Questions Shaping the Future of Energy Storage in New York

Mysterious mandates, stormproof microgrids, disappearing nukes and more.

When New York kicked off its Reforming the Energy Vision process, it jumped to the front of the pack of states reinventing their electrical networks.

Several years in, the multi-stakeholder process has established some market mechanisms to facilitate distributed energy. It has initiated new ways for utilities to earn profit, to get away from the overbuilt and underutilized status quo. Pilots have launched. But many questions remain unanswered. 

As this year's installment of the New York REV Future conference approaches, here are the key questions to ask about the evolving role of storage in this potentially lucrative market.

What's up with the storage mandate?

New York has a strong renewables goal: to achieve 50 percent by 2030. The legislature followed up in June by unanimously passing a bill to create an energy storage mandate for 2030 as well. The bill would have the Public Service Commission pick an appropriate target by the end of this year.

If enacted, this would make New York the fourth state with a storage target on the books. But that requires a signature from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and that hasn't happened yet. 

Why would a governor with such a prominent clean energy agenda ignore the unanimous will of the legislature and stymie an effort to jump-start a new clean energy industry in-state? 

Cuomo's Energy Czar, Richard Kauffman, shed some light on the matter in this interview I conducted with him in July.

"Really, what we're trying to do is turn solar deployment into a business opportunity for the utility," he said. "If it becomes only a series of mandates and regulations, it's not going to ever be responsive enough."

He elaborated that he wants to see real market incentives for utilities and third parties to deploy storage; a mandate can come later to boost the transition from a nascent market to a mature one, but there's a danger to setting up a market purely in response to a mandate.

There's a lot to unpack here. A mandate could clash with REV's market-driven philosophy, or it could be a necessary catalyst for storage providers to set up shop and help create this new grid New York wants to see. There's room for reasonable energy wonks to disagree.

And if you want to ask Kauffman about this directly, he'll be delivering a keynote at REV Future on the next five years of the energy vision.

When will lithium-ion come to NYC?

New Yorkers move fast -- except when it comes to lithium-ion batteries.

The workhorse of the energy storage world, which made up 96.5 percent of the market in Q1 this year, has been mostly shut out of the Big Apple due to permitting issues. In fairness, there's good cause to be cautious about putting new and potentially combustible technology into one of the densest urban environments on the planet.

The fire department has been carefully reviewing the issue and is compiling a final policy. Until then, permitting has been on a one-off basis, which adds time to the development process.

New York City set the first city-level storage goal -- 100 megawatt-hours by 2020. The clock is ticking on that deadline. There's certainly room to expand thermal storage, like the giant Calmac systems that precool some of the downtown skyscrapers. But to ramp up decentralized energy storage and shift the growing rooftop solar generation to the evening peaks, a streamlined permitting system for batteries will be invaluable.

Has the grid gotten more resilient since Hurricane Sandy?

The ramifications of severe weather for the grid roared back into focus this week with Hurricane Harvey knocking out power across Houston and many Gulf Coast cities. New York's experience with Sandy five years ago still looms large in grid planning conversations.

The resilience conversation is still just getting started. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority sponsored a microgrid competition called NY Prize, which recently awarded $1 million to 11 projects to design localized grids for resilience (NYSERDA President and CEO Alicia Barton will present on day two of NY REV). The winners of the final stage of funding won't be announced until October 2018, so the actual build-out of these projects is still a ways off. 

Not everyone is waiting until then, however. Demand Energy completed a microgrid at a Brooklyn affordable housing complex, which provides local backup power for the community in the event of an outage. It also serves utility Con Ed's Brooklyn-Queens Demand Management effort to avoid a $1.2 billion substation upgrade by investing in local demand management alternatives.

BQDM is blazing trails in the world of non-wires alternatives, and the Demand Energy project shows how a utility paying for the distribution value of localized energy assets can make a business case work in nontraditional markets. 

One project doesn't make a trend, however. The test for New York is how much decentralized energy generation and storage will be operating before the next major storm arrives.

What's the trajectory for EV adoption in the city?

Stationary storage faces hurdles, but it's not so hard to drive a battery into Manhattan (except for all the traffic and finding a place to park, of course).

Range anxiety carries less of a sting in such a dense metropolis. It's only 15 miles from Battery Park up to the Bronx. New Yorkers tend to view their city as vastly superior to all others; most trips in an electric car will be local. 

The city has taken the initiative to electrify its fleet, with 1,000 vehicles accomplished so far. It's also trying to push the share of electric vehicles sold for use in the city from the current 1 percent to 20 percent by 2025. That involves working with Con Ed to build out charging infrastructure as well.

Assuming the EV invasion continues, it will give the utility a brand new energy resource to play around with. How will fleetwide charging interact with increased solar generation, or the ever creeping evening peak?

Is the grid ready for the closure of Indian Point nuke?

Gov. Cuomo signed off on a deal to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant in 2021, eliminating 2,060 megawatts of zero-carbon capacity, roughly 14 percent of the local capacity required by the grid operator.

Meanwhile, 1,775 megawatts of old peaking plants could be forced to retire due to air quality regulations. New renewable resources are slated to come on-line years after the closure, meaning a capacity shortfall is very possible indeed.

That will set up quite the puzzle for grid planners: how to ensure enough capacity in the constrained New York metropolitan grid while preventing a net increase in emissions, per the governor's promise.

About 450 megawatts of grid-scale storage could assuage this problem, according to one plan by Strategen. This resource has the benefit of swift deployment without any of the environmental emissions that fossil-fueled peakers produce. And it could serve local resilience needs if deployed appropriately. 

There's also a report from the environmental groups that cheered Indian Point's closure, which suggests replacing it with loads of renewables and energy efficiency. That report, though, acknowledges that there are "no binding mechanisms" in place to feasibly achieve the levels of efficiency in its proposed plan.

Storage proved itself in a crisis with the six-month sprint of the Aliso Canyon procurements in California. Whether or not it will have a chance in New York remains to be seen.