by Julian Spector
September 22, 2017

They have spoken.

The International Trade Commission found "serious injury" has been inflicted upon Suniva and SolarWorld from foreign imports being introduced into what was once considered a "competitive marketplace." Now the commissioners have to recommend a "remedy" to the president by November 13.

The commission determined Suniva was representative of the U.S. solar industry, even as nearly everyone else in that industry, including the national industry group, mobilized to oppose new solar trade barriers. "Remedy" in this case could mean restrictions that set back module pricing by a couple of years and jeopardize tens of thousands of jobs.

With all the attention on the threat to solar, there hasn't been much talk about what this means for storage. We won't really know until the actual remedy is chosen, and folks are still crunching the numbers, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

Solar-plus-storage, as readers of Storage+ well know, drives a significant portion of storage business today. If the government jacks up the price of solar modules, we can expect the solar side of the equation to ramp down in much of the country, leaving the eager storage with no partner at the ball.

This will hit the residential sector hardest, because it's the most reliant on solar pairing. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest up to 30 percent of the GTM Research residential storage forecast could be impacted for the years a tariff is in effect. The commercial sector has less exposure, and in utility-scale, where standalone storage still rules, the impact should be marginal.

Any lost deployments are bad news. Storage developers worked hard to get the industry to its current state, and now an external factor could sabotage the growth trajectory.

Could there be any upside, though?

If tariffs render much planned solar development temporarily infeasible, solar developers who had been bidding on solar-plus-storage could pivot to standalone storage to make money in the meantime. The economics of storage for capacity or grid services shouldn't change much based on the cost of solar. While solar deployments stall, the price of batteries will keep falling, so that battery pairing looks much more attractive by the time large-scale solar revs up again.

One problem with this scenario, said GTM Research Storage Director Ravi Manghani, is that there are only a few markets where storage competes for capacity right now, and those tend to be where solar is likely to be less impacted. California hosts most of the capacity storage development so far, and its solar market will probably be somewhat insulated because it has a policy framework requiring further renewable development, and high prices to begin with.

There's still a chance the trade remedy isn't harsh enough to shut down the market, in which case storage could squeak through mostly unscathed.

At that point, it may be worth tallying all the labor hours spent on legal arguments and contingency planning for this case, just to quantify how much economic injury a Wall Street investment firm can wreak on a U.S. industry to recoup its investment in a bankrupt company.

Tell me more about your intermittently powered data center

When will corporate renewable energy buyers hop on the storage train?

That's the question I posed to whoever would listen at the Verge conference in Santa Clara, which drew a crowd of the tech/big corporate sustainability types and the annual Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance meeting.

The typical answer: They're mulling it, but no purchases yet.

Corporate procurements have been a huge boon to the wind and solar industries, driving several gigawatts' worth of procurement per year. The companies that have pledged to go 100 percent renewable by 2020 consume 150 terawatt-hours of energy per year

These companies made these commitments because they want to live in a world powered by cleaner energy. But if you play out the scenario, and the grid becomes more like their vision for it, we're going to run into a problem.

You can't power Facebook Live on a grid full of intermittent generation. Imagine the horror of kitten videos being plucked from the screens of phones because a gust of wind petered out. There needs to be some dispatchability, but it's hard to find buyers that are acknowledging that.

Not that it would be easy. Commercial customers benefit from storage by having it onsite for backup power to keep critical functions on-line, plus enabling peak-shaving and self-consumption (if paired with onsite generation). Most corporates can't power their needs through onsite generation, so they procure PPAs or RECs for offsite generation somewhere else on the grid.

It's not clear how storage could fit into that kind of hands-off, streamlined approach. There's no mechanism for buying into offsite storage the way one might with shared solar, and it's not clear what purpose such an arrangement would serve. 

Then again, storage could unlock new types of products. One idea I heard was that, as renewable penetration increases, curtailment will become more of a problem; storage could be packaged as a way to avoid curtailments. As a sustainably minded tech giant, I could purchase credits for megawatt-hours' worth of avoided renewables curtailments that fund a storage project to achieve that goal.

