Currently, half of South Australia is powered by renewables such as wind and solar, partially influenced by “increasing natural gas prices and limited interconnection with the neighbouring state of Victoria,” says Matthew Stocks, energy expert at the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University.
Despite this, the region suffers from the supply peaks and troughs because of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, which cannot work if the sun is not shining or if the wind is not blowing. Storing the energy that’s generated by these systems helps smooth out energy output when the sources are not available and release energy at peak times.
Storing renewable power
This problem could be solved thanks to Silicon Valley tycoon Elon Musk, who wants to help Australians with energy storage. The chief executive of Tesla took to Twitter last month to announce that his company can install a 100MW grid-connected battery in South Australia within 100 days. Musk is so sure of his plan that he’s promised to provide the factory for free if Tesla cannot install it within the given time frame.
Musk has been leading the battery brigade for years now, by pushing hard on electric cars with his Tesla vehicles and accompanying Supercharger stations, and most recently the Powerwall generator for his solar roof tiles, which are about to go on the market in a few weeks.
Since Musk’s tweet, Turnbull has confirmed that he had an “in depth discussion” with the billionaire to discuss energy storage and “its role in delivering affordable and reliable electricity.”
Musk is known for making ambitious, sweeping claims – from planning to colonise Mars to merging humans with computers – but he did succeed with energy storage before, just on a smaller scale. In November 2016, his solar power company SolarCity installed a microgrid on the island of Ta’u in American Samoa, 4,000 miles from the US West Coast. The grid that combines both solar panels and battery units took a year to install and provides the island’s 600 residents with a 1.4MW solar generation capacity and 60 Tesla Powerpacks. The solar panels generate energy for the community in the day and the battery allows them to use stored solar energy at night. The grid is expected to save not only the island’s energy costs, but also 109,500 gallons of diesel annually.
A world of batteries
But of course, Musk is not the only one flying the energy storage flag. “There are numerous examples of utility scale batteries being installed to help improve the stability of electricity networks,” says Stocks, citing California as an example. “That state alone installed three utility scale battery systems with capacities of greater than 20MW in 2016.”
A giant natural gas leak in Southern California back in 2015 resulted in a depleted fuel source for regional power plants. To tackle the problem, rechargeable battery grids were installed to store solar power in the daytime and release electricity in the evenings. Engineers in California set up the electrical grid across three energy-storage sites that are made up of oversize versions of lithium-ion batteries commonly found in smartphones and other digital devices. One of the sites belongs to Musk’s Tesla, located near the city of Chino. Another can be found at a San Diego Gas & Electric operations centre in Escondido, featuring 19,000 battery units made by Samsung.
There are efforts in other countries, too. For instance, India launched its first grid-scale battery storage system earlier this year, with plans to incorporate 175GW of renewable energy into the power system by 2022. The 10MW Advancion energy storage array is operated by Tata Power Delhi Distribution, in collaboration with Mitsubishi and US energy storage company AES.
China is attempting to bring clean energy to the country by constructing an energy storage project in the city of Dalian, where a 200MW vanadium redox flow battery facility is being built, to be completed in 2018. Meanwhile, in Japan, a patch of land near Mount Fuji is becoming a testing ground for energy storage where companies will work together to develop the technology. And the 150MW Andasol solar power station in Spain is a commercial solar thermal power plant that uses tanks of molten salt to store captured solar energy.
A push in the right direction
Stocks adds that setting up such grids doesn’t have to be a complicated affair, as all you need is for more cells to be connected, and appropriate control systems to provide the type of response needed.
Whether or not Musk makes good on his word, his idea seems to have inspired the South Australian government. Shortly after Musk’s tweet, it announced plans for a 100MW grid-connected battery that will be the largest in the country. So far, 90 companies – suspected to include Tesla and battery-manufacturing giant LG Chem – have submitted storage technology proposals that are being reviewed by the state. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is spending nearly £12 million on energy storage projects across the country, including batteries and technologies such as pumped hydro storage.
However, batteries are not the cheapest renewable energy storage option and comes with its own challenges. Back in 2012, a small project involving 12,000 lead-acid batteries at a wind farm in Hawaii caught flames three times in its first 18 months of operation. As a result, the storage developer went bankrupt and investment in battery storage was scarce for a few years.
Despite potential volatility, the use of energy storage batteries in South Australia could have prevented the blackouts “due to their very fast response time” and “provide near instantaneous response to disturbances in the system if programmed to do so,” says Evan Franklin, energy systems expert at the Australian National University.
So even if Musk does not end up helming South Australia’s battery grid, he seems to have put into motion an energy storage movement in the region.