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May 31, 2021

Large-scale batteries, once hobbled by cost, ready for ‘prime time’

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Eversource’s battery facility in Provincetown, Mass., will help the coastal community keep the power on if it loses connection to the central power grid.

When the Hartford Business Journal asked Connecticut manufacturers, regulators and researchers about the viability of large-scale energy storage devices, or batteries, in 2017, they agreed that while the technology would one day be useful or even transformative, numerous obstacles, including cost, were making widespread adoption impractical.

Four years later, however, the view among industry insiders is much different, with many noting that batteries are, and have been, “ready for prime time,” in the words of Melissa P. Gillett, chairperson of the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Melissa P. Gillett

PURA last year issued a straw proposal laying out what regulators would hope to achieve through the adoption of energy storage systems, including hardening the grid against disasters like Tropical Storm Isaias, which left around 800,000 customers without power, some for more than a week.

“Resilience is the primary objective here,” Gillett said.

But regulators also see other applications, including the use of batteries to mitigate reliance on “peaking units,” power plants that run only when there is high demand, or the deployment of energy storage assets for medical hardship customers, who must have power at all times.

For years, the energy sector has looked to batteries as a way to regulate and control peaks in demand. The technology has also been presented as a boon to renewable intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind power, because it can redeploy stored-up electricity for times when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.

High costs, however, kept many companies, including utilities, on the sidelines of battery development. Industrywide doubts about the viability of energy storage systems were neatly summed up in a 2016 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory, which concluded that battery-aided renewable energy plants were a “weak substitute” for larger and more flexible coal- or natural gas-fueled resources.

Roger Kranenburg

Increasingly, however, investments in batteries are bearing fruit in the form of improved capacity and reliability, and costs are coming under control.

“The technology has gotten to the point where it’s a viable network asset,” said Roger Kranenburg, vice president for energy strategy and policy at Eversource Energy. “It’s another tool in the toolbox.”

Over time, batteries have been improved and refined through use in cellular phones, computers and electric vehicles, Kranenburg said, paving the way for new applications.

“It’s a continuous progression that’s driving the evolution of batteries,” he said. “Costs fall and performance gets better.”

Eversource is in the process of installing a 38 megawatt-hour lithium-ion battery in Provincetown, at the far tip of Cape Cod in eastern Massachusetts. The coastal community presented an interesting test case for the utility, as it’s fed by a distribution line that runs the entire length of the peninsula.

Barring an undersea cable from Boston, there’s no other way to route electricity there, meaning a severe storm or even a car accident can turn Provincetown dark for an extended period of time.

The battery, once up and running later this year, should keep the lights on even if Provincetown loses its connection to the central power grid, Kranenburg said.

Though the Provincetown battery seems to be the first of its kind, Kranenburg said he could envision utility companies one day deploying batteries in large numbers to shore up electricity supply in areas particularly prone to outages.

“It’s a very good application for the technology where it is today,” he said.

Kranenburg said Eversource is currently eyeing similar battery projects in Connecticut and New Hampshire, though nothing has been finalized or officially announced.

Impact on climate change

Christina Lampe-Onnerud

UConn professor Radenka Maric, who serves as the university’s vice president of research and innovation, and Christina Lampe-Onnerud, CEO of Wilton-based clean energy startup Cadenza Innovation, have had front-row seats to the evolution of batteries, having driven some of it themselves.

Since 2018, UConn and Cadenza have partnered to conduct highly specialized materials analysis and synthesis for use in lithium-ion-based energy storage systems, which Cadenza designs and plans to eventually produce on a large scale.

One area of focus has been controlling “thermal runaway,” which could cause batteries to catch on fire or explode. According to Lampe-Onnerud, Cadenza’s “supercell” batteries automatically shut down when they sense a problem.

The partners’ combined efforts ultimately moved Cadenza closer to a real-world application of its technology — an array of Cadenza-made batteries providing short-term electricity to the offices of the New York Power Authority in White Plains. New York has moved aggressively to increase its energy storage capacity, setting a goal of 1,500 megawatts by 2025 and 3,000 megawatts by 2030, leaving open the possibility of further collaboration.

Maric and Lampe-Onnerud said they see the mass implementation of batteries as an important part of combating climate change.

Radenka Maric

“Batteries play a key role in moving the world from fossil fuels to renewables, from a centralized system to a decentralized system,” Lampe-Onnerud said. “We can drive the Earth into a pretty ugly future, or we can move into something better for the planet and the economy.”

Maric said there are still some obstacles to large-scale battery adoption. Costs will have to continue to come down, she said, and the industry will have to confront human rights violations and worker safety issues surrounding the mining of cobalt — a key component of lithium-ion batteries — in impoverished central Africa.

Perhaps even more staggering, however, is the lack of global infrastructure in place to support the battery industry. The international links and supply chains that support older energy technologies simply don’t exist yet for batteries.

“It’s an issue of scale,” she said.

Maric also wants to see more investment in battery technology at the university level, with the aim of creating a workforce that understands and advocates for the technology.

Both Maric and Lampe-Onnerud are optimistic, however, about the future of battery technology. The recent revolutions in consumer electronics and electric vehicles would have been difficult to imagine years ago, they said, and batteries appear to be on the cusp of a similar breakthrough.

“We’ve gone from saying, ‘Batteries are a new and exciting thing,’ to saying ‘Batteries are a critical solution to addressing the problem of climate change,’” Lampe-Onnerud said. “That’s how much the view of batteries has shifted in a short period of time.”

photo | contributed
Supercell-based batteries Cadenza Innovation worked on with automaker Fiat, a project that received federal funding.

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