Extreme weather is driving the energy storage boom

Michael Colvin

Energy storage installations for homes and businesses — involving battery technology — are on the rise in areas where extreme weather threatens the electric power grid, such as flood-prone Houston, wildfire-stricken California and hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

A sustained power outage can lead to serious consequences, such as loss of income and even death. Because of climate change, the frequency of these extreme weather events and outages will climb.

Traditionally, buildings would rely upon gas-powered diesel generators during outages. These generators have their own problems and do not necessarily help the electric grid become more resilient.

With recent technological changes, could batteries become the new generators?

Tracking sharp growth in the past year

Small-scale, so-called behind-the-meter energy storage accounted for 60% of battery capacity in the United States during the first quarter of this year.

Deployments grew 138% in the past year, driven in part by families and business leaders who are seeking resilience against power disruptions in our increasingly volatile climate.

When properly designed, electric energy storage can not only provide additional grid resilience, it can further minimize greenhouse gas and local air emissions compared with the conventional gas generators.

Vulnerable regions look to storage for relief

The race for storage is on:

  • In California, solar installation companies have been reporting a steady uptick in solar-plus-storage orders this year. All of the state’s large electric investor-owned utilities are implementing Public Safety Power Shutoff programs, which would de-energize an electric line and intentionally cause a blackout. The goal is to prevent wildfires in high-wind conditions when power lines are at risk of igniting a wildfire. As a result, a growing number of Californians with the economic capability to invest in solar-plus-storage are weighing this option.
  • In Puerto Rico, installations of such systems doubled after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Battery suppliers such as Tesla had difficulty keeping up with orders. Before Maria, only about 5% of solar installations Tesla did came with storage; today 95% do, Energywire reported.
  • And in a rural New Hampshire town where residents and business owners struggle with outages after ice storms and heavy snowfalls, a local utility is proposing to back up the town with energy storage batteries that may also save ratepayers money over time.
  • Energy storage incentives align

    Falling costs and new deployment incentives are fueling record investments in energy storage. Analysists expect such investments to soar by $620 billion globally over the next two decades.

    In the U.S., 15 states so far have adopted policies that make it easier or more affordable to invest in energy storage.

    Coinciding with these market changes is a realization in states such as South Carolina — which until recently lagged in clean energy investments — that people and businesses in coastal areas are increasingly vulnerable to storms.

    With widespread power outages from hurricanes Florence and Irma fresh in mind, the state recently passed legislation supporting solar and energy projects.

    As more states help expand the market, it is important to start thinking of energy storage as a key strategy to make buildings cleaner and more grid resilient. The technology will only become more important to prevent outages during extreme weather events.

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