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The Second Electric Revolution: Happening Now in… Oil Country?

Powered by recent advancements in energy battery storage facility technology, wind and solar energies are on the move. Some are even hailing the nascent technology as revolutionary for the renewable energy sector.

Last year, for the first time ever, renewable energy sources generated more electricity in the United States than coal-fired power plants. This landmark achievement was no fluke. Coal power has been trending lower for many years, while renewable nergy has been trending higher. While coal slumped, renewable energy sources generated a 20 percent share of all electricity. Whatever advantages coal power might have, it’s a relatively dirty technology. And dirty power is not as popular as it used to be. Most people would rather breathe the air around the planet’s dirties solar plant than they would around the globe’s cleanest coal facility. Over the next ten years, coal consumption will drop by half, according to Bloomberg NEF. The rise of solar and the demise of coal is well established. The long-term trends are clear. Since natural gas is not renewable resource, and nuclear power is perceived by many to have safety issues, the combination of wind and solar power for energy use looks promising. However, with such renewable energy resources, there is one well-known problem – how can it be stored?

The city of Lethbridge, Alberta, sits on a high plain on the Western praire, abuting the Rockies. Oil derricks dot the surrounding foothills, which are treeless and scorched a burnt sienna colour by the ever-present sunshine. It’s the kind of place where men measure their success by the size of their pick-up trucks. Hardly the type of place you’d expect a renewable energy revolution to even percolate, let alone take off. But, in addition to sun and oil, Alberta has wind. And plenty of it.

Not long ago – about 15 years, as a matter of fact – the oil fields accounted for almost half of southern Alberta’s jobs, and more than half of its GDP. There was an inkling of smallish, scattered wind turbines in the area. Many locals, made wealthy by bitumen, scoffed at windmills as being ”Eastern liberal pipe dreams.” Then, the price of oil crashed, people across the continent became more aware of the link between big oil and environmental destruction – and things changed. Quickely. Today, in southern Alberta, there are more than 500 turbines, some 300 solar panel farms, and new battery projects show promise in spurring the sector’s growth further. But even on the High Plains, the wind sometimes dies down. The sun doesn’t shine all the time. How can these projects be completely feasible?

Benefits

Not surprisingly then, the beef against wind and solar farms is the unpredictability of the electricity they generate. However, during those intermittent moments, batteries can help provide the backup power. That could mean charging up during the day and distributing the power on the gird to customers in the evening when the sun is down and the wind isn’t as strong. Additionally, batteries can provide instant power to the grid if, for example, a power plant in another part of the same jurisdiction has to shut down unexpectedly. This is known in the industry as ”fast frequency response”. A spokeperson for the Alberta Electric System, which manages the grid, explained. ”the power is available in that instantaneous moment when you may need it”, David Mikalich told the CBC. He said that storage facilities are a game changer because of such benefits.

Batteries can also benefit communities that are adjacent to the power farms. TransAlta’s WindCharger project is made up of three Tesla lithium-ion battery storage groupings, each capable of holding 20 megawatt-hours of electricity. It’s enough to power the nearby town of Pincher Creek, population about 5,000, for two hours. The project was the first of its kind when it debuted two years ago, but today, several other storage facilities are already operating in the province and throughout the West, in fact.

Having a way to store wind energy, then having the ability to put it back into the grid makes renewable energy way more attractive”, project head Wayne Oliver said. ”It’s performing very well. It’s exceeding expectations”. South of the border in Browning, Montana, Fortis Electric Company is building a battery project near Glacier National Park. There is only one transmission line providing electricity. That means if it is damaged, the battery can provide power to the town while crews fix the problem. The batteries are expected to be able to power the community for much of the day, and they can be charged using the solar panels.

Overcoming Limitations

In spite of these perks, battery storage projects for renewable energies are rife with challenges. With wind and solar producing only a certain times, the batteries can fill the gaps by storing the energy for some time, but not as much as is often needed. And the lithium-ion batteries that supply most of the new storage capacity today can be very expensive if they are streched out over many hours. This past February, both Alberta och Montana went through a stretch of bitterly cold weather. During this time, the wind died down and turbines couldn’t be moved to produce much electricity for a week. A typical maximum storage time would be five or six hours. ”Seven days is asking more than what they can really provide”, Sean Blaken, an assistant professor in the department of economics at the University of Calgary said. ”So, we’re going to need other solutions to deal with the storage challenges we face”. That doesn’t mean batteries couldn’t deliver more power in the future. Larger projects in the West indicate that those five to six hours could become much longer. The relatively new 182 MW Moss Landing system in California is currently able to store enough electricity to power several thousand homes for 12 hours. TC Energy in nothern Alberta, which uses batteries to store energy from a hydroelectricity project in nothern Alberta, has the capacity to store 75 Megawatts for 37 hours, at full-capacity generation. Furthermore, since wind and solar still make up a relatively small chunk of all electricity generation (about 16 percent in Canada, closer to 20 percent in much of the US), storage doesn’t have to play such a big role. Yet.

Alternatives

Are there other ways of storing electricity and ensuring more reliable power? You bet: different jurisdictions could share or exchange power with each other based on their individual strenghts (in Europe think Sweden, which could share its hydroelectric power with neighbouring Denmark when the latter’s winds are light, and vice versa); gravity storage, which stores potential energy by lifting a mass with a pump or a crane, is complex and not cheap, but possible. Underground pumped storage is technically possible but expensive, since transmission lines buried under the earth must extend for hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. Most experts say more research is needed to improve the performance and scale of the projects. ”There’s some great stuff in storage, but the need for storage for a city like Tokyo or Los Angeles, this is very daunting”, said Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and an investor in long-duration storage projects, at the IHS Markit conference earlier this year.

What’s Next?

As more wind and solar projects are built, experts expect additional storage projects to also be constructed. They provide attractive alternatives to existing gas and oil energy sources. Although it appears that these carbon intensive energies are still needed, the storage capacity built to complement renewable energy sources provides a springboard to move from oil to a more renewable grid. In addition, large industrial companies could invest in batteries. That way, they would have electricity available to help reduce costs when power prices spike. As battery storage facilities increase in number, prices are anticipated to decrease as more of the structures are built and more innovation occurs.

Sunny Days Ahead

Thanks to many improvements and advancements in recent years, long duration energy storage via new battery technology holds great potential for e world in which wind and solar power dominate new power plant additions and gradually overtake other sources of electricity. However, one main obstacle preventing this trend from quickly scalling up, thus far, has been making the projects less financially feasible. Companies have had a hard time actually selling the stuff. Nevertheless, the recent proliferation of these resources has created its own push for long-term storage in places with high concentrations of wind and solar farms. And, thanks partly to changing public awareness and opinion, in turn driving policy change, these high-concentration locations are quickly growing. As Oliver put it, ”I’ve been in the wind inudstry for 15 years and I marvel at the change I’ve seen just in my short career. So I’m excited to see what comes in the next 10 years for sure”. So, is this a critical-mass moment for those anticipating a dramatic push towards renewable energies toppling carbon-intensive ones such as coal and oil? Well, perhaps not completely, but hold on to your hats. The wind’s definitely picking up.

The Second Electric Revolution: Happening Now in… Oil Country?, Michael Gaylord, Business English Magazine, Nr 84/2021, lipiec/sierpień 2021.

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