by Julian Spector
October 27, 2017

Things were looking dim for the embattled Puente Power Plant, and now NRG is pulling the plug...sort of.

The company last week asked the California Energy Commission to suspend hearings on the application until it decides whether or not it wants to proceed, given the opposition of the two regulators assigned to craft a preliminary decision.

That seems like an implicit admission of defeat, in the way that a decision to "take a break" from a rocky relationship rarely leads to a happy reunion. As it turns out, opponents of the gas plant, who want to replace it with energy storage and distributed energy resources, see this move more as a delay tactic.

They want a flat-out rejection of the plant from the CEC, so that regulators and utility Southern California Edison can get to work on clean alternatives, local paper VC Star reported.

It's unclear whether the California Public Utilities Commission would go ahead with a new storage and DER request for offers with the Puente application in a state of regulatory purgatory.

If that process doesn't get going soon, NRG gets to run out the clock on the 2020 deadline for local reliability. Sure, it's dirtier, but if it comes down to the wire, the application that's already passed the CPUC and nearly completed the remaining regulatory hurdles stands a better chance of getting enacted. 

Call it a preliminary victory for team storage, then. At least it was enough evidence for the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board to declare "The beginning of the end of big, climate-changing power plants in California." That's a slick way to avoid having to explain "peakers" in a headline intended for a mass readership.

GTM's resident storage whisperer Ravi Manghani took a somewhat more circumspect approach.

"It is definitely on the trajectory of the beginning of the end of gas peakers, but the timeline is not going to be as short as this victory might get you to believe or hope," he told me. "The numbers have to work out as a necessary condition, but it may not be a sufficient condition."

What can the industry learn from this?

The Puente case serves as a proof of concept that storage can unhorse a gas peaker in a regulatory joust. That example won't extrapolate to every one of the 50 states. Here's a brief list of necessary ingredients for a successful storage campaign:

  • Regulators who understand storage: California has a storage procurement target, and successfully fast-tracked procurement for the Aliso Canyon gas shortfall last year. Regulators in this state know the technology and have seen it respond quickly to local capacity constraints when gas infrastructure dropped the ball. 
  • Local capacity constraints: The challenge here wasn't just to deliver capacity; it was to put that capacity in a specific location that happens to be densely populated with people who don't want to live next to a new gas plant. In a wide-open, non-constrained grid, the calculus would have been different.
  • Strong environmental controls on new power plants: California has a firm political consensus around close environmental scrutiny of new infrastructure. If Puente only needed one round of approval, it would be happening already, but it had to go through the CEC for environmental evaluation. That's when the opposition solidified.

Much of the country would not meet these conditions, but certain pockets could. Look for jurisdictions with dense, transmission-constrained load pockets that are growing fast. If they have a history of supporting clean energy on the grid, all the better.

New York City would be an obvious candidate, if the policy situation didn't make it so hard to build any storage there.

There are also going to be places where the peakers need to cycle for 8 or 10 hours regularly, which means the current battery offerings will have a harder time competing. 

If this battery-versus-peaker thing becomes a trend, it will likely unfold city by city, more so than state by state.

Batteries and Blade Runner

I startled some fellow moviegoers this week by yelping audibly when Blade Runner 2049 kicked off with easily the most gorgeous depiction of concentrated solar power in any major motion picture.

This is not a spoiler. The mystery that drives the plot has nothing to do with modes of electrical generation. But the opening shot suggests that, in a future when the coast of California can't seem to escape incessant rainfall, lining the Central Valley with CSP offers a way to power the megalopolis of future L.A.

And where there's CSP, there's probably some molten salt storage, which actually beats battery storage in global deployed capacity by a long shot, according to a new report.

There you have it: news and culture.

Eos finally gets on the grid

New Jersey-based battery maker Eos has been grinding away to commercialize its proprietary zinc hybrid cathode technology, which it says produces longer-lasting, safer storage than conventional lithium-ion.

After a series of pilot projects, Eos connected its first operational grid-tied unit at a wastewater treatment plant microgrid in Caldwell, New Jersey. The 250-kilowatt/1-megawatt-hour facility bolsters a solar-powered microgrid to ensure resilience in the event of future storms like Hurricane Sandy, which struck the region five years ago (see my colleague Emma's excellent account of what's changed on the grid since then).

Utility Public Service Electric and Gas Company owns and operates the microgrid at the wastewater facility. When the grid is up and running, the battery can provide frequency regulation to generate more value for the utility.

"We view microgrid resiliency at municipal facilities as a sizable and growing market opportunity due to the convergence of state/city renewable energy policy, increased demand for power reliability/resiliency after recent hurricanes and decreasing cost of distributed generation and storage," said Philippe Bouchard, SVP of business development and marketing at Eos.

The utility chose Eos’ technology instead of lithium-ion due to its longer discharge rate, cost savings, safety advantages, and to support local New Jersey suppliers, he added.

So there are some benefits to being from New Jersey.

Storage makes new friends

Solar-plus-storage is old news, even if it hasn't produced as many operating projects as hype. Recently, some brand-new combos have stolen the scene, like a new paramour for your favorite electrochemical celebrity.

One of them is hydro plus batteries.

Not hydro as batteries -- that's been going on since well before lithium-ion made it out of the gates. In an apparently unprecedented move, Greensmith is retrofitting two hydropower facilities owned by American Electric Power with a set of batteries to let it compete in PJM's frequency regulation markets. 

This design follows the principle that drove GE to outfit gas peakers with batteries. The lithium-ion responds with unparalleled speed and precision, and the generating asset ensures it can maintain that power for a longer spell than standalone batteries could. The two assets complement each others strengths and cover for the weaknesses.

File this away as an innovative workaround to PJM's restructuring of the frequency regulation market, which put a dent in the profits that merchant storage plants can make. 

Three musketeers of clean energy

Meanwhile, down in Australia, Vestas is building out a solar/wind/battery plant, also a first of its kind.

Combining all three resources provides more reliable energy, but the plant will also perform grid services like frequency regulation, energy-shifting, peak load reduction and ramping. 

This model is likely hard to replicate, because it requires a strong solar resource and wind availability. The question to answer is when does the added value of the second form of generation outweigh the costs of including it. On the plus side, it simplifies interconnection compared to having separate wind, solar and battery plants, and the labor costs should come in somewhat lower as well.