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A Transformative Storage Boom? Part 2

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Alternative Energy: A Transformative Storage Boom? Part 2 Written by Veronica Zhang, this is part two of a two-part series that explores the growing opportunities in alternative energy and battery storage. Read Part 1.

Alternative Energy: A Transformative Storage Boom? Part 2 Written by Veronica Zhang, this is part two of a two-part series that explores the growing opportunities in alternative energy and battery storage. Read Part 1.

California: A Model Fit for Storage

The challenge to meet two-way grid functionality is most pressing in California, which is on track to meet its goal of generating 33% of electricity from renewables in 2020. The oft-cited ”Duck Curve” forecasts the topology of electricity demand that conventional power utilities must meet in California as the state becomes more renewable-dependent. This illustrates the magnitude of the inflection in expected conventional electric demand when solar contributes the majority of its supply during daylight hours and, conversely, when solar ”shuts off” when the sun sets. This phenomenon is magnified in the winter months (the sun sets before the evening peak load), as well as during outages and natural disasters, all factors that would likely increase the state’s vulnerability to price spikes and power disruptions. The seasonal volatility and potential for over/undergeneration as we approach the 2020 scenario calls for a solution to normalize demand, as the current state of the grid is not equipped to fluctuate so dramatically to meet demand. The answer from a cost and reliability perspective: battery storage.

Indicative Hourly Conventional Electric Utility Demand

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Source: CAISO. California’s Duck Curve: Illustrative trajectory of grid electricity demand as more homeowners switch to solar, thus not needing to tap the grid at hours at which the sun is strongest. As California achieves higher penetration each year, grid demand continues to fall, exacerbating the slope of demand ramp-up when the sun ”shuts off” and grid turns on. This phenomenon is named after the resemblance to the profile of said water fowl.

The Need for Bigger, Better, Cheaper Batteries

The technology behind battery storage for the grid initially emerged from batteries used in laptops, consumer electronics, and electric vehicles (EV), with declining input prices and improving technology driving the adaption into larger-scale formats. There is currently extensive debate on the particular chemistry of the ”optimal” grid battery (it differs from that of EV batteries, which must be light, dense and compact as they are installed in vehicles, versus the storage battery, which can be larger and remains stationary). While absolute capital costs are important, the crucial element here is the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), which measures the all-in cost of electricity produced by a given source, and is a metric that regulators use to compare different methods of electricity generation.

Quick Math: Traditional lithium ion batteries have at max 1,000 cycles (full charge to full discharge), with a degrading tail end after a few hundred cycles. Assuming 90% efficiency over its lifetime, a $100/kWh battery would equate to $0.11/kWh electricity storage ($100 divided by 1,000 cycles @ 90% efficiency). For scope, retail electricity in the U.S. averages ~$0.12/kWh.

Tesla: Pioneering the Cost Curve

Tesla’s 10kWh PowerWall battery retails for $3,500, or $350/kWh. This looks expensive and uneconomical relative to the LCOE math, but it is worth noting that the product is testing a niche market and the manufacturing itself has significant room for cost reduction when production becomes mainstream. Tesla projects battery costs to drop to $100/kWh by 2020, a target seconded by General Motors (GM), which predicts hitting the $100/kWh mark by 2021.

Similar to the decline in the cost of solar photovoltaic/PV (which includes price of polysilicon, installation costs, and sales/customer acquisition costs) of 50% in just five years, the same is expected of battery storage system price declines (lithium metal, increasing density per gram, and manufacturing in scale). The LCOE of combined solar and storage, while not a means to go fully ”off-grid” permanently, is headed in a direction competitive with traditional power generation.

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Source: RMI. Long-term outlook: Illustrative graph charting the difference between grid-only electricity at 3% annual escalator (top line), combination of grid +solar (middle line), and grid +solar + battery (bottom line). The first scenario is self-explanatory. The second reflects savings from solar, which has lower LCOE than traditional power generation, but still relies on the grid during evening hours and, thus, pays grid pricing when utilized. The third scenario, where electricity is predominantly supplied by solar and battery with grid access during outages and unforeseen events, reflects how customer insulation from utility price increases could be achieved. The cluster of states and their estimated electricity prices in 2050 are scattered around the bottom line, with state-by-state variance driven by the number of sunshine hours per day.

This is Only the Beginning for Storage

The debate on how to change the way we power our lives is a continuing one, although the conclusions are far more in favor of alternative energy and battery storage than ever before. Not limited only to an economic rationale, the unmeasured benefits on the environmental impact of replacing coal with the sun is another incentive spurring the change. The storage industry, while still nascent in implementation and from an investment perspective, is developing rapidly due to a need to complete the formula for the argument for solar, and why it should be here to stay.

Veronica Zhang

by Veronica Zhang, Analyst

Analyst Veronica Zhang is a member of the Hard Assets Team that manages our Natural Resources Equity strategy. Zhang focuses on the industrials and alternative energy sectors, and holds a BA in Economics and Statistics from Columbia University.

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