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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. 

So, when we talk about someone employed in “clean energy”, what does that cover?  Like “manufacturing”, many things. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines and tracks employment by sector, but it’s not the most user-friendly resource.  So, while BLS notes that there were nearly 6,000 wind turbine service techs employed in May of 2020, it divides them among five different industries, ranging from utility construction to consulting to local government.  Sadly, a BLS plan to categorize and track clean energy jobs begun in 2010 was abandoned in 2013 during a federal budget shutdown, and has never resumed.

More generally, clean energy jobs fall into four broad categories – energy efficiency (home upgrades or commercial building retrofits); renewables (solar, wind, biogas, or geothermal energy); grid and storage (electrical engineering, battery tech, and charging stations); and cleaner vehicles and fuels (hybrid and electric vehicle manufacturing or biofuel production).  Altogether, more than 3.3 million Americans work in one of these fields, and it’s worth noting that energy efficiency alone employed more than twice as many people as all fossil energy sectors combined.

Like nearly everybody else, clean energy workers have taken a hit in this economy.  About 147,000 jobs were eliminated in March, and April totals nearly tripled that.  More than 590,000 jobs in the sector evaporated by April 30th, two months ahead of projections by BW Research.  The same analysts now expect around ¼ of all green energy jobs to be gone by June 30th, some 850,000 in all.

Under the circumstances, this isn’t surprising.  Homeowners are unlikely to invite insulation crews into their homes in the midst of a pandemic.  Financial chaos means that banks are less likely to lend on large-scale clean energy deployments.  Cities facing budgets collapsing under tax shortfalls are going to emphasize essential services before clean energy buildouts.  And utilities are facing tumbling energy demand.  IEA estimates that from February through April, global demand for energy dropped 6%, the equivalent of all of India.  American energy demand is set to drop 9%, according to the same report.

Whatever the course of economic contraction and recovery, there are certain irreducible advantages to jobs in these industries.  To begin with, they tend to be site-specific.  Many renewable energy jobs are unlikely to be outsourced – those building and maintaining a thermal solar plant in Arizona, for example, are going to build and maintain it in that location for its useful life.  The same holds true for energy efficiency professionals – the homes and buildings in the United States aren’t going to offshore themselves.

Many skilled green energy jobs pay relatively well, can boost stressed economies and don’t require four-year degrees.  Wind turbine techs, for example, exemplify this beneficial clustering.  Wind turbines require regular service and maintenance, and wind farms are located largely in rural areas in the Midwest and southern Plains.  Technicians tend to live in smaller cities or towns near these sites, supporting the local tax base.  Median income for a turbine technician in 2019 was $52,910, which could go a long way in Russell County, Kansas or Alliance, Nebraska.  And training for the field takes one or two years, depending on program and specialization. Median income for solar installers was lower, but in 2019 stood at $44,890 per year, and for insulation crews, median income in 2019 was $44,180,

The issue, at least for now, is that the three specific categories mentioned above don’t employ very many Americans – about 75,000 in all in 2018 and 2019, according to BLS.  But broaden the focus, and green energy’s economic becomes clearer – and bigger.  Wind energy’s total economic footprint alone is already substantial.  In 2018, 530 plants in 43 states produced components – blades, nacelles, turbines, gearing and digital control systems. Outsourcing of some of this manufacturing is possible, but given the size and weight of components as turbines grow taller, is likely to remain largely here at home.  Moreover, the Department of Energy estimates as many as 600,000 jobs in all subsectors of wind energy in less than 30 years.

This kind of job generation potential is what makes remaking America’s energy system so important to inclusive economic recovery.  Utilities, states and cities are already beginning to implement plans to change how we generate and distribute energy in a carbon-constrained world.  These efforts have been patchy and slow, and to date unlikely to meet even minimal Paris Agreement standards.  But under the right circumstances, policy changes, like technological changes, can happen quickly.  Emphasizing the very real benefits of more clean energy jobs may help speed that vital process.

Check out this conference focused on advancing renewable energy in Missouri!  The purpose of the “Advancing Renewables in the Midwest” conference is to identify, display, and promote programs, policies, and projects that enhance the use of renewable energy resources in the Midwest for the economic benefit of the region. The focus of speaker topics and agendas are large scale projects, either through direct installation or through amalgamation of small scale projects.
Come together to discuss programs, projects, and policies that are advancing the use of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Events

October is annually designated as National Energy Awareness Month. The U.S. Department of Energy (US DOE) participates annually with the intent to draw attention to our nation’s electrical grid system and “to highlight the importance of energy to our national prosperity and security.” As the US DOE states, “Energy, our most critical infrastructure, is all but invisible to most, but our focus on continued innovation protects American lives today and ensures better lives tomorrow.”

This year, Metropolitan Energy Center (MEC) will use this truth to draw attention to energy efficiency and how it relates to our infrastructure, including our transportation systems and the built environment. There is indeed innovation happening on a national scale, and it’s occurring quickly. MEC is either hosting, co-hosting, or cross-promoting a number of in-person and virtual events this October to highlight all the ways our nation can modernize the way it uses energy to create a prosperous future for our youth and future generations. Click the links below to learn more about each event and how to participate (more links to come as the suite of events is finalized).

Whether an industry professional or policy maker or technician or a member of the general public, we have at least one event for you. Join us and our members, volunteers and friends during Energy Awareness Month. We’ll celebrate recent achievements and foster accelerated adoptions of energy conservation, renewables and cleaner fuels.

Energy Awareness 2021 Event List:

Native Plant Sale & Drive Electric Week Event at Project Living Proof with Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City Sept. 25
National Drive Electric Week: South Park in Lawrence Sept 25
Lion Electric School Bus Ride and Drive: Lee’s Summit Schools Sept 28
National Drive Electric Week: Driving Electric: Black & Veatch EV Drivers Tell All (Virtual) Sept 29
National Drive Electric Week: Prairie Village Presbyterian Church Sept 29
National Drive Electric Week: Independence Chamber of Commerce    CANCELED Oct. 2
National Drive Electric Week: ICT (Wichita Towne East Square) Oct. 2
National Energy Efficiency Day (Ask Emily for a model Proclamation for your city, business or organization) Oct. 6
Marquee Event: Our Best Buildings Yet: A Forum on Energy Efficiency in the Kansas City Region and Beyond Oct. 7
Virtual Workshop on Diesel Emissions Reduction Funding Opportunities: Midwest Clean Diesel Initiative Oct. 12-14
Webinar: EV Fleet Trends: Advice from the Experts (hosted by Louisiana Clean Fuels Coalition) Oct. 13
Marquee Event Day of EVs (In-Person): Exploring EVs in Municipal Fleets with City of Olathe, Indian Creek Library in Olathe, KS Oct. 19
Marquee Event Day of EVs (Virtual): Electrifying Terminal Trucks: Best Practices and Lessons Learned from Deployments in the Kansas City Region and Beyond Oct. 19
Our Energy Horizon: A Solar, Storage, Electric Vehicle & Transmission Event, Thompson Barn in Lenexa, KS (hosted by Clean Energy Business Council) Oct. 25
Weatherization Day 2021 Oct. 30

Join members of the Clean Energy Business Council, legislators, and clean energy experts for an in-depth afternoon discussing the state’s energy future, how neighboring states compare to Kansas, and ways we can ensure fair electricity rates and access to energy efficiency programs and emerging technologies.