies.  June 10th marked 61 straight days that the United Kingdom didn’t generate one kilowatt from coal.  COVID has cut demand, so that and an unusually sunny May are part of the story, but the UK’s power grid has fundamentally changed.  A kilowatt of electricity cost as much as 600 grams of CO2 in 2012 – this spring, as little as 125.  And this took place even as the country’s population grew from 64.5 million in 2012 to 68.9 million this year.  In the US, electric output from all renewables surpassed electricity from coal for the first time since the 1880s, and coal has essentially collapsed as a utility fuel – from a peak in 2008 at around 23 quads (Quadrillion BTUs), it’s now producing around 12 quads, as the graph at the link above powerfully illustrates.

And it isn’t just a question of generating electricity.  Large-scale battery storage, a long-time dream of clean power advocates, is expanding rapidly.  15 small-scale 9.95 MWh systems will support peak generation while smoothing out price spikes in Texas, and the state symbolized by the oil rig is already the nation’s leading wind generator.  In California, PG&E is negotiating 1.7 GWh of storage with the state – more than ten times the power of the Texas sites mentioned above.  Perhaps the single most striking change is the cost of solar energy;  between 1980 and 2012, the cost of solar modules fell by a stunning 97%, and those costs keep dropping, just as solar cell efficiencies climb to as high as 47% in some experimental designs.  Underpinning all of this is a simple, unignorable fact – renewables are now less expensive than fossil energy sources.  Markets are responding – unevenly in some locations, swiftly in others but responding all the same.

The task that remains is immense.  There is considerable doubt whether the goal of limiting further warming to 1.5 degrees C to avoid the worst of potential climate damage can be reached.  There isn’t all that much time left.  Lofty pledges of zero-emission goals by companies and countries by 2050 are fine, but we’ve already used up 1.5% of the time remaining between 2020 and 2050 to achieve those goals.  And yet, for the first time, there now appear to be enough tools on the bench – technological and economic – to let us get started on meaningful work.

With the Metropolitan Energy Center building program ending, we thought it would be a good time to look back at the success of Home Performance with Energy Star.

Since 2014, the HPwES has had more than 396,000 kWh in energy reduction. Thousands of homes have been served by certified auditors and contractors. With the coming of 2016, the program is not ending. However, the program will be changing and will consist of more low cost prescriptive measures that reduces the first cost barrier for many participants.

Until there is more news about the upcoming changes, in the past year alone, there have been more than 6,500 energy efficiency improvements completed on Kansas City area homes through partnerships with area utilities resulting in an average of 12% energy savings or about 10 million kWh of electricity and 1 million ccf of gas.

MEC has supported several companies who “met the minimum requirements to perform Home Performance with Energy Star assessments. A listing of these companies is below.

[gview file=”https://www.metroenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Web-Listings-By-Analyst-Dec-2015-Final.pdf”]

We thank each and every one who had a hand in making this program such a success. We could not have done it without you.

After two months of crowdfunding, we were able to reach our goal to re-open Project Living Proof. A special thank you to Posty Cards for their additional $500 donation (total $1,000 donation)that put us over our $10,000 goal. In total, we were able to raise $10,575 that will be used to complete several renovation projects and set the model demonstration home up for future improvements.

Even now, preparations are being made for our grand re-opening party that is set for Friday, December 4th at Project Living Proof. We are planning a low key evening to help thank ever Friend of PLP that helped make its re-opening a possibility. Please stay tuned to your email for more.

To all Energy Auditors, Contractors and interested parties: The current Midwest Home Performance with Energy Star rebate program jointly offered by KCP&L and MGE will end in December 2015. KCP&L is requiring that all jobs must be completed, tested out and submitted by December 18, 2015 in order to qualify for rebates. We believe it likely that MGE will also require submittals by this date, but we have not yet received confirmation. Please review your customer files and alert all potential participants of this time line so that they can make plans to finish up in time for you to test-out and submit the completed job in Compass by Dec. 18th. Thank you for your attention to this requirement and we wish you much success!

Take a look at a few people who have been inspired by Project Living Proof and what a tour of the building has meant in their lives.

PLP-Rachel-Testimonial from hiram williams on Vimeo. PLP-Jim-Testimonial from hiram williams on Vimeo.
Twana Hall-Scott testimonial: The power of leveraging PLP for real estate professionals Lisa Hummel explains how PLP helped her make the right decisions

Membership with Metropolitan Energy Center through The Energy Network puts you at the heart of the green energy economy in America’s heartland. Whether the goal is improving home energy efficiency, deploying clean and domestic fuels for transportation and energy generation, or helping businesses green the bottom line, your financial support helps our programs cut foreign oil dependency, clean our air, and spark local economic vitality.

A variety of initiatives by MEC and The Energy Network – including our Clean Cities coalitions – produce a wide array of benefits, including technical assistance and funding for fleets and homeowners, sales and networking for vendors, and encompasses all of the below.

* Networking – MEC members and stakeholders encounter a cross-section of hundreds of experts on energy, design, transportation and sustainability from across the region and around the country.

* Education – Webinars, conferences and seminars throughout the year put you and your team in touch with the latest developments in the full spectrum of fuels, technology and policy.

* Branding – If your firm or organization is identified with MEC, it is associated with one of the oldest and most experienced energy non-profits in Kansas City and is recognized as a supporter of clean, green energy solutions.

* Publicity – MEC promotes your organization’s achievements through traditional and social media.

* Answers – Our members, presenters and stakeholders are in the field, the shop and the design studio every day, creating and deploying new ideas and new business concepts – and the questions they can answer may well be yours.

* Leverage – Whether it’s policy, procurement or planning, the years of experience we and our members have is at your service. Further, our resources are your resources, such as our long-standing relationship with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program.

If you’re interested in supporting what we do, click here.

On April 18, Metropolitan Energy Center (MEC) elected its New Board Members for 2015. Our new Board members bring a wealth of talents, insight and life experience to our organization and we are grateful for their time and interest in our work!

 

Our Officers for 2015 are:

President
Luke Hagedorn, Polsinelli Law Firm

Vice Presidents 
Bob Berkebile, BNIM
Elizabeth Bejan, ReVolve KC
Chris DeVolder, HOK (former Board President)

Secretary
Steve Kidwell, Eagle Materials

Treasurer
Bob Solger, Solar Design Studio

 

The following individuals have stepped down from the MEC Board in the past six months:  John Sommers, Henderson Engineers; Dennis Brown, Kansas Gas Service; and Gunnar Hand, BNIM.  We want to recognize and thank them for their contributions!

One of our longest serving Board members, John Sommers helped lead the organization through the transition between Executive Directors as well as many funding and program changes.  John served as Board Secretary in 2013 and 2014.

While Dennis Brown has stepped down from the MEC Board, he and Kansas Gas Service remain active partners with MEC on a variety of projects and Dennis continues to participate in the Kansas City Regional Clean Cities Coalition.

Gunnar Hand resigned from the MEC Board in the past month as part of accepting a job with an architecture and design firm in Los Angeles.  We wish Gunnar the best of luck and good fortune in this next stage of his career!

 

We are also pleased to welcome the following members to the MEC Board:

Gaylen Davenport, Worldwide Energy

Twana Hall-Scott, Scott Hall and Associates

Anne Melia, Blackstone Environmental Group

Kevin Pinkowski, BHC Rhodes

Gerald Shechter, City of Kansas City, MO