Pushing the boundaries of renewable energy storage

Renewable energy generation has risen dramatically in recent years in the United States, but we still have a long way to go: 87% of the nation’s electricity still comes from fossil fuels.

Arup’s North American energy team has spent the past several years developing plans for an integrated energy storage facility. We spoke to Brian Raine about the initiative.

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What are the main limitations right now to bringing renewable energy to the United States on a larger scale?

There are three areas. One is achieving economics of scale in the renewable technology to allow it to be more cost effective, and hence more widely adopted. The second is providing energy storage to flatten out some of the peaks and troughs associated with the renewable generation. And the third is to increase the transmission line capacity from the best renewable energy sources, which tend to be in the sunnier and windier parts of the continent, in order to get that power to the larger communities.

And the project you’ve been working on addresses the second?

Yes. There’s going to be a need for energy power storage on the grid, and it needs to be at a reasonable scale in order to be effective. The issue is to get it up to a scale that can handle significant ups and downs in power grid demand. Our concept was to take power storage to the next level, to an order of magnitude more than we’ve seen to anything to date.

We conceived of this building facility which will house the batteries in optimal conditions. We’re using our knowledge of integrated building design and energy consumption within buildings to devise the most efficient facility for housing the storage devices. Through the efficiency of the building design, storage of some of the heat, and support of PV panels, we made the whole thing an integrated facility, resulting in a lower cost of storage of power.

Our concept was to take power storage to the next level, to an order of magnitude more than we’ve seen to anything to date

Where does this effort sit within the context of the industry as a whole?

The industry is on the verge of creating major power storage facilities. At the moment it’s limited by the capacity and cost of the batteries. The industry’s been looking at one megawatt hour and below sizes, but clearly, to allow them to take up a great deal of renewables, the batteries need to get bigger.

The question that we’re not clear on, because we haven’t seen much in the literature, is whether people have been considering facilities as large as our concept for battery-powered storage.

So is there a sense that all the details haven’t been taken into account yet and we’re trying to fill in some of the gaps?

At the moment it’s simply a concept that we’re putting out, advising people of our interest and our ability to generate these concepts for the next generation of storage. And then we’ll be looking for clients and collaborators to work with us to refine the solution, find applications, and develop it into a form which could be procured and constructed.

The project was developed as part of our ongoing energy business investments, where we investigate business solutions or solutions for our market sector. It’s aligned with our energy storage and microgrid investments over the last two years.

How was the concept developed?

We’ve done some internal work on energy storage technologies and published that on our website, and now we’re looking to take the fundamentals of the energy storage dimensions and put that into a built context, a building. That’s really a leap from the power industry into the science and industry space that we occupy, where we do similar things with data centers and other industrial and manufacturing facilities.

The interior will likely resemble a data center

How far out in the future do you think something like this is? Does battery technology need to improve before it could become a reality?

The benefit of this facility is that it can receive power at one price during certain times of day or seasons, then export power at another price. And that difference in price will be advantageous, i.e. make a profit with sufficient margins that will pay for the capital works and operational cost of the entire facility, including the batteries.

The benefit of this facility is that it can receive power at one price during certain times of day or seasons, then export power at another price

Our job is to make that facility as economical as possible, and also to enable the appropriate selection of the battery technology that will give it the best operational cost.

So you would be selecting the battery technology, or working with the clients to do so? Is that something that building engineers work closely with others on?

It could easily be a combination of working with clients involved in the utilities space or renewable energies as well as vendors who could provide the batteries for this facility. We see it as a collaboration across the industry.

What are the next steps for the project?

Talking with our clients and collaborators about the potential of this project and how we could work together to move it forward.

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