We’ve all heard it before: “The problem with solar and wind power is that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.” Enter energy storage, the answer to that often-cited variability problem. Basically, as its name suggests, an energy storage device uses batteries or other technology to store excess power generated by solar or wind when the resources are plenty and holds onto that extra energy for use when they are not. After all, why waste a good thing, right?
In solar’s case, homeowners or businesses can install small storage devices on-site and then use excess solar energy from their arrays at night, thus relying less on their utilities, saving money on electricity bills and realizing even more benefits from their solar investments. The stored energy can also be used as backup power during a grid outage (think of a home generator, but without the fossil fuel). Utilities, on the other hand, can use large storage units – some as big as buildings! – to integrate renewables. By holding onto solar energy, power companies can also deploy that clean energy during peak-demand times and rely less on ramping up coal and natural gas plants, creating a greener grid. (There are other applications and upsides for consumers and utilities alike, but you get the idea.)
During the recent Solar Power International conference, it became clear that nearly everyone, from SEIA leader Tom Kimbis to local solar installers, considered energy storage one of the show’s hottest topics and believed storage could become the next big thing for the solar industry. However, many of those same believers also stated that the energy storage market has some major hurdles to overcome. In order for storage to really take off, they said, the public needs to get more educated about the potential benefits, utilities need to embrace it, lawmakers need to adopt friendly policies, the technology needs to keep advancing, and most importantly, the price needs to decrease.
Do those barriers sound familiar? They should, given that people said those very same things about solar no more than a few years ago. Of course, some still have those concerns about solar, but the industry has obviously come a long way and matured. Each of those challenges is a rung on a ladder that the solar sector had to climb in order to become as successful as it is today, and although the nascent storage market is behind us, it is climbing, too, one rung at a time.
In fact, a recent analysis from IHS Markit suggests the global energy storage market’s inevitable growth will resemble the solar industry’s recent surge, and a separate report shows that, in the U.S. alone, energy storage is slated for another historic year.
It’s no wonder that storage is emerging around the world, as consumers, companies and utilities are looking for ways to take full advantage of renewables. Politicians and lawmakers are also taking notice. For example, the White House hosted a summit earlier this year, during which the Obama administration revealed a slew of public- and private-sector commitments expected to result in about $1 billion in new energy storage investments and at least 1.3 GW more of storage deployment or procurement.
The technology continues to garner support on the state and city level, as well. California, which already established a hefty storage target for the state’s investor-owned utilities a few years back, just passed several new pro-storage laws. Furthermore, Massachusetts recently approved a law that will likely lead to its own energy storage mandate, and a new report found that storage has the potential to yield millions of dollars in savings in the state. In the Big Apple, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced the city’s first-ever energy storage deployment target, 100 MWh by 2020, in concert with an expanded solar capacity goal, 1 GW by 2030.
As mentioned, the private sector is also diving into storage. There has been a long list of partnerships and acquisitions lately, including the $1 billion buy of battery developer Saft by France-based oil giant Total, majority stakeholder in SunPower. Storage tech providers, such as sonnen and Tesla, continue to gain more ground in the solar market, and many companies now offer solar+storage financing. Right before writing this editorial, actually, I posted a news item announcing that a utility-scale developer with “solar” in its name is launching an energy storage division.
In conclusion, interest in energy storage is growing, the technology keeps getting cheaper, and the storage market is slated to be a giant opportunity for solar and renewables, overall. It is only a matter of time.