That's just a concept for now. If these buyers want to set a workable example for the grid, they'll need to figure something out.

Get me to the grid

I learned of a new use for storage in utility-scale renewables projects while chatting with a solar developer over a luncheon at Verge's outdoor microgrid.

This fellow operates in markets where there just isn't much of a business case for storage yet. That said, the company does have to grapple with interconnection costs for new plants -- which can get quite pricey if they require considerable wires or substation upgrades by the utility.

If an onsite battery could defer some of those upgrades at a lower cost, it could pay for itself, he noted.

Aha, a new use case! I'll call it interconnection easing, for lack of an existing term. It could fit in as a subset of transmission and distribution deferral.

I ran it by Manghani, who, true to form, had already heard of this.

"Adding storage in such instances precludes the need for transmission/distribution upgrades, as it reduces the overall peak, by storing the excess capacity and moving it to evening hours," he explained.

A developer could pre-emptively include a storage option in the interconnection application, or wait until the utility sends a whopping interconnection bill and offer storage to mitigate the damage. Depending on sizing, the storage may pay for itself this way, or the interconnection easing could stack with other value streams to make the battery economics work.

Some interconnection applications have come through with optional storage along these lines, Manghani said, but they haven't been built yet. The suspense is building.

Storage for clean air

For all its lofty goals on renewable energy, New York City relies on a host of creaking old peaker plants that flush ozone and particulate matter into the urban air. The city's health department attributes 400 deaths annually to ozone pollution, caused in part by these plants.

That's fine when the grid doesn't need to hustle to meet peak demand, but New York City happens to be one of the most capacity-constrained regions in the country. On top of that, the governor worked with environmental groups to shutter the ample capacity supplied by the nearby Indian Point nuclear plant -- you know, for the sake of the environment. So the dirty peakers are going to be all the more needed when that happens in 2021.

If they retire at the normal age, though, there will be a 642-megawatt local capacity shortfall that year, and there aren't enough new generators in the production pipeline to meet that. 

A new study from Strategen on behalf of the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium finds that putting storage at or near some of the high-polluting plants could reduce the dangerous air pollution while meeting local reliability needs.

The research found that a storage set-aside of less than 5 percent of the region's capacity needs could spur 450 megawatts of storage deployments over the next five years, displacing the least utilized and dirtiest peakers in the city, without incurring substantial costs to ratepayers.

There's a lot that needs to be done to breathe life into New York's demo-ridden storage industry, and the study goes into options for that as well. It also connects the clean capacity function of storage to environmental justice, because it turns out that the polluting peaker capacity is clustered in neighborhoods with high proportions of minority and poor residents. There's an overlapping of interest there that has barely begun to be explored.

South Africa goes with the flow

The South African electric utility is going to test out a zinc-bromine flow battery from Primus Power, with financial help from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. If successful, the pilot could lead to a broader rollout of these batteries in the region.

The long-duration, rugged and nonflammable qualities of flow batteries could be particularly attractive for the grid there. Primus also has a local investor, mining giant Anglo American. This could be the start of a long-awaited mining/flow battery collaboration. We'll just have to wait for the flow go/no go.

Cackalacky capacity

Duke Energy's North Carolina branch will build the largest battery system rate-based by a regulated utility. My new colleague Emma Foehringer Merchant has the story here.

That system will be a 9-megawatt project to support the grid of mountainous beer mecca Asheville. Another 4-megawatt system will go to improve reliability in Hot Springs. 

Those aren't huge by California standards, but consider that regulated utilities, excluding public utilities, have only deployed 35 megawatts of storage capacity so far. Duke's decision means it has confidence it can justify lithium-ion to the commission as a cost-effective use of ratepayer dollars. That sends a signal to other Southeastern utilities that maybe this storage thing isn't so newfangled and suspect after all.