In the United States, more states and utilities are setting ambitious clean energy and electricity targets. Energy storage has been tapped as one critical enabler to achieving these targets, for its ability to level the variability of renewable energy, which in turn can increase grid reliability and stability.  

While positive steps have been taken to encourage adoption of energy storage, barriers remain. Today, the economic realities of deploying storage have limited the amount of storage available, highlighting a gap against its potential to support the path to net zero.  

In collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, we conducted a study to understand how the energy transition is unfolding in the Western U.S. region and the role that storage can play in the path to net zero. While the study is focused on the West, there are important insights relevant for all markets. 

I recently caught up with Professor Daniel Kammen, Director of Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley; a co-author of the report to explore the findings from the report, what key actions industry practioners can take away from the report and how those actions can help utilities on their path to net zero.

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Why is storage such a hot topic for utilities today?   

Daniel Kammen “I would say the fundamental one is that we now see jurisdictions around the world, here in California, now federal in the United States, and China, Korea, across Europe, all embracing the 100% clean energy target roughly by mid-century. And to do that we're going to need all of our clean energy options. But we're also going to need dynamic and smart storage. And our study is all about how to innovate for that and how to integrate that, not only technically but in terms of ways to really make the markets excited and hum in this new direction”. 

Why do you think this is different from other studies on the same topic?   

Daniel Kammen “The crucial thing you need to look at is not just how the technology is evolving, which we do in the study. But it's to understand where the markets are, where the markets are opening, where they need some policy and regulatory support. And everyone from businesses, to policymakers, to investors to environmental groups that want to see real progress, all are looking for studies like ours, that integrate the technical progress with the policy in the market progress”.   

What did the study really validate for you and what surprised you most?

Daniel Kammen “That we are far better armed with tools to make energy storage a technical and economic reality than many people realize. We tend to look at the learning curve, the cost curve as a starting ground. But the fact that storage is diverse in its technologies, and that there's options for the shorter-term storage like lithium ion batteries. A whole range of emerging long-term options, including flow batteries and flywheels and hydrogen.   

But what the study really validated for me was that as much as we push the prices down for renewables, it means far less unless we also not only push the price down for energy storage, but also push it into the market. We need to have experiments done by cities and states and nations and provinces and cantons to really figure out which aspects are going to best meet their local market conditions”.   

what do you think are the key takeaways for industry practitioners?   

Daniel Kammen “We actually have a chart in the report that highlights there are so many different economic opportunities for storage, it's not just providing that backup power, its ancillary power, it's cold storage capability, its frequency regulation, it's a whole range of things. And there's no market in the world that values, even a fraction of them. Some are good on one, some are okay on the other, but we don't have a holistic perspective on all of the different services that storage provides.   

And when you get into those details, you really find that even very traditional utilities could leapfrog to a much smarter system if storage was entered in; it removes, of course, any anxiety about intermittency of renewables.   

But it also provides a higher level of resilience and backup. And it's not just a normal operation, when we have crises or power lines go down or fire, something we have in California, unfortunately now, all of those things, storage has been a real winner in allowing us to move to a smart grid.   

And so I see that package is something that every investor, every technologist, and every policymaker should think through because these are the markets of the future. And if we're serious about 100%, clean energy, which we must be, we've got to think of storage as a co equal as the glue to hold that low carbon economy together”.

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Caroline Narich

Managing Director and North America Energy Transition Services Lead

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