Is energy storage in Germany and America the key to sustainable energy?

New analysis concludes that breakthroughs may be just around the corner

The production of renewable energy may be rapidly expanding across the globe but its growth creates challenges for power grid managers – how can they best balance intermittent clean energy options to ensure a reliable electricity supply?

The answer, according to a new analysis of German and American efforts to integrate renewables, is energy storage. But while the analysis from Ecofys and C2ES warns new projects come with a high price tag, it also concludes breakthroughs may be just around the corner.

Germany and the United States are unquestionably two of the largest markets for clean energy in the world, and their experience in integrating renewables while cutting emissions could hold the key to unlocking low-carbon grids in other markets.

According to the Ecofys-C2ES analysis, Germany currently generates 23% of its electricity from renewables with the U.S. at 13% – and both figures are set to climb much higher in coming years. Germany has an ambitious 80% renewables by 2050 target, and scenarios developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) show the U.S. could feasibly reach 80% renewables by 2050.

That influx of renewables may be great news for greenhouse gas emissions concerns, but it’s also problematic for grid operators – what happens when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine?

Potential solutions lie in options like expanding the grid’s geographic size to balance out weather variations across a larger footprint, expanding transmission capacity, or cutting consumption through energy efficiency and demand response, but Ecofys and C2ES say the real key to unlocking renewable electricity’s potential lies with energy storage.

From a technical perspective, energy storage is the obvious solution to intermittency concerns. Simply store as much electricity as possible when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, then push it back out onto the grid when it’s needed to ensure reliability. Energy storage can also help bolster grid resiliency against rising extreme weather.

The Ecofys-C2ES analysis cites examples of energy storage strengthening the grid like Germany’s “virtual power plant” model combining pumped storage and electric vehicle batteries to maximize output from a renewables-natural gas power plant, or a compressed underground air storage project capturing wind farm output in Texas.

But one problem remains – cost. Technologies like advanced batteries, flywheels, and pumped hydropower remain “prohibitively expensive” according to Ecofys and C2ES, but costs are falling fast and renewables integration could be around the corner.

Once more, best practices in the U.S. may illuminate the path forward. Three recent rulings by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are requiring grid operators to accurately value energy storage as a generation resource, meaning investors can see the economic value of storage instead of just the environmental upside. In fact, one bullish energy industry executive has predicted battery storage will be cost competitive with natural gas within the next 18 months.

So will energy storage ultimately lead to a low-carbon future? Even though trends suggest a positive industry outlook, it’s still too early to say. However, highlighting best practices in countries like Germany and the U.S. can help other nations save time and money by showing what works for a holistic smart grid approach, and what can be avoided.

Editor’s note: Silvio Marcacci is Principal at Marcacci Communications. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees.


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Silvio Marcacci

Silvio Marcacci is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service public relations company focused on clean energy and climate issues, based in Washington, D.C.
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